Saturday, January 26, 2013

Private Test Day with Ken Block

Dateline: 150 Miles North of Sno*Drift.  Newberry, Michigan was the location of a recent top-secret test day. The players? FY Racing from Houghton, Michigan and Hoonigan Racing Division from Park City, Utah, formerly Monster World Rally Team a.k.a., Ken Block and Alex Gelsomino.

Block was planning a big announcement just before Sno*Drift regarding the name change for the team, his new Park City, Utah headquarters, and his 2013 schedule. As such, we were not allowed to divulge any information regarding the new look of the car or even the testing itself.  He was not even on the entry list for SD as of the day of the test.  They planned to show up 'unannounced' and it was amusing to read completely inaccurate speculation on the internet in the days leading up to Sno*Drift.

Knowing that our Magnum Opus Rally was located in an area certain to have snow, the teams contacted Tim to see if a road could be closed to the public for a day of snow testing.  This was all on fairly short notice and Tim really pulled some strings and made a huge effort to pull it off.

The Hoonigan Team flew into Marquette airport on Monday.  FY Racing was delayed in Houghton and didn't arrive until late at night.  Newberry Motors loaned us 3 Suburbans to shuttle everyone - Secret Service style - to dinner at the Tahquamenon Falls Brewery & Pub, about 45 minutes further north and dead-center on a major league snowbelt.  Temperatures were hovering around -6 degrees F all day and over a foot of light snow had already fallen.

So we loaded up the Suburbans and headed off, watching the snow accumulate and eventually narrow the road to 1 lane with poor visibility.  With me was my long-time R Gruppe buddy Jim Garfield from Rhode Island and Jannis from Pipo Moteurs in France, one of the premier WRC engine developers and builders.  With about 20 yards of visibility, Jannis asked if there were a lot of Americans who drove this fast in these conditions and were killed.  I said 'Yes!'.  Almost on cue, a left curve appeared out of nowhere - the warning arrow completely obscured by a large snowbank.  I put the big Suburban in a bit of drift and powered out of it, just missing the snowbank ... Ken would have been impressed.  Jannis?  Not so much I think.  But we eventually arrived at our oasis in the snow:

After a relaxing dinner (Ken picked up the tab for everyone!), Ken gave us a bit of a reprieve by bumping the morning start time back to 8:30-9:00.  We jumped back in the Suburbans and headed for town. On the way back, Ben Slocum (of "$500 BMW" Rally Mexico co-driver fame) gave me a sample growler from his new Petoskey brewery, Beards Brewery.  Good stuff.  But just one glass because we had a 6:30AM breakfast meeting looming. And it came early, after which we headed out to the stage to get things set up.  The test was fully sanctioned and we ran the entire operation with just 7 people, including medical, communications, and start & finish controls.

Another foot of snow had come down overnight but the teams showed up on stage right on time.

We gave each team half of the stage with a mid-point finish/turnaround.  I was in charge of start control for Block and set up the trusty Hemi-Durango/Warming Hut.  Burned off a good 5 gallons of fossil fuel idling there for 8 hours!

After a bit of shoveling, the Hoonigan service area was set up quickly.  Ken and Alex did a recce run in one of the team's Ford Flex rental cars to make some stage notes and testing was underway. Most of the morning was spent shaking down the car and adjusting the engine mapping.  The Pipo Moteurs guys stayed warm and snug in their vehicle working on laptops all day.  When Ken & Alex finished a run, Janni would jump out, plug the laptop into the race car, do his thing and then quickly get back in the service car - nice gig.

Ken has put together a truly international team with members from England (former Mitsubishi team member during the Tommi Makkinen WRC championship years), Finland (Latvala's Ford M-Sport mechanic last year), Australia, France, and the USA.

The car itself is a 2012 Ford Fiesta.  Similar to their WRC car, it is far more expensive and faster due to the 2.0 engine (versus a 1.6L in WRC).

Around noon, we shut the entire stage down for lunch.  Tim arranged to have some local UP pasties catered in - the absolute perfect food for a sub-zero day of rally testing in the Upper Peninsula!!  Here's Tim explaining to Ken just what the hell a 'pastie' is ....

The afternoon was pretty much spent tire testing.


Rally videographer extraordinaire Matt Johnston was on hand shooting footage to put together a video of the test session.  Unfortunately, Matt didn't have time to use his remote helicopter in the filming which I really wanted to see in operation.

The test was scheduled to end at 3:00PM and we shut the stage down right on time.  The teams packed up and headed south to the 2013 Sno*Drift Rally, Round 1 of the Rally America season.