Co-Driver Clinic recap!

Rally School | May 29, 2015

Please see the article below about our co-driver clinic we held at DirtFish a few weeks ago!
Heavy Metal Affliction – The Rally Co-Driver

Provided by John Schommer
Thursday, May 21, 2015

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If you have ever watched any in-car video from a rally event, you can’t miss the precise instructions of the co-driver. As he or she rattles out directions, warnings, and reminders, it is often difficult to comprehend their meaning, or indeed how valuable these inputs are. To the layman the language of co-drivers may almost seems like gibberish, but it is a key ingredient to winning.

At a recent co-driver clinic at DirtFish Rally School, multi-series champion Craig Drew laid out some of the basics of being a good co-driver. While at present I don’t have any plans to jump start a career in rally driving or co-driving, the course was an interesting insight into rally racing, and the intricacies of human communication.

That gibberish, it turns out, is intensely researched, practiced, and formulated to precisely relate stage route details and to help the team go fast. In addition to the driver’s sight, the co-driver delivers key instructions to the wheelman, allowing them to focus almost entirely on driving as fast as possible.

After the co-driver clinic, I have learned that the co-driver is also the heart of the team, in charge of just about everything that makes competing possible. The co-driver is involved in everything from signing up for the event, knowing all the rules and regulations, and for planning just about anything that can be planned. It takes someone with a love of organization, a willingness to let the driver bask in the glory of victory, and someone willing to bear the responsibility of anything that can go wrong.

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Drew and driver David Higgins at the 2015 Mount Olympus Rally in Washington, they won their class in the Rally America event

If something is not in the right place, it’s the co-driver’s responsibility. If the car is late or early to a stage and incurs a penalty, the co-driver should have planned better. Pace notes aid the driver through every step of every stage, but the deeper role of the co-driver is to ensure everyone on the team knows what to do every minute the team is preparing for and participating in a rally event.

The co-driver is the resident expert on everything. How do the rules pertain to any sticky situations? The co-driver knows and has a solution. He or she prepares incessantly, almost obsessively, ensuring all bases are covered. Veteran co-driver Nicky Grist put it this way, “If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”

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The holy grail of rally racing is timing, and the co-driver owns the timecard. Without a valid timecard, the efforts of the team are for nothing. The co-driver understands where errors can occur, knows how to remedy or mitigate them, and keeps the timecard safe.

Maybe you have the organizational skills, maybe you are a perfecting planner, and you are good with numbers on the run. This gets your foot in the door, but the key details will come in your relationship with the driver. There is an intimacy shared here that is built on a clear understanding of how a driver operates, both at the wheel and as an individual. The driver and co-driver spend much time together traveling to and from events and many hours in the rally car under intense pressure to succeed.

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Rally driver David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew at DirtFish Rally School

There is more to it than just knowing when to open ones mouth or when to keep it shut. The co-driver needs to develop a cohesive language that expresses the importance of each pace note. This is an ever-changing language that is exclusive to the relationship between the driver and co-driver. Inflection, tone, volume, and clarity are all at play. Mistakes are costly and to be avoided at all cost.

To rapidly navigate a rally stage the two most important tools a co-driver has is the route book, that describes the road to be driven, and the pace notes that express how fast to go. Pace notes define the pace at any singular moment of a stage. It is a language of directions and levels of difficulty.

When rally teams recce (conduct reconnaissance) it may be in a number of formats. Sometimes all teams must drive in a convoy, sometimes stages are open for recce for limited times. In either case, in a recce, the driver observes every change in terrain: crests, bumps, jumps, and turns, and gauges their difficulty. Likewise, every straight is measured and estimated by the driver as to how fast he can go and how far until the next terrain change. Any advantage that can be gained is noted and anything detrimental to speed or safety is mentioned.

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For some reason I always thought the co-driver made these notes to aid the driver. It makes much more sense that a driver is doing his or her own estimation while the co-driver focuses on taking accurate notes. In a rally stage, as a co-driver reads the notes back to the driver, every bit of the driver’s initial impressions of the stage provide input that let the driver maximize the car’s potential with confidence.

The co-driver records the driver’s every word and then concisely organizes them to be easily read at race speed. This includes not only writing clearly, but ensuring a key note is not waiting as a surprise at the next page turn. These notes sometimes include reminders that are particular to the driver. For example, David Higgins often wants to go left when the route goes right at a junction. Drew’s notes plan for this with a pace note “remember” before the direction note of right or left is read.

One of the things I took away from the co-driver clinic was a closer understanding of the relevance of each pace note. We watched three in-car videos. As I watched the first one, the co-driver is kind of background noise. After some instruction from Drew and a second video I could tell how the input of the pace notes were impacting the car’s speed. By the end of the class, I felt as if I had just learned a language. While watching the third video, I was able to follow most of the pace notes with an awareness of each of the terrain features they were referencing. It was truly an evolution of understanding.

Tack on to these skills being an adept roadside mechanic – Drew and Higgins can change a flat tire in less than two minutes – as well as being willing to put your life in the hands of a driver while hardly ever looking at the road, and maybe you would have a shot at being a co-driver. This is of course after spending years behind the wheel yourself gaining an understanding of what it takes to be successful in rally.

Watch the pair doing their thing at the Oregon Trail Rally in 2014:

Co-driving isn’t for everyone; some people are pure drivers like Drew’s teammate David Higgins. It’s not a skill you just pick up, or one you can phone in. The team is dependent on the co-driver, and the co-driver is responsible for nearly anything that blame can be associated with. When all these skills and considerable effort are brought to bear, it culminates in a thrill ride that Drew says is always worth all the hard work.