My first exposure to stage rally was the same as many people my age, that pre-YouTube internet video of the early 2000s World Rally Championship set to In the End by Linkin Park. The idea of real cars screaming down real roads — often not paved — at high speeds appealed to me far more than watching NASCAR or Formula 1 going around in circles. I learned that a major event took place in Maine, just a few hours from where I lived. On top of that, they needed licensed amateur radio operators to help with event communications. I’ve had a ham radio license since before I was old enough for a driver’s license. When I learned I could combine both my radio and car hobbies at the same time, all I could think was "Where do I sign up?"
For my first event in 2004, I was stationed on a desolate dirt road in the middle of Maine’s north woods. My job was to listen for the radio to announce cars starting their runs down the stage, then check them off on my list when they went by. When — not if — competitors crashed, we’d have a good idea where they were, based on who last saw them. We were also available to radio for help if a competitor got into serious trouble on stage with a crash, injury or fire.
As a beneficial side effect, I was stationed far away from the official spectator areas. Rather than straining to get an ever so brief view of a race car flying by around other spectators, there were just a couple of us, and an unobstructed view that no spectator had. For me, as a rally fan, this was the best part of the job.
While enjoying the best view of the action, I was also serving a vital purpose for the event itself: keeping everyone safe. Emergency crews are stationed on every stage, and if help is needed, it’s up to us to call for it over the radio. While cars crash off the road fairly regularly, genuine emergencies are extremely rare.
But they do happen. Internet sensation Ken Block crashed his legendary Group A Ford Escort Cosworth at this year’s New England Forest Rally. Fourteen years ago, I was there, helping with radio communications. This happened on the stage that I was working. I was one of two ham radio operators on top of a hill about halfway through the stage. This same hill prevented the start and finish of the stage from speaking directly to each other on the radio, so our job was not only to track the cars passing by but also to relay communications between the start and finish. Block’s crash happened near the finish, and race officials were at the start. When the Escort burst into flames, it was a literal trial by fire for everyone working the stage.
We listened to the initial reports of a car on fire near the finish and relayed them to the start. Then we relayed that the competitors’ own fire extinguishers were ineffective at putting out the fire, which was now spreading to the surrounding forest. Officials at the start made the call to not only shut down the stage but also to make the unusual move of stopping competitors already proceeding down the road at full speed. It was the right call. We didn’t want competitors driving straight into the burning car and making the problem worse. I handed off my red cross sign (the universal "emergency, stop immediately" sign) to the other people I was working with to flag down the approaching competitors, then stayed on the radio to continue relaying information.
My co-workers managed to stop two competitors and get them off the road. Workers elsewhere on the stage cleared the barricades to the shortcut that would get firefighters to the scene more quickly. The sweep team, who normally just pulls crashed competitors back onto the road, also went to the scene, just in case they could help. As it turns out, they would help drag the car out of the woods and roll it over to expose areas that firefighters were having trouble getting to.
Before long, the radio at the scene of the fire was asking for even more fire equipment to be sent in because the crews on the scene were having trouble containing the fire. This was, in part, because Block’s Escort had some magnesium components that were burning. Magnesium is extremely difficult to put out once it ignites. But finally, with additional firefighters on scene, the forest fire was contained, and eventually, it was all put out.
As the emergency passed, attention then turned to logistics: Specifically, how do we get the 50 or so competitors stuck behind Ken Block off the stage and back to the service area? Through me and the other radio operator, officials made plans to send competitors still at the start back out to the main road, while competitors stuck on stage, as well as workers like me, would pack up and proceed past the now-extinguished fire through the finish.
We sent the competitors we’d stopped out first, then proceeded behind them slowly. I drove right past the scene of the crime and snapped this picture as I passed. I’ve worked a lot of rallies over the past 14 years, but I’ve never had an emergency like this occur on a stage where I was working. But everyone did their job, and that’s how the situation was contained as quickly as it was, without burning down the forest.
If you volunteer at a rally, you probably won’t have to deal with Ken Block’s car catching on fire. But you will have a good time, make good friends and be part of the team that makes rally events possible.
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