It’s no secret that we at Oversteer are fans of the Toyota 4Runner. While Doug recently reviewed the top-of-the-line 4Runner TRD Pro, I had the opportunity to put the more basic SR5 model to the test as a sweep vehicle at the Empire State Performance Rally.
To me, stage rally is the ultimate motorsport. I have nothing against those who hone their skills on the track or dodging cones at the autocross. I’ve done those numerous times myself. But rally stages are actual roads, not manicured tracks. They contain all the, shall we say, quirks and features of the roads we drive every day. But in rally, there’s no speed limit, and competitors drive these roads much faster than anyone is ever supposed to. Breakdowns are frequent — and crashes, while unfortunate, are fairly common as well.
That’s where the sweep team comes in. As the name suggests, the sweep team follows behind the rally competitors and basically cleans up the mess left behind. Four-wheel-drive trucks and SUVs are used to tow stricken competitors off the road to safety. My wife and I have been part of this particular event’s sweep team almost since the day we met, and in 2016 we had the right tool for the right job: a Toyota 4Runner.
While the 4Runner isn’t the most comfortable vehicle I’ve ever driven on the highway to upstate New York, the truck-like SUV made a lot more sense once we left paved roads and entered the rough rally stages of ESPR. I put the transfer case into 4-High, just for extra control. While we didn’t drive nearly as fast as the competitors, we could easily still hit 40 miles per hour on tight, twisty gravel roads that normally have a 15-mph limit. After all, we were the first responders to any crash, other than the competitors themselves.
For even more safety, each sweep vehicle has a co-driver (in this case, my wife), just like a rally car, who has a road book with information on upcoming road hazards and where exactly they are. We don’t get the stage notes, so no "100, right five into left three over jump"-type instructions, but more like "0.3, double caution, narrow bridge then downhill left at T." Knowing what lies ahead is a huge advantage for both speed and safety. And although we’re not competing, we still move right along.
As we bounced quickly through each rally stage, the 4Runner never put a foot wrong, despite me having disabled traction control. I just left the automatic transmission in S (for "Sport?"), and the truck was always in the correct gear for the aggressive driving I was doing on stage. This isn’t surprising, because even right off the showroom floor, the truck is an excellent off-roader.
But what about tasks specific to rally? We put it to the test on one stage in particular. It started when we picked up a back bumper from the middle of the road that had fallen off a competitor’s car. Later on, another competitor had bounced off a bridge abutment and a tree, smashing in two corners of their Subaru rally car, as seen here:
The car’s occupants were fine, but the car was badly damaged. Our sweep team captain assigned us to drop out of our convoy and stay behind to get the car off the road to a safe location. We soon learned exactly what Doug was talking about when he raved about the 4Runner’s opening rear window, which made it super easy for me, as the driver, to communicate with people behind me hooking up the tow-rope. It was a difficult extraction, since two of the Subaru’s wheels were locked due to crash damage. After switching to 4-Low and finding an easier place to deposit the car, we dragged the car about a hundred feet up the road to a clearing where we could drop it out of the way of traffic. The driver and co-driver were on their own with no service crew, so they hopped in to hitch a ride with us back to the service area, where they would retrieve their truck and trailer.
Meanwhile, the rally steward’s car, a vintage Saab 96, had broken down just up the road. Once again, we deployed our tow-rope and slowly pulled them through to the end of the stage. They, too, had no service crew, so they also needed a ride back to service. That meant putting six people in the 4Runner, a vehicle built for five — not to mention the rear bumper we had picked up earlier on the stage. So we stuck the Saab crew in the way-back cargo area with the bumper, and we shut everyone in for an uncomfortable ride.
By now, we had taken so much time cleaning up the mess on the rally stage that we were going to be late arriving at the following stage, and we already had an overfilled car. After radioing ahead to our sweep captain, we were granted permission to skip the next stage and head straight back to the service area, where the rest of the team would catch up.
I had memorized the number of the license plate on the detached bumper we were carrying. When we arrived back at service, we soon found a Mitsubishi Evo that was missing its back bumper and had the same plate number zip-tied to the back. We pulled over and let everybody out of the clown car. The lucky recipient turned out to be Paddy Brennan, who went on to win the rally.
The rest of the rally was rather uneventful for us in comparison — just a couple of short, easy tows off the road. It’s always a good time driving sweep, and you meet many interesting people along the way. Though competitors never want to be in a position where they have to see you on stage, they appreciate the assistance you offer when they need it — and the 4Runner was the perfect vehicle to offer that assistance.
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