This article is being written using some photos by Northern Smile Photography - the joint hobby photography venture between Melons' Better Driving and his mom, an avid photographer. This article will use some highly artistic scenery photos to create an atmosphere and better explain the beautiful side of navigational rallies, in between the parts aimed at explaining the competitive side of navigational rallies. At the end, the two will have fused and you - dear reader - will hopefully come away with a very awesome understanding of the fusion of exploration/wanderlust and spirited driving that is navigational rally.
Let's start off with the basics. Navigational rally (sometimes called TSD (time, speed, distance) rallies, or navi rally) is a subsection of rallysport, which is not the same as "Stage" or "Performance" rally, simply because there is a speed limit, and the roads are not closed. The local road authorities - in our case, the Ministry of Transportation of Ontario - permits these rallies on the basis that competitors are not legally doing anything dangerous. Anyone who does anything dangerous, from speeding, to aggressive driving, is ejected from the event. But, more on that later. Just remember - navi rally is not the same as stage rally, or rallycross, which are both closed-course events where excess speeding is permitted.
So, if navi rallies aren't the same as stage rallies, what's the difference? I can picture the confusion. Don't get ahead of yourself too much. I'll explain!
So, whereas in a stage rally, the winner is always the fastest to arrive, in a TSD rally, the winner is never the fastest. At least, not in theory. Maybe if everyone else ends up in a snowbank.... I'm getting ahead of myself a little. Because the objective is not outright speed, but rather consistent speed, you are timed to the second or the millisecond - just like in stage rally - but, unlike with stage rally, the organizers know exactly when you will arrive at the checkpoints - because they tell you how fast to drive. The general rule of thumb is 10% less than the speed limit, although that is a rough guideline, and it can be a little less than 10%, or it can be exactly the speed limit in other places. Now, that seems easy! How can it be hard to drive 10% under the speed limit? How is that fun, challenging, exciting, or anything other than just boring?
Well, there are a few factors in that transformation from boring to breathtakingly exciting. Let's start with the main one: road conditions. Seriously, you've never driven roads like these at speeds like these, legally, before, in your life. The main draw of navigational rally for most people is the struggle to maintain the desired speed as an average on the crazy logging/service roads in the forests of some desolate mountainous village, filled with more sharp corners, blind crests and one-lane-wide road sections, on top of also the incredible amounts of ice and snow. The idea that navi rallies are somehow boring, simply because they're below the speed limit, doesn't factor in that the speed limit is impossible on these roads, for anything short of an actual WRC car with studded ice tires. And, did we mention that we sometimes do it at night, where visibility becomes limited, and your eyes start to play tricks on you?
Then, there's the second reason. Honestly, I can't think of a more challenging thing, than trying to maintain an accurate odometer (to avoid wheelspin, to avoid having the odometer jump ahead by tricking the car into thinking its further ahead than it is) while trying to hit the calculated average speed determined by the organizers. Oh, and that's on top of not knowing where you're going ahead of time. You know how stage rally drivers are granted pace notes, to familiarize themselves with the roads in advance of driving them? Navi rally drivers aren't given pace notes. We don't know our left 4s from our right 6s.
Furthermore, we don't have complete directions to where we're going. We have puzzles, mathematical equations, riddles and more to try to sort out, so we can know which way to turn, where to go, and sometimes even how fast to go. Screw even one small detail up, and it's game over... All while being tossed around like a terrier's rag-doll toy at crazy high speeds, on a bumpy one-lane road, at night, with an inaccurate odometer and no pace notes. Yeah, it's that crazy.
The last thing that makes navi rallies difficult is the human body, and its reaction to the sport. This most recent navigational rally that Melons' Better Driving's rally team participated in was an all-nighter. We arrived at 8 PM, to prepare, attend the driver's meeting, and promptly set out at 10:23 PM - we were the 23rd car, and every car is separated by a minute.
We loaded up on energy drinks to try to make it through the night without sleep becoming the cause of our failure[s], water to keep ourselves hydrated (because, whereas the energy drinks help to prevent drowsiness, they cause dehydration,) and we set out with our bladders as empty as we could make them. With the water and energy drinks, the bladder could only stay empty for about an hour.
Add to that the frequent bumps, jumps, crests and general "not-flat-roads" and the bladder was a primary concern. Stopping during a calculated average speed section is murder to your finishing results. You have to relieve yourself before or after the CAS sections, at checkpoints, which are sporadic at best. Some are three minutes apart. Others are an hour apart. And, each checkpoint only lasts at most 1 minute and 29 seconds - it's one minute, rounded to the top of the minute.
I should mention that jumps/crests/bumps & full bladders don't mix well... Not at all. You spend the whole night fighting your body - you're sleep-deprived, hungry, tired, thirsty, and constantly in need of a pee-break. And, even when you get a pee-break, even that doesn't always go according to plan.
See, when you get to the checkpoint, you hop out of the car to take your pee break as quickly as you can. You try to climb the snowbank. You make it three steps up, and then you sink up to your thighs in snow. You're stuck. Have your pee, then realize that now there's yellow snow about three inches away from your belly-button You don't want to touch that. You want to get the heck away from it. So, you do what I did, when I found myself in that situation - you call for help from your teammate, then do a reverse-somersault, so that you flip backwards and out of the snowbank. You're now soaked. And cold. Lots of cold. Did I mention that snow is cold?
So, wait. That kinda sounds like torture, some people might be thinking right now. Well, you see, the benefits outweigh the challenges. For the amount of hassle, you'll almost never find a more rewarding hobby.
You see, navigational rally is about the stories, the scenery, the fun, spirited driving, the fun, challenging puzzles, and the intense brain workout, more than anything else. It's a mini-vacation from the day job, to some semi-distant cottage-region village where the people are friendly, the scenery beautiful, and the tranquility mesmerizing. It's an escape from the neon-lights and work deadlines, and into the seat of what's almost a performance/stage rally, in terms of fun-ness, for a fraction of the cost, due to the loose car preparation requirements.
This past weekend - this past "Polar Bear Rally" was immense. It wasn't immense just because we scared some white-tailed deer at 160 km/h [because we didn't do that, as a disclaimer,] like the performance rally guys might do. Instead, we had our fun at an average speed of 72 km/h - and instead of scaring the deer, we drove past safely, while remarking at how cool it was to have seen the deer. I used to think that only performance and stage rally was fun. Yeah, I was wrong. Navi rally has a place in my heart now, too. Having had the opportunity to spend the entire Family Day weekend with my family, in Bancroft, Ontario, including a few crazy-fast rides through the one-lane sections of road in the area near Harcourt, I get it now. It's not always about going fast. Going stage-rally fast has its fun parts, but it's not for everyone. Navigational rally is. At any given navigational rally, there are many types of people - some like to go fast. Some like to solve puzzles. Some like to pee on themselves and get soaked by a snowbank. Some people like to use shovels to dig their car out of a snowbank. Most just want a fun vacation in a picturesque city, with an opportunity to legally drive their car fast-ish on some cool roads.
And so, a summary of the cost of this past weekend's costs (in Canadian dollars):
Drew Geier is a Canadian petrolhead whose main mission is to make motoring accessible, enjoyable, and affordable well into the future, by improving the art, hobby and lifestyle of motoring. He builds cars, and he writes about other builds. He's built a Subaru WRX and is building a Honda Civic EK.