AZE go two for two to start the 2023 rally season!

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AZE go two for two to start the 2023 rally season!

Rallying is an insanely challenging sport. The preparation and logistics, the transportation, recce etc are all things that make a rally an event most won't repeat too often in the span of a year. Statistics from a few years back showed that the average team in Quebec would only compete in 3.5 events during a season.

Knowing that, imagine the reaction of my team when I announced them I intended on competing in two rallyes on back-to-back weekends, in two countries. They were speechless. And mostly doubtful. They were looking at me like I had lost my mind.

 

Why do it?

Why risk a good amount of money, take the chance of damaging the car in the first race and almost entirely skip the dozens of hours of reprep we usually spend on the car between events? For me, it was all about the challenge.

I've never been one to take the easy road. I firmly believe that putting yourself through hard moments helps you grow and just makes you a better person in the long run. While fun, doing the same local rallyes year after year would never bring me where I want to be in a couple years from now. Being all but rational, this two-in-two felt like something I had to do to get some level of improvement.

When the tragic news of Ken Block's passing came out, it took me 3 solid days to get back on my feet and be able to think straight about what had happened. Ken had been such a big inspiration during my rally career, and I took it upon me not to let his loss be the end of it. He was the man who took on the World Rally Championship, I could really well be the one to go out of his means and do something he felt was completely impossible not so long ago. I called my team back and expressed my plan to head over to SnoDrift right after Perce-Neige. They were still doubtful. But at that point, I wasn't letting anybody or anything get in my way.

 

What's the challenge?

 In a world where we are used to see the big professional teams compete all around the globe in a fast-moving circus kinda way, I can understand how calling what we did a ''big challenge'' could seem like a bit of a stretch. So, what made it a challenge for us?

First of all, we all have a job and a family. I'm not rich(sadly), nor do I have sponsors who pay for my racing. All our partners are of tremendous help, sending us parts. We had 6 crew guys who left their families and took some time off of their jobs to attend Perce-Neige. From these 6, Gilbert(crew chief, head machinist for Toromont/Caterpilar) and Benoit(lead tech, mechanic at a VW dealership) were crazy enough to take an extra week off and make the trip to Michigan possible. Myself and Michael are business owners so obviously these rallyes meant a lot of late nights, phone calls and emails to make sure the big decisions were taken care of before leaving.

The logistic and preparation were really something. Myself and my crew at AZE spent a lot of hours making sure the new recce car and trailer were up to the task. The tow truck also needed some love to make sure it was in shape for the many Kms. I had to make sure everything we would need to reprep the car in between events would already be at the shop. Schedule a local shop to dismount our studded tires(not allowed at SnoDrift). Originally we had another codriver lined up for SnoDrift who had a change of plans so I called Michael to see if he wanted to extend his stay with the team. We had originally planned for him to fly into Ottawa before Perce-Neige and fly back to Calgary right after the event. He ended up driving back to Quebec with us after the first event, slept into the guest bedroom in my basement and worked out of my office at the shop. On our way back from Michigan we left him in Montreal, from where he flew back home after 11 days on the road. Fair amount of time looking at flights, rentals, hotels and AirBnbs made this possible.

Here are a couple stats;

  • Over 4000km with the truck and trailer
  • 383km of racing
  • 530km of transit 
  • 1600km of recce
  • Over 80 hours in a car/truck
  • Over 1000 liters of diesel
  • Over 400 liters of pump gas
  • Countless smiles

 

How it went. 

 Perce-Neige. On thursday February 2nd I set sail toward Maniwaki aboard the new recce car to meet with Michael Szewczyk, my codriver. The rig was fully packed and scheduled to leave Quebec later that day with some of the crew guys. We spent the whole of friday doing recce. We woke up saturday morning anxiously looking at the outdoor temp. -46C/-51F isn't something you wish to see when going to play outside. NOTHING was working. The crew worked their asses off to start the generators, heaters, cars and had to fight all day with non-working jacks, electrical tools etc. As I went on to start the event, wearing two pair of socks and some toe warmers inside my driving shoes, the temperature reinforced my desire of staying in the car for the whole day: there was no way I wanted to visit a snowbank. In fact, it was so cold that I had to scrape the inside of the windshield with the steering wheel before stage starts to be able to see the road.

It had been 8 years since my last competitive driving on snow, so I was stressed. I spun the car and broke the front bumper on the first loop. I also misjudged an highspeed braking and overshot a junction. It resulted in a bit of time lost, but nothing too dramatic. On the first forest loop we decided to go out on AO34(snow tire). It ended up being a good experience for us, having never driven on those before. The icy braking zones were a bit sketchy but the tires were predictable and we escaped the hardest stages without a single problem, without setting a foot wrong. We came back to the studded tires for the second forest loop, getting a random puncture 7km from the end of the long Tortue stage(29km). We drove it out safely. The last loop consisted of some short but highspeed stages. Bouncing off the rev limiter in 6th gear is a strange feeling. When entering the control zone for the start of the last stage, I felt something weird in the rear of the car. We drove the whole 7km of that last stage on a puncture, but made it to the end safely. Apparently tire valves were extremely unhappy with the cold temperature.

Both Michael and I were happy with how the event went, placing right after all the big names and winning ou class by 14 minutes.

In the end, despite those two punctures, the car was in one piece still, and healthy. That was a big win in my book. And it meant we were still in good position for step 2.

Snodrift. We got back to the shop on sunday night, around 6pm. The guys went home and I stayed in the shop until 2h30am unloading the rig and having a first look at the car. I spent monday working on the car and attending business matters. I decided to go home early to have dinner with my girlfriend and daughter since the car wasn't in dramatic condition. I buttoned everything up on tuesday(oil changes, inspection, complete bolt checks, tire changes etc) and loaded the car back into the trailer. Quick trip home for 50 minutes to eat and pack some new clothes and I was back to the shop for departure. We left Quebec at 8h30pm, taking turns driving the rig. We drove trough the night and made it to our AirBnb a bit after noon. The rest of the day was spent exploring the area and doing groceries.

Given how far Michigan is, I decided not to bring the recce car, which meant we were going to use the truck. Not ideal, but I was used to it and we would film recce to help with notes preparation. Thursday was an uneventful day where we covered almost all stages. We woke up early on Friday to do a second pass of the last two stages, which ended up being a good thing. 3 inches of fresh snow were covering the road, critically changing from the previous day's conditions. As we were almost done, pretty happy with the fresh snow(grip!), we drove by a snowplow that was actually removing most of that snow. Oh hello puzzle... Icy? Plowed? Unplowed?

Gilbert and Benoit worked really hard to make sure we had all the right tools to perform. They spent countless hours grooving tractionized and regular snow tires, even mounting and dismounting many since we didn't have enough wheels. The irony being that it was all for nothing since I elected to go back out on AO34 EVERY service. But eh... Sometimes it's all about knowing you have options...

 Friday PM, off we go! The grip on the first loop was alright, allowing us to set our marks. The whole first day of racing consisted of 3 stages that we would run twice, once at night, without service. The second running of the stages was a lot more slippery but we escaped all the traps and came back to our guys in 9th overall and 2nd in class, a mere 19 and 32 seconds ahead of our competition(Bailey, Bardha).

The guys were fast, and the chances of holding off a Fiesta R3 on pure speed were thin. I wanted to try and push a little bit more, but Michael pointed out that Jason Bailey had a tendency to get intimate with Snowbanks(Roll at Big White, two off at Perce-Neige) and suggested we kept on sticking to the original plan; Clean lines and no waste of time. First stage on saturday morning, we're up 5 seconds on Bailey. He takes them back on the next one. And even more on the third stage, coming back to service one now only trailing us by 4.9 seconds. Bardha couldn't quite keep up with our pace on the second day, eventually falling down the leaderboard. Michael was right... Jason stuffed it on the first stage after service, loosing 14 minutes in the process.

From that point on, we only had to bring the car home. Dickinson in 1st place in class had a far superior pace to ours and it would have been silly of us to try and catch him. We focused on gaining overall positions whenever possible and enjoy the rest of the stages.

I had never been as concentrated in a car as during Snodrift. The ever changing grip conditions, all new stages and notes and exceptional fires on Bonfire Alley were something else. It was so icy on spots that the wheels would spin in 5th gear. In places we'd go from good snowy grip to lock-to-lock turns on an ice rink in seconds. But we did it. We brought the car home in one piece, without replacing a single part all weekend long, matching our NEFR 6th overall finish in the process. Somebody please pinch me.

We're back home now, getting some well deserved rest. Work will resume on the car shortly since we have a couple upgrades planned and hopefully a busy season ahead. What will I remember from all this? Life is for living. Do what scares you. Push your boundaries. Create and share your own moments.

 

2023 Perce-Neige Rally - Canadian, Quebec and Ontario Rally Championships

  • 7th overall and 1st in Production class - Canadian Rally Championship
  • 3rd overall and 2nd in 4wd Limited class - Quebec Rally Championship
  • 3rd overall - Ontario Performance Rally Championship

2023 SnoDrift Rally - American Rally Association

  • 6th overall and 2nd in Limited 4wd class

After those two events, we are currently the team having cumulated the most point for the North American Rally cup!

 

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