Slaying The Digital Sherpa

A Weekend With
the FJ Bruisers

Written by Eric A. Howald.
Eric served as Navigator for Team Lebowski which finished in Second Place for this event.
His full time gig is news editor for the KeizerTimes in Keizer, Oregon.

This article was originally published in June 2010 by FJC Magazine.

We pass a white checkpoint sign less than half a mile from the starting line. For me, it’s an omen that we’re on the right track. For my cousin and driver, Doug Dobrynski, it’s cause for uncertainty.

“They wouldn’t put a sign that close to the start,” he says.

“Yeah, they would,” I reply more harshly than intended. “They don’t expect us to be looking for one this early on. They’re hoping we blow right by it.”

Three minutes into the first ever FJ Bruiser Tri-State Rally and we’ve already had two reasons to doubt each other. At the starting line, I confused the area code and the zip code on the Green Ridge State Forest data sheet and now we can’t agree on the validity of a checkpoint that’s sitting in front of us as plain as day. There’s brilliance at work in the set-up, but it’s hard to see past the inhuman cruelty of making us question each other’s judgment at such an early stage in the game.

Truth be told, it’s not only each other’s skill we are questioning, it’s who we have become. This is the first time we’ve been alone together in nearly 12 years. Doug was the best man at my wedding in St. Louis, MO. Four days later, I moved to Oregon and he flew home to Virginia. In the interim he got married and had two kids, I had one. Last year, his mother lost a long-term battle with cancer and we weren’t able to connect in the aftermath. Even our team name, “The Dude and the Journalist” (homages to The Big Lebowski and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), seemed to indicate some of the distance between us. Since I accepted the invitation to be his navigator, I knew this rally would determine if we could navigate the time and miles that separated us for so long.

As I hop out of the Cruiser and try to figure out how to get up to the checkpoint sitting on the crest of a short, steep embankment, I swear I can hear the laughter back at the starting line.

Resurrecting the rally

For some, the victory of a Shelby Daytona Cobra Coupe in the World Manufacturers Cup was the beginning of the rally’s end.

“That race ushered in the era of heavy metal and the European two-seat sports car – the car that made the rally an event – became a novelty,” said Rick Franz, a founding member of the FJ Bruisers and former owner of several two-seat European sports coupes.

The rally is unique in several ways. It isn’t run on a circuit, but in a point-to-point format in which participants and their co-drivers, or navigators, drive between set control points leaving at regular intervals from one or more start points. Rallies may be won by pure speed within the stages or alternatively by driving to a predetermined location within an ideal journey time for each stage.

As heavy metal solidified its status as the new “cool,” the rally-type race was dealt a fatal blow with the onset of GPS navigation.

“Navigation became too easy and there were rumors of drivers hiding GPS devices in their cars. Slowly, no one was holding them anymore,” Franz said. “Now, people who did want learn dead reckoning skills have to go out of their way to do so.”

Navigation was something of a hobby for Franz, however, and he found other ways to pursue it from sailing to flying. Then he bought his Toyota FJ Cruiser and helped form the Bruiser club.

“The more I drove the Cruiser with the club running trails, the more I realized it would be a great truck for a rally,” he said.

He floated the idea at one of the club’s meetings and it wasn’t long before they were in the planning stages. But the rally organizers wanted more than a simple race. They wanted an event where everyone could learn something.

“Too many people are dependent on the digital Sherpas,” said Josh Kollin, one of Franz’s co-conspirators, in reference to GPS units. “Things like degrees and latitude and longitude are just numbers that we see on a device.”

Franz, Kollin and others set to planning a 70-mile route through Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia. To help with scoring, they enlisted the assistance of fellow Bruiser and design engineer Ryan Young, who had to develop a unique scoring system borrowing ideas from other rallies.

“Teams would receive a score based on how close they came to the target time that was determined during course setup and adjusted based on the performance of the group,” Young said.  “In addition to the time score, teams were also given points based on the number of checkpoint markers discovered and their participation in manned checkpoints with FJ trivia, marksmanship, and vehicle inspection challenges.”

Franz and the others realized early in the planning that they would have to rely on an honor system when it came to drivers using “go to” features on GPS devices. But they weren’t going to make it that easy anyway. To make things more interesting competitors would have to calculate degree headings and distances with information found in the forest data sheet and FJ Cruiser owner’s manual.

Everyone wanted a course that would challenge novice and experienced drivers, but it was difficult for the more experienced navigators, like Franz and Kollin, to let go of the finer points of the craft. Franz quickly realized how to gauge when they’d made something too complicated.

“I could always tell when we’d gone too far because one of our guy’s eyes would glaze over. He was my canary in the coal mine,” Franz said.

WTF is a smidgeon?

On the second turn in the rally directions we get high centered with all four wheels firmly on the ground.

It starts when I take a bad compass reading and send us west when we should be going north, but our course directions complicate matters further with the phrase “proceed north for a smidgeon less than a mile.”

We decide that a smidgeon has to be more than .7 miles and less than a full mile, but that narrow window opens up many wrong possibilities. We manage to find a path at .7 miles and another one that shoots off and could – possibly – match the next turn, but a few hundred yards down that road and we realize there’s no possible way to continue on it for the required 2.3 miles. Doug throws it in reverse and we begin heading back to the last checkpoint.

Cars are dispatched from the starting line in four-minute intervals and as we pull out onto the main road another FJ passes us headed in the wrong direction.

We head back to the checkpoint because it was the last time we knew we were on the right track. We figure out that we were going the wrong way and turn north, but still miss the essential turn that will put us on the course. In all, we burn more than 20 minutes and pass another lost FJ before realizing the small dirt road we mistook for a driveway is actually the course itself.

Still, we aren’t completely certain, and by the time we find another checkpoint 45 long minutes have passed. Meanwhile, other teams are confronting problems of their own.

In car No. 01, driver Joe Maiellano and navigator Christos Rousseas hit a hurdle that has nothing to do with the course or directions.

“I would like to think that I normally have a pretty strong stomach. I’ve been out on rough seas with no problem so it took me by surprise, but as we were moving I kept trying to read the directions and kept feeling progressively worse,” said Rousseas.

The wave of nausea soon reaches a breaking point and they have to pull over and wait for Rousseas to expel his morning coffee.

“I definitely thought we’d be competitive. We took it seriously – had all the tools, spent time with the compass, prepped the truck, watched Two Roads to Baja – but when Christos got sick, I thought we were done for as far as placing,” said Maiellano.

After our long detour, Doug and I are finally getting our confidence back and we hit our first time-speed-distance challenge. On these sections of the course, the driver must maintain a certain speed for a certain length of time overseen by the navigator on a stop watch. At the end of the given time, we should have reached our next turn, but again there’s brilliance at work.

One minute and 15 seconds into the challenge, we come across a manned checkpoint and suffer from a momentary freak out as we try to decide what to do. I stop the clock as we pull off the road to a shooting range, Doug fires 10 shots at a target out of an AR-15, and I start up the clock again as we pull back on the course. It was a simple solution in retrospect, but I’m certain a video of the moments before we figured it out would go viral.

Back at the starting line Franz and Young are, indeed, laughing. Heartily.

“We watched three or four FJ’s go by the starting point twice,” Franz said.

At the rally meeting earlier that morning, Franz announced that vehicles would be running the course in opposite directions. Some would go left and some would go right. Many of us took that to mean that cars would be alternating. To mix it up, Franz occasionally sends two vehicles on the same route in succession, which threw off teams that either miscalculated or weren’t paying attention.

“I thought to myself, ‘God almighty, I just want one car on each course to do it right so that I know the directions work,’” Franz said.

When watching the starting line lost its appeal, Franz had his cell phone which kept him busy as teams called in for help. He had seven calls total, but two teams called in twice. One team gets so lost it takes getting latitude and longitude to put them back on course.

“Another team got stuck doing a 9-mile loop. They called to ask about the directions once and then called an hour and a half later asking about the same turn,” Franz said.

At his manned checkpoint, Kollin makes a habit of asking the teams if they’re still talking to each other and a handful of drivers –  including a few of the couples – reply only with cautionary shakes of the head.

Doug and I have fallen into a rhythm, I work out the directions a few turns ahead of where we are in the moment and keep a keen look out for checkpoints. Doug keeps his eye on the trail and odometer. We talk about the things we could do to make things inside the car run easier next time. We decide on a theme for the Cruiser in next year’s rally (and cross our fingers that they’ll plan one. As we pull up to the third manned checkpoint, we get great news. Despite getting lost early on, our time is still good. We show up within minutes of when we are expected. We bump knuckles as Doug exits the truck to take a vehicle inspection challenge.

As we climb back into the truck the questioner asks if we know which way we’re going.

“Straight ahead?” Doug asks.

“Yep, straight ahead.”

A half mile down the road, we start to question ourselves. According to the directions were supposed to turn to a heading of 150 degrees and travel to a particular lat/lon, but we forgot to check the heading as we turned away from the checkpoint. We are more certain of our route than at any point in the race thus far and that makes us question it all the more. We turn back, get a bearing on the turn and discover that we were right all along.

Maiellano and Rousseas in “Car Ramrod” suffers through moments of doubt during the rally as well.

“The hardest thing was trusting my navigator,” Maiellano said. “He did a fabulous job, but I’m just naturally skeptical, and having to blindly rely on his instructions took some serious self discipline.”

He and Rousseas get turned around after their third checkpoint.

“We went to a 24-degree heading instead of 240-degrees, due to my error, not Christos’, and got pretty far off track in Pennsylvania farm country. We were able to navigate back to the last checkpoint, double-check our calculations – which is when we found where we messed up – and get back on track,” Maiellano said. “There were definitely a few rising waves of panic, and the urge to push on despite knowing something wasn’t right, but just like with completely trusting the navigator, I had to just take a deep breath and calmly talk it through.”

We pull across the finish line 5 hours and 10 minutes after we left. Car Ramrod, which started several vehicles and minutes behind us, arrives about half an hour later.

The waiting

A few cars have beaten us back. Some broke off early and turned back to camp. Two made it back in rocket-like fashion, but as we all begin to share information my sense of how well we did begins to grow. Maiellano is feeling it, too.

“When we got back to base camp, saw how long it took everybody else to finish and started comparing the number of checkpoints we found, I started to feel more and more like we could pull out a trophy,” Maiellano said.

Rousseas’ hopes sprung from the number of checkpoints they found.

“Throughout that race I had this feeling that we were missing a lot of checkpoints. When we finally made it back and realized how few people had done so I started to feel more confident,” he said.
I thought for certain that Doug and I missed several checkpoints as well. My best guess was that we found between 19-21 checkpoints, but there is some confusion among the competitors as to how checkpoints there were. As teams kept arriving the average number found seems to be about 10.

It’s still two hours before the end of the race. I spend the time nursing a cigar and Coke, and listening to other teams swap tales of flounder and triumph while dinner cooks. When no one’s looking, I talk to my aunt telling her how badly I want a trophy for Doug.

Once all the cars crossed the finish line, Young’s real work begins. While he had supreme confidence in the original scoring formulas he had worked up, it all went out the window as teams handed in their checkpoint sheets which reported the number of checkpoints found and the time between each one.

“The original timed scoring method calculated a time for each ‘stage’ [between checkpoints],” Young said. ”Because not all teams found the checkpoint signaling the end of each stage, [that] method was no longer a valid way of scoring all the teams equally.”

The planning committee decided to look at overall time instead and weight it against the number of checkpoints each team found and how well each performed at the manned checkpoints.

It takes more than an hour to rehash the scoring formula and tabulate the results. With the fastest time, car No. 3, “Team Quacker,” comprised of Tim and Joanna Areson takes third. Doug and I take second and we were the only team to find every checkpoint. Maiellano and Rousseas win by a single point.

Trophies handed out, emotions at camp settle into a jubilant ebb. Stories and drinks are traded, someone pulls out a half pint of peach moonshine birthed from a still in operation since just after the civil war and a bit of history is imbibed as close as we can sit to a fire that barely beats back the frigid night air.

Little victories

“The wide range of skills and backgrounds that the teams brought to the table made for an event that was just as fun for the planners to watch unfold as it was for the teams to navigate and drive,” Young said in the weeks after the race. “I can’t think of any other event where friends and spouses can drive around lost all day and still be smiling when they pull into camp.”

Franz was delighted to see the passion of his youth take hold in a whole new generation of drivers.

“It was like having a party even though we were all off on our own for much of the day,” he said.

For Doug and I, second place feels like first. And I’m convinced it was a parting gift from his mom: a reason to come back and do it again next year.

Despite winning, Maiellano is still troubled by one of the rally experiences. One of the checkpoint markers was set near an old cemetery in the forest and traipsing so close to it left him with more than a case of the heebie-jeebies.

“My TV’s been getting terrible picture ever since. And the trees outside my window have appeared quite ominous of late,” he said.

2017 Update- This event has now been through three full iterations. The fourth is planned for 2017. Rally Fore!

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