An Introduction to the Art of Rally Racing

The Rally Management Services / Konflict Motorsports and Suspension PNW Rally School

Motorcycle rally racing in America is an obscure activity practiced by few. Plenty of dirt bike aficionados recognize “Dakar Rally” and may follow casually, but rarely do these fans understand the intricacies involved. I was one of those fans and aimed to remedy that through the PNW Rally School.

The three-day rally schools are held a few times a year and are truly a labor of love by a handful of people at the heart of rally racing in the United States. Rally Management Services (RMS) started the schools in 2007, and they also provide support at rally races like Dakar and sell notoriously hard to find rally equipment. Dave Peckham is the owner of RMS, but he also manufactures ICO rally computers, runs Rally Pan Am (American pro rally team), and recently began farming. Indeed, a man of many hats, as were most students in the class. Dave is the lead instructor for the schools and infused students with knowledge and stories from supporting and training racers in international rally competitions eleven times. Alex Martens, owner of Konflict Motorsports, put in the bulk of the route creation labor that made this school possible. Konflict Motorsports has provided suspension services and products for off-road and adventure bikes since 2009. Although lacking the deep rally roots like Dave, Alex’s sheer enthusiasm for adventure based riding is evident and proven in the hundreds of hours invested in the routes.

This particular edition of the Rally School was held in Deschutes National Forest, near Bend Oregon, during the third weekend of August. Bivouac style camping followed rally tradition, with breakfast and dinner provided by the school.

Deschutes National Forest
Deschutes National Forest provided a gorgeous backdrop for the traditional bivouac style camping employed at most rally races.Photos by Jesse Felker

Day one of the school consisted of a classroom session covering the roadbooks and operating the ICO computers. The paper roadbooks consist of the distance in km marking the direction change or obstacle, the “tulip,” a simple line based representation as viewed from above, and notes based on French lexicons. Race routes are unknown and roadbooks are handed out the night before each stage. Racers typically assemble the roadbooks and highlight them with their personal system of notes, and this practice provided the bulk of the social time during the school. The “book” is really a long roll, which is loaded into a roadbook holder that can scroll up or down via a handlebar mounted toggle switch. Also mounted on the bike’s rally console are two computers with large digital readouts; one is an adjustable odometer and the other a “CAP” heading (compass heading expressed digitally). I was aboard a new rental bike provided by RMS, complete with all the necessary navigation equipment.

The school definitely employs the “experience is the best teacher” mantra. Directly after the short classroom session, I was off into the unknown for my first rally experience, 146km of intense learning, enjoyable riding and just the right amount of adventure. I was instructed to ride alone to absorb the most, and I heartily agreed. During the first few hours, I would either too slowly approach or completely blow by turns, unfamiliar with riding via km or taking the tulips too literally. Much time was squandered stopping at each turn, adjusting my odometer via the bar mounted buttons to match the roadbook (there is often unavoidable error), roll my roadbook forward, try to memorize at least the next course change, and finally resume. I would also decelerate to look at my odometer often, simply because of my lack of feel for how far a km or lack of confidence that I was on route. Early in the day, I lost an hour misinterpreting the tulip and running up and down the same section of trail. I was happy to have other riders around me at the time, but also realized I could just as easily been alone. By far the most challenging navigation were the “HP” (hors piste) sections, venturing off trail with only a CAP heading, odometer reading and the tulips. Being off trail in unfamiliar wilderness is a truly intense experience, testing your resolve. Luckily I had two others in the same HP section, including Dave, who successfully sleuthed out the connecting trail. I was fully stoked on making it around the course in about 6 hours. After about 30 minutes of enjoying the camaraderie of other students, I was overcome with exhaustion, caused equally by the physical demands of riding and the mental demands of navigating. I have never been as mentally engaged and engrossed while riding a dirt bike. It was truly a different experience than riding known trails or a track.

Dave Peckham and Coach Seiji
Dave Peckham, owner and operator of Rally Management Services, instructs Coach Seiji on loading his first roadbook into the rally console.Photos by Jesse Felker

Day two’s route was the longest of the school: 210km. Typical international rallies are 480-640 km/day (half transfer, half racing), for seven days, so we were still in the minor leagues at this distance. I prepared as well as I could, marked my roadbook well, fueled my body and cleared my mind. I was determined to stay on route and minimize needless time losses. I was instructed to have confidence that I was on route when all the clues matched and to roll through the turns while simultaneously adjusting the odometer and roadbook to avoid massive time losses due to dead stops. I met all those goals in the first 30km of the route, and my confidence soared. I approached a complicated tulip and took the trail that I thought was correct. I was soon passed by Charlie Rauseo, who notably brought rally racing to American privateers, finding assurance in our mutual trail selection. A few km’s passed and although course obstacles somewhat lined up with the roadbook, small errors were stacking and my confidence meter declined. Charlie was at a full stop at a trail intersection and I knew I was off route, so I quickly reversed direction, but became indecisive. I reversed again, but there was no sign of Charlie, and by then there were too many of my own tracks to make out which ones might have been his. The odometer was now off and I didn’t have a clear understanding of where my original error occurred. I killed the engine and could hear no bikes. Since this was a training roadbook, coordinates were given (rally races do not allow use of GPS so entered them into my GPS to no avail (user error). I was utterly lost. After much frustration, I did make out a park road on the GPS and eventually rode that back to camp. I only made about 40km’s into the route! Ugh. I did learn a lot, not only about navigation but also about a fundamental principle of rally racing: self-reliance. While riding in my disoriented state, I realized that if I were to injure myself or my bike, I would be totally on my own. I rode conservatively and my senses were on high alert. Although I had a GPS tracker in my vest, I was in survival mode, knowing it was just me and my machine, and help would be a long way off. Later that evening I realized that the rally experience provides the adventure I crave and pursue in climbing, but on a dirt bike! The perfect mix.

Alex Martens and Coach Seiji
Alex Martens, owner and operator of Konflict Motorsports and Suspension, gives Coach Seiji a few last pointers before his first rally experience.Photos by Jesse Felker

The last day of rally school consisted of a route short on distance but long on navigational challenges: 48km with 60+ separate sections. Again, I was super determined stay on route and vowed to heed the big lesson learned the day before: when little discrepancies start to accumulate, the resulting “off” feeling demands instant attention. I did have Alex behind me but he was instructed to keep me leading so I could have the most learning potential. I correctly navigated 95% of the course on sight, caught errors quickly, avoided almost all dead stops and genuinely felt like I had a firm grip on that day’s challenges. I encountered a few snafus, but with Alex’s help, I understood the causes. This last day was all smiles for me and one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had on a dirt bike. It was the perfect combination of riding and navigational challenges, and although missing the endurance component that is a core characteristic of rally racing, I got a true taste for what it felt like to be in the flow of the rally experience.

PNW Rally School 2016 Student
A student takes a break from the mental engagement rally demands to enjoy one of the countless views.Photos by Jesse Felker

If riding in beautiful landscapes and sampling different cultures while competing against both route and riders sounds appealing, check out a Rally Management Services school for yourself. It is indeed an athletic, adventuresome, intellectual and esoteric form of riding and racing that truly challenges body, mind and spirit.

PNW Rally School 2016
Rally forces self-reliance while on route. It is essentially a solo effort, man and machine vs. the route and terrain. There are no pit stops and mechanical or navigational help are against the rules and realistically a long ways off.Photos by Jesse Felker
Off-trail navigation
Off-trail navigation provides the most challenges and tests both resolve and skill, the only references being odometer and compass readings.Photos by Jesse Felker


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