Rally Navigation

Johnny Campbell And Quinn Cody Explain It

When you see photos of those giant gas tanks, I mean Rally Bikes, do you wonder what instruments they hold on those big navigation towers? Quinn Cody recently invited a group out to get us more familiar with Rallying, and I got paired up with Johnny Campbell to ride a loop that Quinn had set up for the day.

Photo by Jesse Ziegler

Rally racing is a lot like other off-road racing, except that the course is only marked on a roll of paper, called a road book, and checkpoints are un-manned electronic waypoints that the riders must cross through.

Road books give specific course directions at set mileages along the course; and mileage is given in kilometers. The bikes have two odometers, one that reads off of the wheel, and one that uses a GPS. The road book is printed on a long roll of paper. It’s housed the big box on the navigation tower and the road book can be rolled forward or backward via a small switch mounted next to the left grip.

Photo by Pete Peterson
Photo by Pete Peterson

Here’s how it works: If a rally racer is racing down a dirt road, and his road book reads that at 34.27 kilometers he’s to take a right turn onto a trail, then as the odometer reads about 34.1 miles he needs to start looking for the trail – it’s critical to remember that road books are rarely precise to the odometers (and the two odometers are often out of sync). Once the rider spots and turns onto the trail, he will re-set his odometers to match the road book, so they will be as accurate as possible at the next mileage point with direction.

Some markings in the book are to warn of upcoming hazards, like a ditch, or to help guide the racer around an obstacle. These help make the course safer, and allow an extra opportunity to sync the odometers to the road book. Quinn Cody and Johnny Campbell both emphasized that racers are constantly re-syncing their odometers to keep them as close to the road books’ markings as possible.

The waypoints are also marked on the road book (but the actual longitude and latitude coordinate is not given), and when a racer gets close to a waypoint the GPS gives off a very loud ‘beep,’ and then (and only then) an electronic arrow graphic on the GPS’s screen guides the racer toward the actual waypoint. Once the rider crosses over the waypoint, the GPS gives another loud ‘beep,’ and also auto-resets the GPS-based odometer to match the road book.

Photo by Pete Peterson

There are some course directions that send the rider off the trail during a rally and onto un-ridden land. For these, at the specified mileage, the rider veers off-course and orients to the correct direction using the compass bearing given in the road book. Sometimes turns onto marked trails are also given a compass bearings so the racer can double check that he’s picked the right trail. Once the heading is set, Johnny Campbell pointed out, the rider looks ahead on that bearing to pick a distant reference point. That way, as the racer dodges around obstacles he can still say on the same heading without trying to follow is compass’ readout.

It sounds complex when reading about it, but appears pretty simple once you start looking over a road book. Quinn gave us a quick lesson in how to mark up a road book; compass headings are re-written larger, waypoints are marked with colored Sharpies (we used orange), danger is marked (pink), and turns were marked (blue). It seemed like overkill at the time, but once on the bike the extra visual clues help you read the road book quickly.

Photo by Pete Peterson

So I was all set to impress Johnny Campbell with some perfect navigation, but it turned out to be trickier than I thought (I’m going to make up numbers here, but the examples are true). Not too far into the 42 mile trail ride I missed a turn off because even though my eyes read 4.19 KM my mind watched for 4.9 to roll up on my odometer (Quinn says he only reads to the tenth of a kilometer since a hundredth of a kilometer is too precise for rally navigation turns and marks). For this mistake Johnny and I backtracked, found the right turn, reset our odometers, and got back on course. Later in the ride I stopped and looked for a turn at 40.38 rather than 41.38. (Johnny said this is a common mistake). There were some vague directions and one waypoint that we missed, but we backtracked a little to pick up. I need to point out Johnny wasn’t navigating, he was just there to watch me make the mistakes and make sure I got back to the event’s start/stop line.

I was surprised how easily it was to make small mistakes, and this was one short, casual trail ride; and I had a pro-shadow to help me. If you get off course in a real rally and can’t re-find a point on the course, the road book will do very little good. At that point a racer can try to spot other riders, or look ahead on the road book for landmarks (things such as buildings or high tension wires are shown in simplistic drawings); if that doesn't work, the racers can activate their Spot device (a satellite-based call system) and wait for help. The Dakar racers in South America will be racing for 13 days, and I can’t imagine now challenging that would be to stay mentally sharp for that many hours of competition.

After the ride I got a quick interview with Johnny Campbell (below). I also spoke with the five Americans competing this this year's Dakar (look for that web story very soon). The 2016 event runs from January 3rd to 16th. To learn more check out dakar.com/dakar/2016/us/


Photo by Pete Peterson

Johnny Campbell is best known for his Baja wins; he won the Baja 1000 eleven times and the Baja 500 five times. Those Baja wins often overshadow his rally racing; his best Dakar finish was 8th overall and first privateer in the 2001 Paris-to-Dakar rally. Part of his work today is with the Honda HRC rally team, testing the bikes and helping the riders prepare.

PP: How far were you into your racing career before you did your first rally?

JC: I became a professional off-road racer around 1992. I had some support from American Honda, actually rode the Baja 1000 for them that year. And then two years later I was invited to come race the Nevada Rally, that was a race they held for about three years. It was 6 days, 2000 miles. I rode '94 and finished second overall. That's kinda where I made my mark on the international scene as far as people taking notice of who Johnny Campbell is. And I was a very young, very innocent, really no experience rally racing, got lost a lot, but was savvy enough to follow the Frenchman who was leading the race. He tricked me one day; he stopped and I took off down the road like I was leading the race, he knew exactly what he was doing because he turned around and found the right way as I took off, off into the sunset. [laughs]. Ultimately I finished second that year, and in '95 I came back, we practiced our navigation, and I was able to take the overall.

PP: Is there a lot more emphasis put on the navigation training nowadays?

JC: Nowadays in Rally things have evolved as far as a lot of the electronic and satellite GPS systems and the Dakar Rally, they keep it a very controlled navigation. So the GPS isn't open all the time, it's mainly used as a compass heading, a bearing/direction that you're traveling. When you think of off-road racing here in the States, people use GPS for following a track log, so you have an arrow that's on a specific route so it's more or less easy to navigate. But in the Dakar Rally you follow your road book first, and the GPS compliments the road book by giving you a compass heading, but no track log.

PP: So the goal of a rally is just to hit certain waypoints in the loop, correct?

JC: That's one key element of a rally, to find all of the waypoints and to pass through them. There's a specific route that they give you in the road book that you're supposed to follow, and within the road book there's masked waypoint and waypoints that are more open. And when you are approaching those waypoints from following the road book, at about 600 to 800 meters your GPS will open with an arrow until you get to that waypoint and pass through it.

PP: You told me an interesting point about hitting waypoints out on our trail ride. Can you cut to the waypoint if you know where it is and feel like you can get there?

JC: You have to hit the waypoints. And if you can, say, take it like a sailor would in the sea where you go from this waypoint, follow a CAP heading and hit the next waypoint, that is true, but when you're on land, it's necessary to follow the road book, unless you specifically have some insight on how to get to that waypoint, because if you don't follow the road book and going toward a waypoint and all the sudden there's a big canyon or valley in between, well, then you're kinda hosed. So it's important to follow the road book to those waypoints. Some of the more experienced teams in a Dakar rally may have someone who's in charge specifically of just mapping for the contestants. It's his goal to be able to map out the route the night before [Racers get the next day's road book at the end of the day just before it] and if there's any insight he can give to the racers, then that's what he does. Some teams have that technology or freedom and some don't. It's kind of of a gray area right now.

PP: So they map out the course from the mileage and directions on the road book?

JC: The waypoints are written on the road book but they don't have a specific longitude and latitude waypoint where that is. You don't know where that is, but I guess you could hypothetically find out where the route goes on Google Earth or something, but only the most advanced teams may have that [ability to determine the course], and I never had any experience with that. I navigate and follow the road book and find the waypoints as it's intended. It's never intended for someone to use those extremes to go find the route for shortcuts.

PP: You and I were out there for a casual little ride and I got some numbers mixed up. How much harder is it on the final day of a multi-day rally to navigate?

JC: The Dakar is very extreme because of the amount of days that it is, day after day, and the lack or rest or sleep, and so it's not uncommon for you to get your numbers mixed up. Like, you might look at one note that says 31.95 and the next note may say 32.95 and all of the sudden you've skipped a whole kilometer and you just don't realize it. It's very easy to do that, especially with the intensity of the race. I've done it before. I think I've done it ever year I've raced the Dakar, even in the car [Johnny navigated in the car with Robbie Gordon at the wheel in last year's Dakar]. But on the bike for sure because one, when you're on the bike you have to focus on riding first and keep yourself fin control and within your limits and then you focus on your road book secondly to know where you're going. But it's very easy to get your numbers mixed up, especially when you're looking at the odometer, looking at your road book – and you try to keep those things as close to each other as possible, because time is everything. Fractions of seconds is everything. And it's easy to get confused, for sure, to get your numbers mixed up. Even in the car, just relaying going, "Go right… I mean left!" [laughs]. He [Robby] looks over, "You better get your [act] together!" "Oh, sorry!" I even put an L on this hand and an R on this hand, because when I'm holding up [the road book], it's intense!

PP: So what's your role with Team Honda HRC rally?

JC: My role on the HRC team is a development role. Basically I had the opportunity because I've been with American Honda for 23 years, and through that I've built relationships with R&D and Japan, and others, and so what I do is I'm able to facilitate testing in the US in the southwest deserts, and give the machine and the team the chance to ride in conditions that are very similar to South America. So my role is as a test coordinator and development rider.

PP: Are you going down to South America this year?

JC: This year I'm not planning to go. If there was a position for me to go, I would jump on it, but at this point they've got everything handled that they need to have handled so I'm looking forward this year to saying home with the family and enjoying a nice holiday.

PP: What are you expecting from the team results-wise?

JC: The team's gonna win. I think that the bike has evolved quite a bit in the last three years, and it's definitely had it's ups and downs with learning and going through the process, but the team is poised now, and I think they're mature enough to be able to lead the rally and secure a win. The machine's very good. It's lighter and faster than the competitions', and the riders are on par [Joan Barreda, Paulo Goncalves, Michael Metge, Paolo Ceci, and American Ricky Brabec], they've been winning rallies during the year. And now it's the simple task of putting two weeks together [laughs]. I say that with a grain of salt, of course.

For more on the HRC Honda team, check out http://rally.hondaracingcorporation.com/.