Lessons Learned - the hard way...

SUICIDE BY PROXY - Co-Driving by Tom Grimshaw

Ask any co-driver what he does in a performance rally car and you will receive a boring but precise explanation of course following, routebook use, timekeeping duties and control procedures, all neatly wrapped in the Time-Speed- Distance rallying enigma.

Ask him why he is a co-driver and you will suffer through a confusing and disjointed discourse concerning his psychological, metaphysical and transcendental motivations loosely wrapped in the red cape of machismo.

In other words, few, if any, of us know why we tolerate being a co-driver.

Gene Henderson, 1974 SCCA PRO Rally Driving Champion, wrote in the book Performance Rallying, "they (co-drivers) seem to have common traits...(are) as brave as Dick Tracy; can compute square roots during an earthquake; and honestly believe their driver is God."

A co-driver myself, I will not deny Gene's assessment. However, I believe he should have added a fourth: Co-drivers are truly invulnerable.

No one knows precisely the attributes required to make a good co-driver. The list of talented riders in our country includes both sexes and no common traits except an ability to add and subtract while perched on the hump of a racing camel. No big thing.

When I stumbled into the sport of rallying in 1961 I fully intended to be a driver. The other fellow was called a "navigator." I understood "driver"...wears a lion skin and swings through high trees. "Navigator"?...wears thick eyeglasses and creeps along the ground. A "navigator" was a voluntary incidental.

Several rallies later my partner discovered he could not refrain from screaming and retching at speed while I could not cure an terminal case of brainlock at 50 mph on a dirt road. We switched seats and the change proved beneficial. He proved to be a natural "hotshoe." I combated my growing fear by concentrating on the paperwork and our mistakes as a team became fewer. Soon we found ourselves entering more demanding events such as the Press On Regardless, the Canadian Winter Rally and the spirit-breaking eight days of the Shell 4000. It was in Canada I first encountered the term "co-driver."

The Canadians did not creep along the roads seeking obscure signs advertising "Rabbits For Sale." Canadians dashed about at speed. They left tire tracks on obscure signs and showed little regard for marketable rabbits. The Michigan teams gleefully embraced this new concept and began practicing handbrake turns. We "navigators" began calling ourselves "co-drivers."

I began to realize the difference between navigator and co-driver the first time I inadvertently glanced up and saw our $8.95 J.C. Whitney aircraft landing light centered on a giant oak tree running right at us! At that exact moment I quit rallying forever and did not return until we gingerly backed out of the forest and onto the road. I've repeated that routine thousands of times since.

A few years of Canadian rallying and a memorable collection of near misses, almost disasters and forgotten crashes later, we received our first factory car, a 1965 Simca. I believe survival, rather than talent, was the key to our sponsored" ride. Regardless, I had become a "professional" co-driver.

A co-driver who makes an error, however, is an untouchable, an unclean, an outcast forever and ever. "Ol' Tom, why he got his driver lost in that blizzard, 'bout two in the morning, just after their third roll when he broke his watches on his forehead and his side of the windshield was punctured by that mailbox and his mileage counters froze when the car filled with snow. Ol' Tom? Why, he's not wrapped too tight. Has a sad case of smarts deficiency."

So why do co-drivers continue to practice such self-abuse? Why is there no recorded instance of a co-driver running off into the forest, leaving his driver to fend for himself at a start line? Who really knows? Don't ask a co-driver. He will lie to you. He will offer one answer today and another tomorrow. Don't ask him.

Perhaps it all becomes worthwhile when Gene Henderson writes "any successes I have had over the past 15 years of competitive rallying are directly credited to my navigators and co-drivers."

You want the opinion of an expert? I believe we continue co-driving because they sold the lions and closed the Coliseum.

After 17 years of rallying in the ballast seat, I am considered to be one of the top co-drivers in the United States. Not because of an outstanding record of wins, but because I'm still here. It is fair to question the intelligence of any person who will voluntarily sit next to the rogues' gallery of drivers I have accompanied. I always question my own judgement on high mountain stages.

What have I learned? I can add, subtract, read and tell time. But I have yet to learn what motivates a co-driver, including myself.

It has been scientifically proven that all damages inflicted upon a performance rally car, without exception, will occur on the co-driver's side of the vehicle. Without the God-given cloak of invulnerability, a co-driver's career would be very brief indeed.

Co-drivers usually do not create crashes, they are taken into them. They are not given the choice "to roll or not to roll" but are allowed along for the fling. After a time they learn to view the remains with restraint. It becomes a part of the image.

I am certain I smiled with fatherly compassion at the driver who rolled us end-over-end in the Canadian Winter Rally, causing us to land in an icy swamp.

I know when I saw the tree stump poking through the bottom of the car between our seats, I only raised one eyebrow and guessed it to be a four-year- old birch.

When we fell off the road in the Cascade Mountains during the Shell 4000 and hung in the trees for several hours, I clearly recall my casual noting of the Columbia River's beauty viewed at dawn from 9000 feet up.

When my driver shifted into fifth gear and the right front wheel fell off our Colt during the P.O.R., I distinctly remember recording a detailed log of the number, size, and color of the trees we kissed before we coupled with one which really desired us.

I was relieved when our Jeep burst into flames on a P.O.R. stage road. (I was out of matches and had not had a cigarette in the past hour.)

Of course none of those memories are exactly true. In each of those situations my co-driver psyche protected my sanity by blanking out the moment of stress and I actually do not recall what happened. But I did walk away with one more addition to my bag of co-driver legends and lies. Legends and lies grow large through the years; trophies rust.

Co-drivers cannot win. Any competitive team will ultimately endure experiences such as those I have mentioned, but the result differs between driver and co-driver. The rally connoisseur is sympathetic to the driver's reputation:

"Ol' Killer Joe there, he must really flame on the stages. Looky here, how far he pushed this log through the front of his car. Ol' Killer Joe? He's fast!"