What is a Road Rally?
This page is a copy of the first chapter of The Road Rally Handbook.
There We Were
on our first road rally. We had traveled 300 miles the day before
on the strength of an event flier and a whim. The rallymasters
were kind enough to give us an impromptu class
on rally basics and we were off. We set out on the rally course not
caring that it was a heavily trapped championship event. The whole
idea seemed rather grand as dozens of cars criss-crossed our path,
each convinced that they were following the course correctly.
Things wore a bit thin when we found ourselves on
an interstate at 25 mph - we had not understood one of the basic
rally terms and decided to ignore it in our written route instructions.
As it turned out, our delay on the highway almost exactly canceled
a “trap” that lurked in the course, and we got a near perfect
score for that portion of the event. The Blind Luck Rally Team was
The finish of the event featured a lobster bake and
hours of “There We Were” stories from other competitors. We
found out where we had gone wrong and, just as often, where we had
followed the course correctly for the wrong reason! When the results
were announced, we landed in the middle of the Novice class and actually
walked away with a small trophy.
Before this rally, neither of us had imagined we would ever compete
in an automotive event. Sure, we kept our somewhat sporty cruiser
in reasonably good shape. We enjoyed long weekend drives. Occasionally,
on a clear summer evening, we drove the long way home from work so
we could take some scenic or interesting roads. But compete? Us?
Yet, after one TSD Road Rally, we were hooked on the sport. Why?
Our rather limited concept of motor sports had mostly been developed
for us by the media. It consisted totally of track or off-road racing.
And the message was clear: highly trained drivers in high-priced machines
taking high risks for high stakes.
TSD Rallying was very different from our concept of motor sports.
Each car was given a set of written instructions and sent off at intervals
on public roads. Each team tried to follow the course as well as maintain
a given average speed, which was always legal. Sprinkled around the
course were checkpoints where our arrival time was clocked. We were
given a score based on how close we came to arriving perfectly “on
For a nominal entry fee and almost no risk to car, life, or limb we
got to drive the most scenic roads in the area and compete on the
basis of precision driving and navigation. We were a team on an adventure
designed by an experienced rallymaster. We were a team competing not
based on the amount of muscle in our car, but on the sharpness of
our minds and driving skill. But most of all, we had fun - from
the people and places to the competition and sense of discovery.
Types of Road Rallies
Beyond this broad description of our first Road Rally lies a whole
range of events to suit every kind of rallyist. But the basic idea
of most Road Rallies is the same: each competing team, consisting
of a driver and a navigator, is given a set of written instructions
which are used to follow a pre-determined course. Each team drives
the course independently, usually at one minute intervals, following
the written instructions, or route instructions, exactly.
The events range from the Sunday afternoon Gimmick Rally, usually
run by a car club which maps out a scenic route ending at a restaurant
or a picnic, through the highly competitive Pro Rallies, run at high
speeds over roads closed to the general public. This book concentrates
on the most prevalent and popular events which fall in the middle
of this range: Time-Speed-Distance (TSD) Road Rallies in which the
route instructions have assigned speeds and teams are scored based
on their ability to maintain these speeds precisely over public roads.
The first event many teams enter is often some type of Gimmick
Rally. These events are
not scored on any speed factor, but on some special Gimmick Rule defined
by the organizers.
Many Gimmick rallies have no checkpoints. You are scored based on
information you find on the course. One long-standing annual event
in the Northeast has teams count turkey-shaped signs placed along
the course. If you see the correct number of signs, you found the
entire correct course. A bit more involved format, called Course
Marker Rallies, is used on the West Coast. The
rallymaster places signs along the intended route - some signs
have information which you copy onto your scorecard (for scoring)
and others have course-following information. The markers you copy
on your scorecard distinguish among teams who unravel the gimmicks.
Another Gimmick format, the shortest-distance rally,
challenges competitors to visit various locations while traveling
the fewest miles. The team usually has to answer some question at
each location to prove that they actually visited each spot (“What
year was the church on the corner of Main and Elm dedicated?”)
Still another format, called the economy run,
seems to pop up whenever there is a gas crunch. Teams attempt
to drive the course while getting the best gas mileage. Scoring for
one past event factored in the weight of the vehicle in order to equalize
the advantage of smaller cars. The team which took this event ran
in a gargantuan cement truck - and described their vehicle on
the entry form as a “Sport Mixer”. They did poorly on miles-per-gallon
but easily won based on ton-miles-per-gallon.
Gimmick Rallies can be great fun and are ideal for first-time teams
or competitors who run once or twice a year. However, few rallyists
make a career out of Gimmick Rallies. Because of their nature, there
is often an element of luck and a lack of preciseness in these events
which makes a team's results somewhat a matter of chance.
At the other end of the competitive scale from Gimmick Rallies is
a class of events which is a form of racing. The route is described
by route instructions, but there are sections of the course, known
as special stages, where you drive closed
roads at maximum speed. Your score is based primarily on your speed
on these Special Stages.
Naturally, you cannot jump into a Pro Rally in your stock family cruiser.
However, by racing standards, Pro Rally is inexpensive and a very
accessible form of racing. The driver and navigator are required to
have a helmet and (usually) a fire suit and you can run the
cruiser with a roll cage, fire extinguisher, competition seat belts,
and other safety equipment installed.
This form of Rallying is generally what you hear about when people
talk about European Rallying, Stage Rallies, or Safari Rallies.
In a Time-Speed-Distance Rally, the Route Instructions, in addition
to information to keep a team on course, also give assigned speeds.
These speeds are always legal, and often are below the posted speed
limit. A TSD rally is a competition of precision driving - it
is not a race!
The goal of a rally team is twofold: to stay on the prescribed course
and to drive at exactly the given speed. The perfect team would be
on course, on time at any given point along the route. To score
teams against this goal, checkpoints are sprinkled throughout
the course at unspecified locations. Each team is timed by a crew
at the checkpoint (also called the control) and their time is
compared against a perfect time (computed
from the assigned speeds and exact distances measured before the event).
Each team receives a score based on its time for that portion, or
leg, of the course. For each fraction of a minute early or late, the
team is given points. The team with the lowest total score for all
the legs wins. However, each leg is independent: time late or early
on one leg cannot be “made up” on subsequent legs. After being
timed by a checkpoint crew and receiving a score, the team is assigned
an out time to begin driving the next leg.
A variation on the TSD theme is called a regularity run.
In this event, the team is free to select any speed within
a given range. Teams run the same course multiple times with the checkpoints
being hidden the first time around. On second and subsequent runs
of the course, the team must match its times exactly to the first
TSD rallies have become popular in North America because of the many
people who enjoy driving. Most TSD rallies have a Novice Class designed
for first-time competitors. The other classes, which allow varying
amounts of rally equipment, provide keen competition for experienced
rallyists. Many top competitors today began in Novice Class with no
more than a speedometer of questionable accuracy, a wristwatch, and
a hazy understanding of rally basics.
For the driver, there is the opportunity to use a skill which most
people spend years developing, but which few ever get to hone or test.
But, unlike other motor sports, the skill does not involve outright
car performance. More muscle does not necessarily help, so there are
no artificial factors of performance to plague the rules of rallying.
In fact, the rules which define the rally classes tend to be quite
simple and provide a level playing field for competition.
Another thing which sets TSD rallying apart from other sports is its
unique team aspect. In no other sport does a pair of people need to
work so closely together, yet do fundamentally different things. Of
course, when a team first starts rallying, both driver and navigator
are simply concentrating on staying on course. Beginning teams do
the timing by feel or some very simple calculations. But as a team
gains experience, the driver and navigator begin to take on specific
As the team's coordination continues to improve, so do its results.
After a while, the team graduates to more difficult events where the
course challenges them to their limits, not because of outright speed,
but because of the frequency and difficulty of instructions, traps,
or density of speed changes and timing problems. It is these events
that can give a team a deep sense of satisfaction.
For all competitors, a rally provides a day, weekend, or week get-away,
driving a course that often makes use of the most scenic roads of
the area, and is usually followed by a social event to round out the
weekend. Some say that a road rally is merely an excuse for a party!
So you want to do a rally but cannot bring yourself to drive the family
cruiser in anything close to a competitive event. Why?
My car is too slow. Almost any car can keep up the average
speeds of most rallies. If the event features brisk speeds or is advertised
as a performance rally, you should not consider running it as a first
I have to drive to work on Monday and I might break it. Not
likely, if you go by past history. The fact that (organizer) insurance
for these events is relatively inexpensive shows that competitors
tend to be quite safe while competing in most TSD events. Consider
how alert a team is on a rally compared with driving the same-old-route-home-after-work.
In terms of doing mechanical damage to your car, remember that these
events don't involve speed driving, but rather precision driving.
It's too ugly. Don't let your car hear that or it might start
giving you mechanical trouble!
In fact, people rally in almost every conceivable form of automobile,
with notable extremes including the “biscuit-tin” sized Mini-Cooper,
a "stretch" Porsche Targa elongated to the size of a limousine,
and a fire truck built in 1912. The car is only the tool to get you
on the adventure, and if you happen to jump into the sport driving
something less than “sporty”, it will only make for a better
story when you become a well-known rallyist.