When adventuring becomes life: An interview with Rally Drivers

From the @ACPRacing Twitter Account

Photos courtesy of Andrew Comrie-Picard, Brad Lovell, and Chris Komar (@ACPRacing). 

Every time you go on an adventure, you have to be prepared. Well, world-renowned driver and adventurer Andrew Comrie-Picard (ACP) has quite a bit of adventuring under his belt and recently completed an unforgettable adventure from Kirkland to Alaska, called the ALCAN 5000.

Comrie-Picard, an accomplished rally driver and adventure seeker (with a previous life as an academic with a physics degree, among others), was joined by two of his fellow drivers and adventurers for this 10-day excursion to the horizon’s edge (and Alaska’s too). Brad Lovell, an off-road racer, joined ACP along with Chris Komar, an instructor for Team O’Niel Rally and a member of Subaru Rally Team USA.  (Note: During this interview with ACP and Lovell, Komar was doing all the hard work of prepping the car… Go, Chris.)

While this 4,510-mile journey (produced by the Rainier Auto Sports Club) through some of the most remote wildernesses on the planet is a challenge on its own, they’d also planned on heading farther north once the time-speed-distance rally was completed. The total journey would take them to the ends of the earth and through some of the worst trails (or lack thereof) nature has to offer.

Why not go all the way up to the Arctic Ocean, no? Well, they’d picked the perfect team to head out onto the road with.

Now that summer has come, you may be planning your own adventures with family or friends (or both). Packing the vehicle full of a weekend’s or several weeks’ worth of food and necessities for you and your fellow adventurers. there’s no time like now to talk to some of the pros about what it takes to prepare.

No, you won’t be encountering nearly this level of difficulty, risk, danger, or polar bears, but you will need to still be prepared. Don’t forget to bring the things you’ll need for your day – or any amount of time – in the greater outdoors.

If you’re interested in getting into rally after reading this, then you’re in luck! The Rainier Auto Sports Club (RASC) hosts many rallies throughout the year, including the upcoming No Alibi Rally from June 4 through 5. You have two weeks to learn as much as you can about time-speed-distance rallies! Good luck.

In the meantime, enjoy this really long interview with Andrew Comrie-Picard, Brad Lovell, and Chris Komar about adventuring, rally, and the being yourself behind the wheel. We’d like to also thank them for taking the time out of their preparations, just before the driver’s meeting, to have this wonderful conversation.

 

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[Deanna Isaacs] What are some of your guys’ concerns in heading through the Alcan and how do you overcome the challenges.

Driving on Ice ACPRacing[Andrew Comrie-Picard] The real challenge to this is that it’s a rally, all right, but it’s also a vehicle-dependent expedition. So, we can’t afford for anything to go wrong. We can’t afford to make a mistake, ourselves, take the vehicle off the road despite all the bad conditions, the white out, the ice logging roads – we can’t make any mistakes ourselves. But the vehicle and the equipment can’t fail at all. We can’t afford a flat tire because we’ll lose time changing it, we won’t be able to keep up with the schedule, and we’ll start attracting penalty points.

Our main concern is that everything is completely reliable, from ourselves to the vehicle to ourselves.

We have some advantage on that: We are running a new BFGoodrich tire that’s specialized for this, it’s actually the same tire that Brad and I won the Baja 1000 on. The All-Terrain T/A® KO2, very new. The point of that is that it’s very tough, so I can virtually guarantee we won’t have a flat tire despite the surfaces and it also has really great traction in the snow.

Everyone else in this rally will be running on studded tires or on pure winter tires, but this is an all-season tire, so we’re taking it to its’ maximum challenge by taking it all the way to the Arctic. But we trust it.

My concerns for failure is that we are going to make a mistake and drop a wheel in a ditch after a 600-mile section on a far-northern road, or some timing error, or something that we don’t anticipate will fail. The good thing is, we have a brand new Jeep and we’re running it completely stock. We added the BFGoodrich Tires, some RUGGED auxiliary LED lights, and navigational equipment, HAM radio, Safety beacons, satellite communicators, just safety stuff. We’re running a completely stock vehicle on these upgraded tires.

We put our faith in the Engineers that they’re going to get us through.

 

[DI] So there wasn’t anything else other than the BFGoodrich Tires, LED Lights, and Navigational equipment?

[ACP] Yup, in fact, yesterday it was a completely stock, 3,000-mile Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Rubicon. Now it has the upgraded tires, lights, and the navigation. We’re just putting the stickers on right now. Other than that you could go buy this and do the same run as us.

That’s the adventure part, right?

 

[DI] How does having a completely stock vehicle change your approach to planning a race, given you’re usually in purpose-built vehicles?

[Brad Lovell] I think you just need to remember what you’re driving and there are limitations to everything. The weight bias, the braking, the acceleration are all very different, and traction control, stability control; all those things are much different in a race vehicle, so obviously it changes the way your brain interacts to the steering wheel and the pedal. But, you also have to remember you can’t ask too much from the vehicle, because you can hurt it, in some situations.

I think, in this type of race, it’s actually an advantage because its’ a very well tested vehicle. Auto manufacturers do a ton of testing and, again, this is a reliable vehicle that’s been around for years. So, I think the best-served piece to go into very remote areas of the world is the best tested, most simple piece which sometimes isn’t a race car. It might get you there faster, but it’s more prone to failure because you’re pushing the limits.

[ACP] The Jeep Wrangler is an icon, like Brad said. It’s been around since the Second World War, in one form or another. And, the great things, amongst modern vehicles that you can buy, it’s still one of the most authentic. It’s got solid axles in the front and rear, it’s exceptionally tough, it responds to what the driver wants it to do without it thinking around the driver.

As drivers, we know we can rely on it to do what we tell it to do. If you took up a brand new Toyota Camry on the ice and on the hills, it’s a great car, but it’s not going to let you be you behind the wheel, and we have to be us!

The great thing is the new Wranglers are so well engineered, there are stability controls, traction controls, it’s a Rubicon so it has locking differentials stock from the factory. It’s a very rare vehicle that you can buy off the dealership lot and there’s a switch where the differentials lock.

 

[DI] What do you guy do personally to prepare for these kinds of long haul trips?

ACP Racing Collage[BL] You know, I guess, from my standpoint: in the last couple weeks has been madly working on logistics to make this all happen. And in these efforts, whether it’s a track race we do or a Baja, there’s a lot of logistics that need to be worked out. In my sense, that’s definitely what I’ve been focused on.

I think a lot of times there needs to be focus on driving and mental preparedness. We’ve been practicing [for the time-speed-distance] and coming in right on the second, and that’s a big challenge for me.

It’s not about how fast you can drive, flat out, in those sections, it’s patience and being a steady driver, and teamwork. Mentally, I’ve been thinking about that, trying to understand the systems we’re using to accomplish that. Mainly, the number one thing that comes to mind for me is simply Logistics.

[ACP] From my perspective, if you think about it, between Chris Komar, here, who is lead technician on the Subaru USA Rally Team, and Brad, a champion off-road racer, and me, who’s in rally and won championships – we have dozens of national championships at various times between us. We’ve won those by being well prepared, by having a lot of experience, and by being cool-headed during the races and between races. Now, we’re going into this race that none of us has ever done. Its extremely unusually, and requires a full set of skills we don’t even know if we have.

What we bring to bear, after winning these championships in these other formats, that we can apply those skills to new situations. And that’s what attracts us to this, too, these are completely unknown situations and we’re going to have to rely on our wit and our previous experience to not just be good and save, but better than everybody else.

You’re looking at a good 50 years of experience between the three of us, none of it is driving in the Arctic.

We’re ultimately racers who are a bit geeky. We’re tire geeks, engine geeks, transmission geeks. Brad builds all his own vehicles, Chris can build anything out of nothing, and basically, we just geek out on stuff. So, you give us a new problem like this: How do you get around a blind corner on a hair-pin near Quesnel, BC (pronounced Keh-nel”, or Yellow Knife at exactly the right second to keep control on an icy road?

That’s stuff we can geek about and figure out, that’s part of the challenge. All the great car-guys are geeks!

 

 

[DI] How does it feel to be heading off onto another epic adventure through the Alcan 5000?

[ACP] Well, Brad and I – our stock and trade is adventure racing. We won the Baja 1000 together in our class, I’ve won the North American Rally Championships, Lovell has just won the King of the Hammers, which is about the most difficult rock race there is.

We seek adventure in our racing, but neither of us has been on an adventure like this in the deep winter in the Arctic.

[BL] I think what attracts me to this race is that it’s over these incredible distances and remote places that not many people get to go. And, not only are we traveling there, we are doing it in a competitive sense, it adds a little more spice to it. I look for more authentic adventures in life. Where it’s not like going down a water slide, it’s a real adventure where good things and bad things can happen. So, there’s a little risk.

 

[DI] Have either of you gone into the wintry north in these kinds of temperatures?  

[ACP] You know, I’m from Colorado and we’ve definitely done plenty of snow-wheeling, we call it, going up in the mountains where its snowy and doing stuff. But everything in Colorado is very altitude dependent, so you can get up in very deep snow and camp up there for the weekend, then come back down out of it.

So this is very different in that sense, it’s a very unforgiving environment where we’re going. We aren’t going in naïve, we’ve done some research, but it’s definitely a new experience for me.

[BL] Yeah, I’m from Edmonton, in the North of Canada, but I live in Los Angeles now in film as a stunt driver, so I’ve gone completely soft. By the time it gets down to freezing, I don’t go outside anymore. I left Edmonton for a reason.

On the other hand, I’ve won every national snow car rally in North America, so I’m kind of a snow specialist. One of our strengths is these inclement conditions.

 

From here the conversation digresses into a much less regimented and much more full of laughter. Good times had, all around.

[DI] Is there anything else I should have asked that I haven’t?

[ACP] One of the things they always tell us is to take a can of dog food, because if you take Granola bars as your emergency rations, you may get into them before you need them. But the dog food you only eat when you really have to. We’re actually having a debate on what brands of dog food may be better for humans? Dry?

[DI] I don’t know if it would be better or worse, but if you go for Blue Buffalo its all natural? I feed it to my cats. Maybe you could get some chicken and potatoes?

[ACP] But that actually sounds kind of good, …I might tell Brad to hand me some on the road. Dual manifold pot cooking.

[BL] Do polar bears hibernate?

[DI] I fumble and stutter How should I know that? I laugh, but Google’s it all the same.

[ACP] That’s actually our biggest question today.

It’s because we are us and because of Jeep and BFGoodrich, that we aren’t actually ending at the ALCAN rally which ends in Anchorage. We’re going from there back into Canada and into Inuvik, which is the end of the road and then we’re going another 120 on the ocean and the McKenzie Ice Road to Tuktoyaktuk which is on the shore of the Baring Sea, the Arctic Ocean, and Northern Canada. We’re adding that onto the drive just for our own challenge as if this rally wasn’t challenging enough.

That’s why Chris is asking whether polar bears hibernate because at that point we’ll be on our own. In doing this rally there’s 30 teams and sweep vehicles, but by the time we get onto the Ice Road and the sun never goes more than a few degrees above the horizon, we’re going to rely on our satellite beacons, and going an additional 1,200 all the way to the edge of the North American continent at the Arctic ocean.

Two groups of people: that’s crazy and the people that say ‘you have any more room?’. And we hang out with people that say ‘Hey, I wanna go!’

[DI] By the way, watch out for Polar Bears. The females hibernate the males do not and they’re angry cause there’s no food.