As I sit here typing this, it has been a week since I had to get up way too early, after staying up way too late, to go hunting for random checkpoints that I have to figure out with very vague clues.
And I want to do it again. Right now, please.
The CJ Pony Parts Smoky Mountain Rally 2015 benefited Hope For The Warriors and officially took place from July 14-July 16, with a mandatory driver’s meeting on the night of July 13th, which was followed by an auction for Hope For The Warriors. While this was my sixth Rally North America event, for the first time I was joined by a second CJ Rally Team, which was made up of Ricky and Tommy from our marketing department. As in years past, three days just was not enough, so both CJ Teams hit the road on July 10th to spend a few days in Kentucky and Tennessee with a few other veteran rally teams, before heading to the starting line in Knoxville Tennessee.
Everyone had a blast at the auction, and many stayed up a little later than they should have the night before the start. However, at 7:30 AM, adrenaline (and lots of caffeine) kicked in and we were off on Day 1 of the Smoky Mountain Rally 2015, which would take us from Knoxville to Hendersonville, NC.
The Rally is time based, but speeding will not win the event (it will actually get you DQ’d). Instead, it is all about navigating and figuring out the clues to the next checkpoint. The clues are sometimes easy to figure out or sometimes they can take a little work. Once you decipher the clue, you head to the checkpoint, take your picture and move on. Sounds easy enough, right? It isn’t.
Day 1 was pretty much a disaster for Team CJ Pony 1, as the “veteran” team was absolutely shown up by the Team 2 rookies. To say we got lost is an understatement. The route took us through some amazing roads, right past the Tail of the Dragon, and through all kinds of mountain passes. The one thing we didn’t plan for was the lack of cellular service in this area, which rendered us unable to look up clues or navigate properly. We ended up finishing Day 1 a good 2+ hours after the leaders and a solid 1.5 hours after Team 2, who was the 9th team to finish on Day 1, which was a solid outing for sure.
After our embarrassing outing on Day 1, it was time to put our heads down and compete on Day 2, which took us from Hendersonville NC, to Athens, GA. Day 2 started out well as we found checkpoint 1 quickly and headed for checkpoint 2.
Checkpoint 2 was at the peak of an overlook that was 5000 feet up. The temperature literally dropped 25 degrees during the climb, and it was a thick, cold, misting fog. The checkpoint was over half a mile up a steep road that had to have a 30+ degree incline. It was a LONG way up, and by the time we got close, we knew several teams of much younger, more athletic people had passed us. We made our way down and decided to make our own checkpoints for the rest of the day. We teamed up with some old friends in their Alfa Romeo 4C, and went in search of some of the best roads in the area and were not disappointed. We arrived in Athens WAY after Team 2 again and headed for a night at the local drag strip.
For Day 3, the final day of the CJ Pony Parts Smoky Mountain Rally 2015, we had our last chance for redemption. If Team 2 beat us again, I may have to find a new hobby and possibly a new job. Today, we were going from Athens, GA to Savannah, GA. We were able to navigate out of town in a hurry, and made one small error that only cost us 2-3 minutes, so we were in good shape so far.
Day 3 was the day of the bunnies. Occasionally in the Rally, you can earn time bonuses. This year we went to a small town that was filled with small bunny statues - 21 total. Every picture you take with a bunny was worth 5 minutes, which can be HUGE in a rally where first place is often minutes, if not seconds, from second place. Gordon and I sprinted all over the town with several other teams in search of bunnies. We found 10 quickly, and decided that that should be enough, since we were in the front of the pack. It was a gamble, since we left a lot of time on the table. We left the town, figured out the next few checkpoints and headed to the finish line.
Thanks to some friendly smack talk via text, we knew that at least two teams were ahead of us. We also knew that both teams had a start time behind us, so they had a bigger lead. We made it to the finish line third, and a few teams showed up right after us. It would all come down to the bunnies. The Rally North America organizers had to add all the time up, so we went to the hotel and waited. Having talked to a few teams, we knew we were in good shape and were confident we would place.
Soon after we got the word: Team CJ Pony 1 took FIRST place on Day 3!!!
How much did we win by? Less than 3 minutes overall on a 5 hour leg. One bunny made the difference. We celebrated our victory by heading Roebling Road Raceway for a night of open track racing, before heading to the awards banquet later that night.
The Awards banquet was a blast, as always. We ended up raising over $116,000 for Hope For the Warriors, and that number is still climbing.
As always, there are awards for the first three places each day and special awards for hard luck, best costume, longest drive, etc. The final award is called the Spirit of the Rally award, given to a team that embodies everything that is Rally North America. When Tony and Scott from RNA called our names for that award, I was all but speechless. Winning Day 3 was amazing, but the pride of winning the Spirit of the Rally is indescribable. The whole rally experience this year was absolutely amazing, and I can’t wait for 2016. The Pacific Northwest is the only part of the country we have not visited on a rally and that is where we are heading in 2016.
Can I leave now please?