After Thanksgiving, many cottage country communities become sleepy little towns, almost as if they have gone into hibernation for the winter. But on the third weekend in November each year though, the town of Bancroft, Ont. becomes a hub of activity for the annual arrival of the Rally of the Tall Pines. As the final round of the Canadian Rally Championship and the North American Rally Cup, Tall Pines is one of the most highly anticipated events on the calendar.
Tall Pines is as important to the town as it is to the competitors, and the town goes all out in embracing the arrival of the rally. Local businesses get a huge boost on what would otherwise be a quiet time, while hotels as far away as Peterborough are filled to capacity as thousands experience the spectacle.
The stars of the show are the cars and co-driver teams that pilot them, as they blast along cottage roads at speeds that most would consider terrifying. The cars are specially modified for performance and safety but there is more to the challenge than just hopping in the car and standing on the gas. Teams drive the route at more civilized speeds and make notes as to how fast each corner can be taken. Once the green flag drops, the co-driver reads them back to the driver as they hurtle along the road. A wrong note can mean the difference between a win and ending up on their roof in the forest. Or worse.
One of the best in the business is Alan Ockwell, a technician from Etobicoke, who has been co-driving in the Subaru Canada entry alongside star driver Patrick Richard since 2008. The pair won the Canadian Rally Championship in 2008 and 2009. I sat down with Ockwell recently to talk about the sport.
How did you get involved in rallying?
My dad was a mechanic for years, all through the 1970s and ’80s, for a bunch of successful teams. He and my mom actually met at a rally. Growing up, my dad dragged my brother and me to a lot of events. In about 1999, a guy my brother knew asked him to co-drive for him. It wasn’t really his thing, so he suggested the guy ask me. It was OK, so I did a few events a year with him, had a couple of good finishes and it went from there.
What’s the plan for Tall Pines, given that (rally racers) Antoine L’Estage and Nathalie Richard (Pat’s sister) have already clinched the championship?
For us, the plan is to finish on a high note. I think we’ll go pretty hard, to put on a good show and bring home something. It has been a disappointing season. It seems to have been just one thing or another, just not our year.
How much of that has been mechanical as opposed to other reasons?
A lot of it is that Antoine has gotten so fast now that we are trying pretty hard to keep up. It’s pushing things, we are finding limits that we’ve never found before with the car. That is a real credit to Antoine, because Pat was really the fastest guy in the country for many years. We’re just being pushed harder than we’ve ever been pushed before.
What’s the scariest thing that’s ever happened to you in a rally car?
There has only ever been one time that I have been scared for my life in a rally car. It was at the Rocky Mountain Rally last year. We had gotten a foot of snow the night before the rally and the stages up in the mountains ended up being two tracks of mud through the snow. We went out on mud tires and as long as you stayed in the tracks you were good. There were big drops on one side, my side of course. One time, we went into the snow on my side, right at the edge of the cliff. The car was just going straight and the road was turning left. Pat’s on the brakes and all we can see is the cliff ahead. It wasn’t high speed, so we had time to actually think about what was about to happen. Luckily the car slowed just enough that it turned just in time.
What has been the highlight of your rally career?
The first two years of rallying with Pat and winning the championship are obvious highlights. The best one of those rallies was Pacific Forest Rally in 2009. We needed to win, we had built up a bit of a lead, but we lost it all in service when a bunch of wheel nuts seized on the studs. That put us in a dead heat with Antoine. We had three stages left that were all passes of a beautiful 25K stage. On the first pass, we set a record, first time anyone had gone under 15 minutes. Second pass we went even quicker, something like 12:50 and on the final pass, Antoine said they were going to fight for the championship at Pines, so we knew we had it. Everything was awesome, the notes were clicking, Pat was just on the ball and the car was flawless. Ken Dryden wrote in his book that you can “feel victory while it is happening. On that last 25 kilometres, everything was perfect, we could feel victory as it was happening!”
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