Time-Speed-Distance Rallies: A different kind of car race

Clarence Westberg with his Mini Cooper // Photo by Ryan Siverson

Clarence Westberg with his Mini Cooper // Photo by Ryan Siverson

It was a 2009 “Cash for Clunkers” trade-in—an old, Dodge Caravan for a brand new, sporty Mini Cooper—that brought Clarence Westberg back to an old love.

Rallying, his sport of choice, takes place on scenic backroads, behind the wheel of a car. Unlike in other motorsports though, when you get down to it, the Caravan may have served him just fine. The point of “time-speed-distance” (TSD) rallies is precision. Named for a simple math equation (time = distance/speed), the quirky pastime is unlike more commonly-known performance or stage rallies, where roads are closed and tricked out Audis, Subarus, and Fords get air as they careen through back roads.

“It’s like a bus route; the goal is to be at certain places at different times,” explains Westberg. “The point is to stay on time and stay on course. But more than that, it’s to have fun and enjoy your car on country roads with elevation changes and turns and great views. Yeah, we’re basically weird people who love motorsports but can’t afford to go racing.”

Westberg is president of the Twin Cities Rally Club and has been into the sport since 1970, save for the hiatus he took when his kids were growing up and spare time was filled with hockey practices. He even met his wife rallying, and they went on to win a national husband-wife team championship. Now the Bloomington-based software developer is at the helm of a small but die-hard group of rally enthusiasts, planning a handful of TSD events a year. There are 30 or so drivers in the Twin Cities club, with others like them scattered around the country.

Members of the Twin Cities Rally Club meet at Swinging Bridge Brewing Company to discuss the route for the Falls Colors Rally in October

Members of the Twin Cities Rally Club meet at Swinging Bridge Brewing Company to discuss the route for the Falls Colors Rally in October // Photo by Ryan Siverson

“Think of anything you can do; you can do it better and have more fun if you do it in a car,” says Westberg with a chuckle. He calls that an American motto of sorts, recalling the days when drive-in restaurants and movie theatres were having a heyday. That era brought on the genesis of rallying, too. At first, it was a cheap way to get out and enjoy friends and fun cars, and ballooned into a popular sport with a cult following, especially in the Twin Cities. At one time, there were multiple events a weekend, with some people competing in 50 to 60 rallies a year, Westberg estimates.

 There are several variations on the TSD theme, but there’s always a designated route—usually starting and ending at microbreweries or restaurants—with staffed checkpoints along the way. Two-person teams, with a driver and navigator, leave the starting point at specific, staggered times and aim to reach the checkpoints at other prescribed times. Sometimes navigators are given route instructions, and speeds to maintain, but not checkpoint locations. Other times, they’re given maps or “tulips,” directional illustrations of intersections and landmarks they’ll need to recognize and navigate along the way. For each second they are off of perfectly timing their arrival at checkpoints, teams accumulate points. Perfect zeroes are the goal.

“They’re all a little different; part of the challenge is figuring out the expectations and nuances,”
says Westberg. It’s possible to deck out a car with equipment to make the task easier, with $2,000 dashboard-mounted rally computers out there that calculate whether to speed up or slow down. Some navigators prefer a more manual approach, creating tables with times, distances, and speeds mapped out—or clutching hand-held calculators they punch numbers into neurotically—shouting directions to their drivers.

Members of the Twin Cities Rally Club make a run to the checkpoint in their Minnesota Collector // Photo by Ryan Siverson

Members of the Twin Cities Rally Club make a run to the checkpoint in their Minnesota Collector // Photo by Ryan Siverson

These days, with GPS odometers and digital trip logs standard in newer cars, it’s possible to score well without any added technology at all. On specialized phone apps, like Richta or Rally Computer, a navigator hits a button over and over to calculate speed. “Or there’s the SOP (seat of pants) method,” laughs Westberg. While the options are many—rallying classes are determined by teams’ experience and what technology they’re using—that’s not really the point.

Events are planned around scenic roadways or destinations, and are always on public roads. A Grand Rounds rally takes drivers through the lakes and parks in Minneapolis. The Tombstone Trail rally at Halloween takes participants to cemeteries, with themed questions to answer at each one. There’s a Christmas lights tour though St. Paul, and winter rallies on back roads outside of Red Wing or Duluth. Target speeds are never over the posted speed limit, but icy roads, stop signs, and other delays must be accommodated by adjusting speeds in other places. Westberg remembers a pre-smartphone Summer Solstice rally that ran from sundown to sun-up, the darkness adding another level of confusion to the event. Several cars broke down or got lost that night, and they’d find their way back to the course by listening for yelling in the distance. “What’s more fun than a bunch of college students driving around the woods at night?” Westberg says.

“Having a good rally partner is like having a good tennis or gin rummy partner—-you each have your strengths and can rely on one another.”

– Clarence Westberg

Another Twin Cities rally enthusiast, Tim Winker, has been in the sport since 1969 and is also an instructor at Brainerd International Raceway’s (BIR) Performance Driving School. He’s long been a fan of ice racing and stage rallying, too—both behind the wheel and doing media and PR work—and was putting an engine in a racecar the weekend we chatted. He calls rallying, simply, “a game on wheels.” He started driving as his then-girlfriend or another friend navigated, but soon realized his somewhat obsessive personality might be a better fit on the other side of the car. Now he runs sporadically, most recently in his 2002 Saab 9-3 Viggen—with winter tires, seasonally. “I’m a Saab guy,” he says, emphatically.

“Having a good rally partner is like having a good tennis or gin rummy partner—you each have your strengths and can rely on one another,” he says. The biggest challenge, according to Winker, is to anticipate the speed swings that happen on tight corners versus the long straightaways that come up without warning. Both Westberg and Winker can say, with near-certainty, how much time will be lost approaching a stop sign or sitting at a red light. In rural locations, there are wildlife sightings that can be a challenge. A deer- or turkey-crossing is all the more frustrating when a checkpoint is in view, and farmers with tractors can come up without warning. Winker has done long-distance rallies—one from Seattle to Alaska and another eight-day lap around the United States—that had challenges and joys of their own.

Some of the Twin Cities Rally enthusiasts making their runs, checking times, and enjoying the scenery // Photos By Ryan Siverson

For an “April Fooler” rally, he remembers a friend creating a briefcase with a car number on the side of it. He’d jump in a car for each leg of the rally, get out just before the checkpoint, check his watch, and then walk across the line—jumping back in a car afterwards.

Once, on a particularly dusty route, Winker and his teammate were ahead of schedule and stopped for a car wash along the way. When they pulled up next to their friends’ dirty rally cars, “we just told them we ‘ran clean’ the whole day,” recalls Winker with a chuckle. The routes and scenery are varied, and the approaches many, but at its core, rallying is a cheap, fun motorsport with low barriers to entry and camaraderie to spare. Winker explains, simply, “You need a car, a watch—and that’s it!”

Find out about upcoming Twin Cities Rally Club events on Facebook: @TwinCitiesRallyClub.