By David Gee
Photo: Ben Rogge
When Rally America returns to the pine-filled forests of northern Minnesota for the Ojibwe Forests Rally, it’s pretty safe to say no one will be happier than Lauchlin O’Sullivan, driver of the Lucas Oil, Wolf LED-sponsored Super Production Subaru WRX STi, and his co-driver and team owner, Scott Putnam.
For Putnam, it’s a chance to compete on the national stage in his home state once again. And for both guys, it will be the culmination of a huge effort to rally back to the series with a rebuilt car after a rollover at the Oregon Trail Rally.
That story is an interesting one, and worth telling here.
We pick it up as the guys are hanging on to 6th overall and 2nd in class heading into Day 3.
Driver Lauchlin O’Sullivan: Our hopes and plans for a clean Day 3 didn’t start so good. In the first three stages that last day we had three flats, making four total for the event. But we were still battling for 2nd with two stages to go. The next stage was a 12-miler, a long stage, and a good place to pick up some time on the competition.
Co-driver Scott Putnam: At this point I was just starting to think we might actually finish this one. Two more and a beer. Everything started out ok. Then 1.3 miles in we were coming into a double caution Right 4 (medium/fast speed) off camber with a kicker and a cliff on the outside that I distinctly remembered from the first time through the stage. We deal with exposure all the time, but this had a little bit of a pucker factor built in as the car unweights over the kicker and floats toward the edge of the road exiting the corner. The first time through the tires finally bit about a foot from the edge and we merrily headed on down the stage. The second time through this section definitely had my attention. I pulled my head out of the notes and as soon as we start coming around the driver’s side rear kicks out severely, garnering an uncharacteristic “Oh Shit!” from Lauchlin.
LOS: We entered the corner perfectly set up, at about 50 mph. As I turn in, the rear of the car steps out into an aggressive oversteer attitude, and I counter steer to get car the car settled, while braking to scrub some speed off. This points us towards a cliff and into the “soft” dirt in the outside, or unused portion, of the corner. I really wasn’t worried at this point, as I am rarely driving at 10/10ths and specifically leave a certain percentage of room to absorb any “emergencies” that might arise. However, that gap would soon evaporate, compounded by an unfortunate series of events. We knew from the preceding stages our tires for this event did not turn well in the “loose” gravel/dirt, but liked the hard packed stuff much better. What we did not know though, was that the left rear tire was going flat. It’s hard to tell because these tires have a super hefty sidewall, but we know now the flat was what caused the initial surprise oversteer.
Putnam: If the flat tire is on the inside as the car is cornering, the effect is not that great. If the flat is on the outside of a car through the corner, this will radically impact the handling. As well, if the flat is on the front the car will understeer, or plow through the corner. If the flat is on the rear, the vehicle will oversteer substantially. So our reduced traction began to carry us off the road. My thoughts at this point? *@#*!!! I thought we were headed for the bottom of a ravine. I also flashed to an image of Finnish rally driver Jari-Matti Latvala’s off-road excursion in the 2009 WRC Portugal rally, where he went off on a left-hand corner and rolled 17 times down a steep hill, finally coming to rest 150 yards later against a tree. Not a positive thing to think about for sure!
LOS: I was still trying keep our front tires engaged with the road. As the outer lip to the corner disappears, the rear of the car slides off the edge. At this point I’m full on the accelerator giving it all the torque I can to get us fully back on the road. I still don’t think we are done, and feel I can win this battle with the cliff – and physics! The rear is hanging off, and the fronts are hanging on, barely, but now the cliff starts to get a bit more of an angle to it. As the nose of the car starts looking skyward, I still think we will bounce back on the road, once the rear hits the ground. It hits, and then I feel a lightness, and assume we are powering back over the bank onto the road. I’m getting my mind – and my hands – ready to make any quick steering inputs. That’s not how this was going to go though. The rear hit, and with a hard rim digging into an ever more drastic cliff, we were soon actually barrel rolling sideways along the cliff. We did two barrel rolls sideways into a couple nose-to-tail rolls, finally coming to rest upside down. It took me a while to realize we were actually rolling, and I remember thinking, “This can’t be happening!” It’s strange, but your mind slows everything down when you are in a situation such as this. Somewhere between our first and second barrel roll I remember feeling sick to my stomach, as well as disgusted with myself. How would this impact our season? How would this impact our lives, both personally and professionally? And all that. Then you suddenly snap out of it and shift your thoughts instead to, “I hope this ends soon and that neither one of us is hurt.”
Photo: Ben Rogge
Putnam: As all hell was breaking loose, I went into a mode that was essentially, ‘I am going to focus my eyes forward on the dash and let the car do it’s thing. We’ll see where we are when it finishes and take it from there.’ Later on I kind of wished I had taken the time to look around as we were rolling, but it really didn’t seem like a good idea at the time! We rolled on a lateral axis once or twice and then end-over-end several times. Telemetry shows us at 70-80 mph prior to the turn and 53 mph as our wheels left the ground. This was a fairly violent scene inside the car and at some point the pace notes were ripped from my hands and I bloodied my knuckles on the roll cage. Thank heavens for that though! It’s what was keeping us alive. WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! we went in rapid succession. Out the windshield through your peripheral vision you catch alternate glimpses of the sky and the ground, blue, brown, blue, brown, blue, brown as the car goes through its gyrations. As Lauchlin said, we ended up upside down. Everything is very still for a couple of seconds, while you are just hanging there trying to process what happened, and then Lauchlin asks if I am ok. I responded with a ‘yup,’ and then decided it was time to move.
LOS: We were upside down, and I was downhill, and my door would not open. I asked Scott if he could make his way out on his side, and as he did, I followed him out to assess the damage. We of course needed to get out the warning triangles alerting the other drivers to us, and we needed to get the OK sign out as well. Once the emergency stuff is taken care of, you look at what has happened to the car. Amazingly, the sides and the roof looked practically untouched. But the engine had been pushed back, and the hood was about halfway through our broken windshield. Also, the rear was crunched, making it look somewhat reminiscent of an Alfa GTV-6. ‘Stuff like this just does not happen to us,’ is all I could think to say to myself, wondering if I had just changed the course of our futures. The rest of the week that followed, and now whenever I think about it, I find myself still shaking my head in disbelief, and feeling truly disgusted. It turns out even the safest and most experienced drivers can leave room for safety, but when that cushion gets used up and the bad stuff starts compounding, you’re just a passenger along for the ride. It’s not a good feeling.
Putnam: Not that you will ever need to know this, but the trick to releasing seats belts when you are upside down is to stick your hand out, brace yourself, and try to soften the fall. Even with a helmet on, that hurts less than just dropping down on your head. After lowering myself down, and exiting the car in a less-than-graceful fashion, I staggered up the hill to survey the damage. I have to say you never get used to the violence of a crash, but I have been doing this long enough that I didn’t feel any great shock. Shit happens, and you have to deal with it. We grabbed the route book, the OK sign, the triangles and headed back up to the road. Looking back on it now, I would have to say disbelief is the word that comes to my mind most often as well. Lauchlin and I have been together for what, eight years, and contested how many hundreds, or even thousands, of stage miles, and nothing like this has ever happened. Nothing like this has really even ever come close to happening. All the luck and good fortune and talent and safety still aren’t enough to separate you sometimes from calamity though. I am thankful though, to Subaru and Streetwise Motorsports, for building us a good car that kept us safe while doing a series of stupid human tricks. As everyone who has ever looked at our car since we didn’t keep the shiny side up says, “It could have been worse.” Indeed.
Anyone who saw the Lucas Oil, Wolf LED-sponsored Super Production Subaru WRX STi in Oregon might have doubted it would ever rally again, let alone be seen again this season.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, it has been revived and refreshed.
And after sitting out the last two events, so are its drivers. See you at Ojibwe.