Rally on

Everyone needs a hobby, but what if you're in the hobby business? For Model Citizen, we like to step away from the world of miniature cars every now and then and get our adrenaline up in a full sized automobile. One of our preferred ways to do this is by competing in road rallies...not the glitzy parties-on-wheels for rich people in tacky supercars that get all the headlines, mind you, but rather classic time-speed-distance rallies that require driving skill and mathematical precision to succeed.

The idea behind time-speed-distance (tsd) rallies is to maintain an assigned average speed over a course to arrive at checkpoints exactly on time (and by "exactly," we mean to the 1/100th of a minute...0.6 seconds, in other words.) The challenges are twofold: 1) it is difficult to maintain these average speeds when a team may encounter traffic signals, slow-moving members of the motoring public, or other road hazards, and 2) the location of the checkpoints is a secret. Therefore, "running on time, all the time" is a difficult but necessary proposition. As the events are held on public roads and run within posted speed limits, any street-legal car can compete, though the realities of road rally suggest that something with a little performance in-hand can make the experience a bit more pleasurable!

The Model Citizen Rally Team consists of two hardcore car enthusiasts who see road rally as an important component of a life spent admiring automobiles. Our driver, Joe Batwinis (pictured above on the right), is an aerospace engineer and co-host of the Science...Sort Of podcast who has logged hours of seat time driving race cars and flying small aircraft. Our navigator, Patrick Strong (left), is the founder and owner of Model Citizen. Patrick is a veteran road rally driver and navigator, has written numerous SCCA road rallies over the past seven years, and is the rallymaster for Touge California, the first touring rally in the United States exclusively for classic Japanese cars. Together, Joe and Patrick have become a formidable team in the southern California road rally scene.

Being local heroes is one thing, but competing at the national level is quite another. That's why when it was announced that Cal Club Region/SCCA was hosting "Highway Robbery," a National Course Rally on November 7th in our own backyard, we jumped at the chance to test our skills against the best rally teams in the country. Highway Robbery would be an eight-hour, 19-leg rally through Angeles National Forest and the nearby Antelope Valley. Being a "course" rally, it would include a number of "traps" written to lure teams into making navigational decisions that would cause them to arrive at checkpoints at the wrong time. The key to victory would be sniffing out these traps more skillfully than the competition (along with the usual excellent driving and timekeeping!) Would the Model Citizen Rally Team have what it would take to win?

Competing in the stock-odometer class (as opposed to the "Equipped" and "Limited" categories that allow specialized rally computers and super-accurate wheel-driven odometers) we would face off against five other teams who had traveled from across the country for a chance to earn coveted National Championship points. Of greatest concern to us was the father-daugher pairing of J and Jessica Toney, arguably the best Stock rally team in the U.S. With very little experience in national-level course rallies, we resigned ourselves to being also-rans and looked forward to a day of learning new skills and enjoying the fine handling of Joe's Mini Cooper S in the canyon roads to come.

And then a strange thing happened. Our first few leg scores were low...very low (in road rally, penalty points are awarded for arriving at checkpoints either early or late, and as in golf, the lower the score the better.) We were catching traps before they happened, and we were running very nearly exactly on time. Our joy was short-lived; however. We began to have problems with timekeeping. We misinterpreted a route instruction and took a maximum penalty on a leg. Then another. Then we missed an instruction entirely and wound up several miles off course. Then our timekeeping program was revealed to have a critical flaw that required reprogramming in the middle of the competition. As the day grew long, our chances of victory seemed remote indeed. But as the miles wound down, Team Model Citizen got its groove back. Computer issues resolved and attitudes adjusted, we settled down and got decent scores on the final few legs of the rally. Would it be enough to salvage our dignity at the awards ceremony?

As expected, the Toneys did indeed win the Stock class, with an error of only four minutes over the entire 8-hour day. But in a pleasant shock, Model Citizen Rally Team took second in class with a total error of only 7.5 minutes! The third place team was three minutes adrift. Needless to say, this was a highly satisfying finish for the Model Citizens, and we will approach the 2016 rally season with newfound confidence.

In the L.A. area, the Santa Monica Sports Car Club (local organizers of Highway Robbery) hold a TSD rally the first Friday night of every month. The Model Citizen Rally Team can be found there almost every month, so if road rally seems like something you'd like to try, we'd love to meet you there. No special equipment is required to rally, just a driver/navigator pairing in a street-legal car, a watch that can be synchronized to official time, a pen, and some interior lighting for night rallies. For more information, please visit their website:

Leave a comment