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Nick Narini works out instructions at the start of the Rallye Des Neiges, inputting them into a computer. (Dean Campbell for the Globe and Mail)
Nick Narini works out instructions at the start of the Rallye Des Neiges, inputting them into a computer. (Dean Campbell for the Globe and Mail)

Rallye Des Neiges

Canada's oldest car rally, where timing is everything Add to ...

Snaking the car along back roads surrounding Bromont, Que., I listen intently as navigator Nick Narini feeds me instructions for the next turn. We're participating in Canada's oldest car rally, the Rallye Des Neiges, and things seem to be going well, at least for the moment. We're about to learn how challenging it can be to drive within the speed limit.

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The Rallye Des Neiges, which was first run in 1937, is a navigational or time, speed, distance (TSD) rally; the event rewards precise driving and a keen awareness of time rather than the flat-out speed of a performance rally. Aimed at everyday drivers and typical road cars, TSD rallies are meant as a fun and challenging pastime for anyone. No special equipment is needed, and every event features a novice division, with some offering a beginner's seminar before the event.

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Route instructions are given out one minute before the start, and are provided as either a time, or target average speed, as well as a distance, and direction of turn. Sometimes they are straightforward; other times, organizers challenge teams by obscuring the instructions in puzzles to be decoded before instructions can be delivered to the driver.

The goal is to drive to a target time. Too slow and you're assessed penalty points, too fast and heavy penalties are applied to help discourage speeding. Teams leave headquarters in one-minute intervals and if all goes well, should travel approximately one minute apart through the entire event.

Along the route, surprise checkpoints (often called controls) require the team to stop and have their arrival time logged, to be scored against the target time. Each control acts as a reset, meaning penalty points earned at one control cannot be reduced by driving faster or slower in the next section. The goal is to finish the rally with a score of zero.

Run in darkness along snow-covered back roads, the Rallye Des Neiges presents the added challenge of staying on time when grip is limited. Though rules require average speeds to be no more than 90 per cent of the posted speed limit, twisty road sections present a challenge for modern cars equipped with winter tires. Our team's biggest challenge, though, would be math.

To help make heads and tails of the math, Nick installed a rally computer in the car. The upside is that the computer does much of the work. Nick simply punches in the instructions, and a drivers display tells me if I should slow down or speed up. The downside is that the computer forces us into the expert class.

We also face the difficulty of both having what's known as a driver personality. On the most successful rally teams, you have a navigator and a driver who stick to their respective roles, building experience with the different challenges each faces. Though Nick and I have completed approximately 15 navigational rallies on competing teams, neither of us had previously sat in the navigator's seat.

Nick also has four years in performance rally under his belt, and is the 2010 Ontario champion, but the ability to go flat out in a performance setting means little in navigational rally. This was our second event as a team, and in the first, we had finished 37th out of 37 teams. We were looking for redemption.

Somewhere along the 260-km route, we encountered a problem. We had stopped at the end of an ET, waiting for our time to start the next average-speed section. The computer was telling us it was time to go, but the expert team ahead of us wasn't budging.

Common advice given to newcomers is to "run your own rally," rather than follow another team. We decided to go against that advice. The team in front of us had plenty of experience, was running in expert class, and were equipped with not just one, but two rally computers. Starting before the other team would likely mean heavy penalties for arriving early at the next control. Instead, we watched them drive off, counted down our minute interval and started the next set of instructions, Nick adjusting the computer to add in an extra minute.

As Nick worked with the instructions to try to figure out our issue, I drove to the minute, eyes peeled for the next checkpoint. Calling out crossroads as I drove, Nick would use the information to confirm we were still on route. Twice we overshot a turn when I forgot to call out a street name. Doubling back meant time lost.

To help keep things safe, checkpoints are typically timed to the minute when road conditions are challenging. Though you want to arrive as close as possible to the top of your minute, you have the full 59 seconds to get to a control without penalties. Other controls are more tightly timed in tenths of a minute, shortening penalty-free windows to just six seconds. One second early, and you're penalized a full minute. Organizers liaise with local law enforcement, in this case, La Sûreté du Québec, to make sure the event is deemed safe and legal.

Nick and I arrived at the control, unsure of whether we were a minute late or on time, but relieved to know that having reached the checkpoint, those were now problems of the past to be scored, but not to affect the section ahead. As the night continued, we stayed on the road, on the route and mostly on time, zeroing many of the checkpoints, but struggling with the math on others.

After five hours of driving with no breaks, we pulled into the finish - a Tim Hortons parking lot - and submitted our time card to scoring. Nothing was left but to wait.

About an hour later, once all teams had arrived and results calculated, scores were announced. We had earned our redemption, scoring just 5.5 points over 23 controls, enough for fifth place overall in a field of 29 cars.

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