Tuesday, November 04, 2014

"Time-Speed-Distance" Road Rally

A while back, somebody on a roadgeek Facebook group that I follow posted about an upcoming "road rally", just east of Raleigh, organized by the Tarheel Sports Car Club. The premise: given a set of complicated driving directions, follow the directions as best you can, and pass through each of several checkpoints not in the shortest amount of time, but in a precise amount of time, based on the directed average speed. (According to Wikipedia, these types of rallies are called regularity rallies, or time-speed-distance (TSD) rallies.)

Anyway, this combines three things that I am very good at: following directions, road navigation, and math. Sign me up! Fellow roadgeek Adam will be the driver, I'll be the navigator (since I'm good at math), and Amber will stay home and watch the kids for the day. (This is the kind of thing Amber would enjoy, too, but she encouraged me to go. The rules allow you to bring children under 10 with you, but...no.)

Now, before we begin...when we signed up, we had the option of two different "classes". One where you can use as many aids as you want - including smartphone apps built for the specific purpose of "cheating" in a TSD rally - and one where the only allowable aids are the equipment on your car, pen, and paper. Naturally, we signed up for the second category, a.k.a. the "fun" category. (We also used my wristwatch, which I think was accepted because we had to know what time, to the second, to leave each of the checkpoints. I only used the standard clock, though, not the stopwatch functionality.)

We had no idea what to expect, but the event started by us pulling into a gravel parking lot across the street from a Hardee's in rural Nash County. Doesn't sound sketchy at all, does it? But, several other teams and cars were already there, and so it looked legitimate enough. Turns out, 15 teams entered, including us. Not bad! First up was the competitors meeting, in which they gave us the driving instructions along with some VERY IMPORTANT HINTS (more on those later). Then, starting at 1:30 PM, cars began the rally, one per minute. We were car number 14, so we started at 1:44:

Being the 14th car to go is better than being the first car to go, because it made the timing checkpoints much easier to spot from a distance: we'd always see several other cars there already. The disadvantage is if we're behind on time and get stuck behind another competitor farther ahead, but that only happened to us once. And I think we did it to someone else, too, who made a wrong turn and got stuck behind us. But that's their own fault.

(By the way, this kind of event is very difficult to pull off logistically, if nothing else because you have to staff each of the checkpoints. You need at least a dozen volunteers for something of this scale. They even went so far as to mow the grass at each of the checkpoints! And, of course, putting together a good route and directions takes a lot of work, but I think aspect of it would be fun.)

Here is a sample of the driving directions. Three or four pages like this:

It's not just "turn left on [name of road]", because that would be way too easy to follow on GPS. (Again, we didn't use GPS at all; we did it the hard way.) It's also "turn left after [landmark]", or "take second turn after bridge", or "turn right at STOP". Still, none of it was really that hard to follow as long as you were able to spot the landmarks, but they did throw us some curveballs:
- One direction referenced "Hardee's", but it turns out, this was NOT a Hardee's restaurant. It was a sign with the name "Hardee's" on it (in reference to a construction company or something by the same name). So if you kept cruising down Highway 97 looking for a Hardee's restaurant, then, whoops!
- For the purposes of the rally, dead end streets and dirt roads do not exist. So if you come to a stop sign, and your only two options are "turn left on a dead end road" or "turn right on a road that isn't a dead end road", you have to turn right, and THAT TURN DOES NOT COUNT AS ONE OF THE INSTRUCTIONS. (That last part was one of the things they made clear during the competitor's meeting. Glad we were paying attention!)
- Sometimes the direction was just "Turn". As in, turn at the next available opportunity, where an "opportunity" (this was clearly defined in the rules) means a legal turn on any non-dead end, non-dirt road. And if it just said "Turn", not "Turn left" or "Turn right", that meant it wouldn't be a crossroad; it would just be a left-only or right-only option.
- If a name was on quotes, like "Hardee's", that meant look for it on a sign, and that it wouldn't be the name of a road. ... Or was it? One direction referenced "Ada Taylor", in quotes, except that this WAS the name of a road in this case. Better yet, if you missed the turn, it would take you straight to the next checkpoint...except that you'd get there a few minutes too early. But if you turned down Ada Taylor like you were supposed to, and the instructions that followed, you'd end up right back down the same road again, except now you'll get to the checkpoint on time. Fun, eh?

There was also the average speed component. The directions would say "average 44 mph" or something like that, then a few directions later, give you a new average speed. I was expecting round numbers like "45" or "50", but nope - 42 mph, 36 mph, 47 mph, whatever. Also, the directions also occasionally directed us to pause for 45 seconds or a minute. All this made the timing math much harder to do with pen/paper (easy with a smartphone, but what fun would that be?), but basically I thought of it this way. When traveling at 45 mph, one mile takes you 80 seconds; at 40 mph, 90 seconds. So if the directed average speeds over the last 10 miles were somewhere between 40 and 45 mph, then we should have completed those 10 miles in more than 800 seconds (13:20) but less than 900 seconds (15:00). It was hard to do precise calculations on the fly, but I did my best to give meaningful input to make sure our timing was at least in the ballpark as we approached each checkpoint. (They didn't tell us where the checkpoints would be, by the way.) I think we were slow more often than we were fast, because maintaining an average speed of 45 mph means you have to drive faster than that most of the time, when accounting for stop signs and turns and whatnot. In general, it's best to go faster than you think you need to go, because you can always slow down again before the next checkpoint.

(One side note: the first 10 miles was a "odometer correction section", designed to get you up to speed, and also for you to check your odometer accuracy. Turns out the odometer on Adam's Ford Escape is a bit slow: it read 9.8 miles at the 10.00 mile mark. This info helped some, because some of the instructions referenced a specific mileage.)

Roadgeeking knowledge came in handy, but not as much as I thought it would have: even though the route was 75 miles long, it doubled back on itself multiple times and largely avoided roads that we would know anything about (with the exception of NC Highway 97). In hindsight, this makes sense: a route that revisits the same landmarks multiple times (but with different instructions each time so that it all seems fresh) is a lot easier logistically, because the same people can staff multiple checkpoints without having to drive far. One part of roadgeeking that did come in handy was road signs: where to find four-digit state road numbers on signs, and also what something like "BAILEY 9" might mean. (Those are white signs at intersections that mean "9 miles to Bailey if you turn down that road". A common sight in rural North Carolina.) This brings up another fun "curveball": One instruction was 'turn right at "BAILEY 9" after "45 MPH"'. There were two roads with "BAILEY 9" signage, but only the SECOND one came after a "45 MPH" sign. The first one came after a "35 MPH" sign; turn down that road instead, and a few instructions later, you'd still end up at the next checkpoint...on the wrong side of the road. Penalty! (At least two teams did this.)

Not everyone was able to follow all of the instructions. We know this for a couple of reasons: 1) Someone made a wrong turn in front of us, taking the first left after a bridge instead of the second left (as clearly directed - I mean, how hard can this be?). We didn't let that fool us, though: we were confident. 2) Even though we were the 14th car in line, we beat several cars to most of the checkpoints, despite never passing anybody directly.

The scoring: at each of 6 checkpoints, you get 100 points for each minute that you're early or late. (Points are bad; lowest score wins.) There were also some questions which, if answered correctly, would reduce your score by 50 points. (For example: "To whose memory is this road dedicated?" Look for the "Adopt a Highway" signs. Or, "What do you put a HOTT DOGG in?" We thought we missed that one, until we came upon a cemetery featuring tombstones inscribed with the name "BUNN".)

So...did we win? We don't know! We had to leave the after party early, before all of the scores were tabulated. The organizers said the results would be posted online, but I don't seem them yet. Regardless, I'm very confident we finished top 5 out of 15 (electronic aids or not), at the very least. There's a chance we might have even won the thing. I think we averaged less than 1 minute off per checkpoint, including one checkpoint where we were within 6 seconds of the target time - that's pretty good, right? Doesn't really matter, though, because it was a lot of fun! Great mental exercise for the navigator, too. Apparently they don't have these TSD rallies all that often around here - this was the first one in six years, apparently - but we'll be on the lookout for the next one.

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