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A Beginner's Guide to Rally Pace Notes

Making sense of the chaos.

Andrew TrahanphotographerChris Nelsonwriter

A rally car is flying down a rough and rutted stage road at 100 mph. The car's navigator yells, "Forty, left five minus over crest opens over 40, tightens four plus, into triple caution right four over big jump off camber." The driver gives a quick, understanding nod before another slew of directions spills from the navigator's mouth.

Understand what happened there? Neither do we, and trying to make sense of the written jargon the navigator translated -- 40 L5-/Cr 4+ -> !!!R4/BgJmp oc -- doesn't help. Rally pace notes sound and look complicated, and they are. They're designed to help a rally driver pilot his or her car slightly ahead of his or her own eyes, see around the next corner, and come out unscathed.

Pace notes are complied before race day during a reconnaissance (known as "recce") run. On the initial pass of the recce, which is the first time a team gets a glimpse of what a stage road looks like, the driver dictates a set of notes to the navigator. On the second pass of the recce, the navigator reads the shorthand pace notes back to the driver, checking them for accuracy and making slight adjustments if needed.

The navigator uses jumbled grammar to piece together a list of information that will hopefully help the team win or at least avoid going upside down. Here are some of the symbols a navigator uses when writing pace notes, as well as the meaning behind the useful stuff:

L, R: Left corner ahead, right corner ahead.

1,2,3,4,5,6: The number refers to the severity of a corner ahead. The spectrum goes from 1, referring to a slower, first-gear hairpin, to 6, which refers to a flat-out, sixth-gear sweeper.

+, -: Modifiers that adjust the above numbers slightly, giving the driver more detailed information.

: Opens and tightens, two notations that help describe an upcoming corner's intricacies.

40,50,60 ... 200: Numbers from 40 to 200 represent distance (in yards) between instructions and features on the rally stage road.

&: "And" represents a distance shorter than 40 yards.

->: "Into" represents a very short distance that requires the driver to transition directly from one action to another.

Cr: A "crest" is something you can't see over or a feature that will likely unsettle the car.

Jmp: A "jump" will make the car come off the ground.

/: When you go "over" something, you need to take action while going over or through a rally stage feature.

OC: A corner is "off-camber."

Slippy: Slippery section of road.

Grip: Section of road with a lot of grip.

Care: Difficult road ahead.

!: Caution means there's a higher-than-normal probability there could be a crash.

!!: Double caution means there's a higher-than-normal probability there could be a crash and that crashing will total your rally car.

!!!: Triple caution means there's a higher-than-normal probability there could be a crash that could kill you.

We'd get sick trying to read a book in the passenger seat of car crawling through Los Angeles traffic. A rally navigator reads his or her chicken scratch aloud from a racing seat, complete with a chest-cinching five-point harness, as an overzealous guy or gal in the driver's seat slides a rally car down a thin, dirt road lined with tall, thick trees. Folks say that, in rallying, the navigator is just as important as the driver. We say they're more important and, as hard as it is to believe, crazier.