'79 POR From the Driver's Seat

by Tim Winker
from DOWNSHIFTS, newsletter of the Twin City Rally Club, February 1980.

What's the big deal about the P.O.R? Sure it's got an exotic name... "The Marchal Press On Regardless - the Oldest, Meanest, Toughest Rally in America" sounds very macho and all that. That alone should indicate it's going to be rough out there, right? Not at all like the Europeans name their rallies: the Acropolis, the Monte Carlo, the East African Safari, the London-to-Sydney Marathon. But which events are really tougher, huh?

Cover of TCRC Downshifts, 2/80. A lot of Twin Cities rallyists have run the POR in the past. Pat Herbert ran once, Keith Klein beat up a Corvair on it on year, John Dymond ran it in his infamous Z-28. Don Andrews has run POR five times and was a finisher twice! So what's the big deal about Bob Nielsen and me running our cars at POR?

Simple, it's now part of the SCCA Pro-Rally series. Its gone big-time with an international sponsor and prize money. And the Pro series even has hero drivers and factory teams. We were going to be a part of that "big-time".

Since most of you know how I get things done, I won't bore you with the details of finishing my car, the renouned Comic/Ozzie Datsun 510, at the last minute. Nielsen, his co-driver, Tom Nelson, and their crew along with my co-driver, Brian Jacobson, and several others left the Twin Cities early in the evening with plans to catch some sleep in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. I didn't get on the road until Midnight Thursday, hoping to get to Houghton, Michigan, in about nine hours. En route, Mark Strohm (tow car driver, Saab mechanic and sometime Datsun engine rebuilder) managed to miss a lot of deer, while Bruce Weinman (Comic Ozzie crew) kept him awake with tales of ice racing and the Targa Minnesota and an endless Leon Redbone tape. I tried to sleep in the back of the Volvo tow car, but wasn't too successful.

After arrival in Houghton, we cleaned the car out and passed Tech, despite some minor details:

  1. "...too many lights." Seven altogether, actually. The rulebook says "maximum of four auxiliary lights" which some rookie inspector took to mean no more than six total. The 510 had four as original equipment, which should mean 4 + 4.
  2. "...shoulder strap angle isn't right." It was almost 90 degrees when you were sitting, just like it says in the rulebook, but it isn't when there is no one in the seat.
  3. "...back up light should be connected to the transmission" Our back-up light was a driving light mounted to the rear bumper. We had wired it to a dash mounted switch so as not to blind following drivers if we needed to reverse.
Brian and his group hadn't showed up by noon so we started to panic. Turns out they'd slept late in Rhinelander. Placing my second favorite personal possession (the car) in the hands of my crew, I went off to find some sleep. Unfortunately, there wasn't much sleep to be found on a Friday afternoon (next time we get a room with some sleep in it, OK?). Long about 5 PM there was a driver's meeting where the rallymaster went over the changes in the route book, and told us about a paved stage, and a stage called "Mandan Road". He was evidently trying to shake us up. He was succeeding.

The Nielsen/Nelson Saab 96-V4 All the competitors lined their cars up by starting order and at 6 PM the fire sirens went off, the local High School band played "So long, it's been good to know ya" and we all paraded out of town, right down the main streets of Houghton and Hancock at 50 MPH... with a Police Escort! The sidewalks were crowded with Finns and college students trying to figure out "Why?".

All the cars awaited their actual out-times at a scenic overlook above Hancock, and I took a few moments to size up the Seed 4 competition. We were car #32 (I'm still trying to figure out how we got that low a number); car #33 was a fast looking Dodge Colt from Indiana, #34 was Garry Henderson in a factory sponsored Jeep (Garry's dad, Gene, won the POR for Jeep in '72 and was national Pro Rally champ in '74). Then there was Paul Lein's well prepped Olds Cutlass; that sucker was so fast it later won a stage outright! After that was the second factory IH Scout, and Jon Woodner in the other factory Triumph TR-8. So while Brian was off visiting, I was trying to remember where I'd put my clean underwear.

Marchal ad from the back of the '79 POR program We finally arrived at SS1 and who should be checking us in but Rip Edmundson from Rochester, Minnesota, with Dave Fellman flagging everyone off. What luck, familiar faces! Fellman counted us down, "5... 4... 3... 2... 1... GO!" and we were off.

Course following was fairly easy. There had been a light snowfall since the top of the page, so we were mostly following every one else's tracks. Then came the first obstacle, a Saab stalled in a mudhole. Everyone else had run over several small trees to get past, so we did too. Then I saw lights in my mirrors, coming up fast. It was the Colt. I saw a wide spot and moved over to let him by, only to discover a lone tree dead ahead. A potential headline for this article flashed through my mind, "Comic Ozzie Team Out On Leg One". Then the pattern of lights changed, there were some rustling noises and a bump under the car, but we were still moving. We had run over the sucker! After finishing the stage, Brian surveyed the damage: bent light bar, a crease in the front valence, but nothing serious.

On the transit to SS2, we saw Tom Tolles' Volvo parked on the side of the road. He'd had tow flat tires already and only one spare.

Stage Two was much wider and faster than SS1. Henderson's Jeep flew by us with no trouble. Stages Three and Four were relatively uneventful, SS5 was another slow and rough romp through the woods. At the first service area, Bruce Weinman and Wes Christopherson were ready to winch our crooked light bar back into shape, but I had them hook a chain to the bar and to the tow car. I backed up rapidly, bending the bar into worse shape. It was, however, more useable, allowing better access to the adjusting nuts. Some tape to hold the lens on the Super Oscar driving light and we were off for SS6.

Stage Six... Mandan Road.... The note in the route book said, "This road eats rally cars for snacks." They weren't kidding! It was the kind of "scary" parents use to keep unruly children from misbehaving. There were basketball sized rocks sticking up from the ground, puddles twenty feet across and a foot deep, ruts and streams cutting across the road at weird angles. Much of Mandan Road is just a blur in my memory. Occasionally we'd see a flare, then a dead car. There was even a rusty old Ford carcass that looked like it had been there for years, kind of like those skeletons you see in the desert. I do recall that the 510's engine started to miss after the umpteenth puddle and we had to let it idle awhile several times to let the electrics dry out a bit. Crossing the line of the finish control we encountered a Colt off in the ditch, like a trusty steed that had collapsed and could go no further. The Dick Turner/Tom Grimshaw IH Scout was parked across from the timing car. Turner said the whole front had give out - tire, wheel and hub, and he planned on spectating for awhile. The worker at that control also mentioned that another worker had gotten a 4WD stuck on the way to the control. Mandan Road was actually two stages of about 12 and 6 miles respectively, so we still had a ways to go. The second part wasn't quite as bad, but that's like saying on "Beach Party" movie is better than another. Eleven of the 68 cars that started the rally were swallowed by Mandan Road alone.

Following Mandan came the Brockway Mountain stage, a paved road that curved up to a ridge overlooking Lake Superior. Unfortunately, the snow had started falling again, and what should have been a very fast stage, wasn't, simply because we couldn't see the road. The next three stages (8, 9 and 10) took us backwards over some of the stages we'd already seen and back to Houghton for the dinner break.

While Wes and Bruce gave the Datsun a once over in the parking lot, Brian, Linda Symanietz and I went to find food. I had my first cup of coffee for the evening; my first in several years as a matter of fact. Coffee and I don't get along all that well, but I forced down quite a bit over the next several hours.

Stage 11 was uneventful, but SS12 nearly put us out of the rally. It was another rough and wet road with lots of mud. A short way into the stage, we were held up by a Rabbit stuck in the mud (a VW, of course). There were a couple of other cars between it and us so the road was very blocked. I parked the 510 on high ground between two puddles (or small lakes) while Brian ran up to help dislodge the Bunny. As he returned the engine on the Datsun succumbed to the many dowsings it had received, and died. We checked and re-checked the electrics and finally it fired up again. A few puddles later it quit once more, but we dried it out enough to allow us to continue.

We picked up 22 minutes of Maximum Permitted Lateness (MPL), which gave us a total of 29; six from Mandan, plus another one somewhere along the way. Now we began to worry about being time-barred, fearing the MPL maximum was 30 minutes. At a start control we picked up another 4 MPL (and 400 road points, ask Brian how that could have happened). If there was a 30 minute time-bar, we were out of the rally, so I took it a little easier on the driving. A few stages later at a stop for gas and coffee (at this point we needed the latter more than the former) we learned the time-bar was 45 minutes. We were still in it! Many of the hot shoes weren't around any more. Both John Buffum in the factory TR-8 and Rod Millen in a Ford Escort had retired around SS12.

In the early morning hours, sleep tried to catch up with us. I started seeing things: trees closer to the road than they actually were, curves that were tighter than they looked, the tunnel of trees ahead suddenly appearing to be a rock wall. About that time we also started catching slower cars: a Saab, a Jeep, another Saab, and the Hairy Canary Mustang.

Pretty soon it was getting light and on another long, very rough stage we encountered the Jim Walker / Ginny Reese Fiat 131 on its side. Both were OK and signaling to keep to the left. Seems they got caught in a rut to the right (the route book said, "RUTS!!!", triple caution), the car went on its side and hit a tree with the roof. Walker was lucky enough to escape with a sore shoulder and a crakced helmet. For the rest of the stage we kept meeting guys in Alitalia/Fiat jackets hiking into the woods to check out the damage.

We made it back to Houghton, where about 10 of us opened a bar for breakfast. Then we all tried to get a few hours of sleep before the Saturday night section. 32 cars out of the 68 starters made it through Friday night. Bob and Tom had moved the Saab up to 18th, the Comic/Ozzie Datsun would be starting in 28th.

During the afternoon, our service crews decided to wash the cars so they'd be presentable for the restart. But when Bruce tried to start the Datsun following the bath, the key broke off in the ignition switch. Another possible headline for this story flashed: "Comic Ozzie DNFs due to broken key." Luckily, among the half-ton of spares I had brought was a spare key.

The Saturday night section was easy compared to the previous night. It was 10 of the stages we had run the night before, omitting the notorious Mandan Road and other difficult stages. Only four cars dropeed out on Saturday, due to getting stuck or just plain fatigue. The C/O Datsun was not without its problems; the idle stuck at about 2,000 RPM due to a busted return spring. It also seemed to pick up a little power in the upper revs, so I didn't complain.

The last few stages I was listening to every little sound, being just a little more careful on every corner until we crossed the final finish control. Bob and Tom had arrived there just before we did, and our crews were waiting to caravan the last transit back to Houghton. We had accomplished what we had set out to do. We had finished the POR!

What a party we had at the motel. Several course workers from Minnesota joined in the festivities and toasts. Luckily we ran out of beer and cheap champagne in a couple hours, so we had a chance to get some much needed sleep. After all, there was more champagne to be drunk at the awards breakfast the next morning.

Taisto Heinonen and John Bellefleur were the winners in the Team Toyota Celica. They finished 20 minutes ahead of Scott Harvey and Randy Graves in Harvey's 4WD Dodge Aspen. Nielsen and Nelson managed to fill 19th position, while the Winker/Jacobson 510 ended up 25th of the 28 finishers.

So that was it, the Marchal Press On Regardless. The organizers and the city of Houghton did a fantastic job of setting up a challenging course and accommodating the competitors. According to press reports, the '79 POR was one of the toughest and best rallies on the Pro-Rally circuit. If that's true, I hope I'm not disappointed with the next Pro-Rally I run.

The Story of the 1979 POR.

Official Results of the 1979 POR

Return to Wink Timber's ProRally Photo Pages.