Navigation & Communication

Possibly the most difficult element of racing in the remote areas of Baja is navigation and communication. It all seems so straight forward when you are sitting comfortably in your house and you see these GPS units and phones and think “how hard could this be!?” but you quickly are introduced to a world without reception and abusive conditions that don’t help the equation. It doesn’t take long to realize how the instant communication you are used to turns into delayed communication, patience and even complete silence.

How about a little story to start? When racing in 2014 we were navigating by GPS when we saw Skull and Crossbones. There were a number of very difficult areas in Baja, but we had yet to see the skull and crossbones on this course map yet. So we cautiously creep’d over the edge and as the lights shined down we saw a steep section that sloped off camber to the left with a ditch on the left as well. While taking in the full scene and trying to focus on the tight exit to the section that went off to the right, I dragged the brakes and the rear end slid a bit down the fall line. Natural counter steer occurred and boom, we were stuck in the ditch before we knew it.

We radio’d to our crew, silence… We radio’d again and got nothing. We were in a deep hole and the only way out was through our own shovels. So we started digging. Now, if we were home, our crew would see our position on their phone and see that our speed stopped. They would be able to call and know we were out of range. But all of this takes time when there is no internet, no cell data or cell phones. It took nearly more than 10 minutes to just know that we weren’t calling them on our regular check in intervals but they had no idea we were stopped for minutes after that.

Evan and I worked on the car for a bit, we were digging out the middle while building up the surface under the tires. It was hard dirt, tough to dig and we were making slow progress. I don’t know how much time had passed, but suddenly lights showed up over the edge and… boom. It was our chase vehicle ready to yank us out!

So how did they find us? Well, after 20-30 minutes passed they started a plan of action. They called some unfortunate soul in the US with their Satellite phone. That person was able to look up our position on SCORE tracking along with our speed… 0 mph. With this new information they could open up their BFG chase book. The chase book gives text based explanations of how to navigate to different parts of the course. It literally says things like “turn right at the burned chevy pickup.” With this info, they headed in to the closest intersection and traveled briefly to get to us. The whole process took about an hour from the time we stopped to the time they showed up.

So what do you have on the car and how should you use it? First, if you have a question about a section of course. Stop and check it out, it seems like work and feels like wasted time, but it can save you time and energy. The list of technology at your disposal starts with Score tracking devices; these change year to year, but always provide satellite tracking online, this is a one way communication and just pings out your position. You have a radio which typically has a great range and pretty decent clarity. This has access to your team, other teams and weatherman. Then you may have other options: Maybe you have a satellite phone? Garmin now has the InReach and there are other options out there like goTenna.
What should we have done? Well, we should have communicated with our crew first. Send a message on an InReach or using goTenna or a quick call on the Sat phone. In 2014 we did have a satellite phone, but didn’t have any of the other technologies. If we didn’t have any of those we should have pinged the weatherman to relay a message to let them know the situation, we are stuck and our safety is OK. Nothing is scarier for a crew than seeing a 0mph notice and having absolute silence on the other end of the line and few things are safer than making sure someone knows where you are before you get out of the cage and safety gear that you are surrounded by in the race car. The Race team owes it to their crew to provide any info they can. This simple task would take 5 minutes total and would either eliminate the worry in our team and would potentially have saved us valuable minutes on course.

All of this communication should be practiced and developed ahead of time. Relay only pertinent information over the radio. Be clear and concise. It is easy to treat the radio like a telephone. It is definitely not. Where are you? Are you ok? What do you need? Answer these three things. On the receiving end you should relay confirmation of receipt and clear concise answers to the questions. Do not speculate on the radio, discuss off the radio and relay only the pertinent information. As a chase crew, remember, the people you are talking to are currently navigating an offroad course, they are being distracted by this communication in some form, clear and concise will minimize that.

So this brings us to Navigation. Navigation really seems like it should be simple. You have an arrow and a line. You make sure the arrow stays on the line. But the element to navigation that is difficult is redundancy and communication. First, your GPS is taking all the same abuse as the rest of your car, making sure it is secured, making sure all the wiring is done well and has no opportunity for loosening or shorting and even making sure your antenna is screwed on very tight. Everything rattles and everything loosens. When that screen goes black the world looks a lot more confusing and all those little tags and signs are not easy to spot. Considering a redundant system in the car, maybe it is a small handheld device; maybe it is a second unit close to the driver. Either way cover your bases. Make sure you have the appropriate size and speed SD or MicroSD card for your system too… These systems have specs and it is best to follow them. Trust me.

Navigation is only as good as the communication it is delivered by. A codriver and driver need to be on the same page. No hesitation, you are a team. Before you even begin, you need to agree on your descriptions of corners. Do you use Rally note style corners? Do you have a more general form of lefts and rights, indicating when something is sharp or when something is open? Develop your communication for corner descriptors. This is much easier if you are prerunning, but gets a lot more difficult when you are seeing the course for the first time through the GPS. In addition to descriptors you need to have agreement on other elements. If a driver misses a note, what is the quickest way to get that descriptor again? Clearly saying the word “repeat”? This is needs to be discussed before you ever get in the car for the first time. Drivers and Co-Drivers are a team, both is relying entirely on the other in order to be safe and fast. Don’t hesitate, don’t joke, don’t get fussy, communicate what you need and reciprocated communication for your teammate. Attitude, jokes and emotions end when the harness buckles on.

One basic rule for both Navigation and Communication is: Know your systems inside and out. It is everyone’s responsibility to know all elements of your radio, GPS and secondary communication systems. When you need a function is not the time to learn how that function works. You can learn all functions of your radio and GPS by driving around your home town. Get familiar, if someone is new on the team it is equal parts your responsibility to teach and their responsibility to learn. Communication and Navigation are safety elements and need to be treated that way.

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