New England Forest Rally – Emergency Training Ground
Imagine you’re called upon to use your radio skills to help your community in an emergency. Here’s the scenario you’re faced with:
You and four other radio operators are deployed to an area with no cell phone coverage and no services. A town has been cut off from civilization by some natural disaster and you need to collect and transmit valuable data. You’re tasked with taking everything you need to communicate for hours on end in any weather.
Your most important job is to record data on a minute-by-minute basis that could save someone’s life. You need to be able to hear your team members and they need to hear from you. Your group may be spread out in an area as large as twenty square miles. Your notes must be perfect. Rain, heat, dust, and darkness can’t hinder you.
It gets more complex. You need to transit miles across bumpy dirt roads to this location, set up your equipment in the open with no shelter, work for a few hours and then quickly break down because now the local authorities decide your skills are needed at another emergency site.
You and your team are expected to pack up all your gear and travel to the second, and possibly a third, location and be set up at a specified time. You can’t be late. People’s lives are at stake. You must be able to communicate at these unknown locations no matter the weather or any other conditions. You might do this for twelve or more hours for two or more days.
How would you hone your outdoor radio skills to be able to do all of the above? I do it every summer at the New England Forest Rally (NEFR).
What is the New England Forest Rally?
The NEFR is a two-day automotive rally that unfolds on both asphalt and dirt logging roads of Western Maine and Northern New Hampshire. It’s sanctioned by the American Rally Association and happens in July of every year. Professional drivers from across the world come to race with local people like you that want to drive fast.
Do They Race in the Rain?
Whatever weather Mother Nature serves up is what everyone deals with. It can be rainy and cool or blistering hot and humid. Bugs of all types are always present and plentiful. Dust is a given – lots and lots of dust.
What Kind of Cars Are in the Race?
This two-day event features high-performance race cars that might zoom down narrow roads at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. Cars drifting around corners, going airborne over jumps and creating giant clouds of dust are commonplace. It’s action-packed and you’re guaranteed to come away from the NEFR, or a similar rally, with a sense of enormous accomplishment.
Who are the Race Drivers?
The NEFR has an eclectic mix of world-class drivers like Travis Pastrana, David Higgins, and Ken Block. You can even race in the event yourself if you can produce a car that contains all the safety equipment and you pay the entrance fee. You don’t have to have a huge sponsor like Subaru, Ford, or Maxxis behind you.
Here’s a video I shot in 2017 of the winner of the event, Travis Pastrana. Listen to his engine RPMs spike at 0:17!
How Many Races Happen in Two Days?
Over the two days, there are no less than 13 individual races. Rally organizers call them stages. The stages may range in length from 4 to 16 miles long.
Are the Rally Cars Special?
The rally cars are special. But it gets more complex. The race cars must be street legal and they have to transit across public roads at legal speed limits in a tight time window from one stage to the next. Failure to make it to the next stage on time causes a driver or team to lose points.
What Do Radio Operators Do?
As an amateur radio operator, your job is to create and maintain a vital safety communications net over each stage. The drivers, teams, race organizers and spectators need your skills so they can get help in the event of a crash or breakdown.
Where are Radio Operators Positioned?
Radio operators are placed at the start and finish lines and at other strategic locations along each stage. Each operator must be able to hear the start-line operator and log accurately the sequence of the car numbers as each car zooms away from the starting line.
As each car passes an operator, she/he needs to log the car sequence number, the number of the car printed on the doors, and the time it passes. I’m sure you can see the importance of this in case cars begin to pass a location out of sequence. An out-of-sequence car could mean the missing car has crashed and been swallowed up by the deep forest.
The accurate logs allow the race officials to determine where the missing competitor might be in the case other drivers have not reported a car in trouble.
What Equipment Does a Radio Operator Need?
I’ve worked the NEFR for no less than five years. It’s one of my favorite public service events because of the high-octane thrills and the challenges.
I feel there’s a good, better and best way to equip yourself should you want to come join the fun.
It’s possible to be an effective operator using just a regular handheld radio. You’ll need every bit of your five watts and a quarter-wave 2M antenna would be ideal. This past year I worked with an operator from Massachusetts that had a Chinese HT and a 6-inch-long rubber antenna. Surprisingly he was able to do very well with that setup.
In just about every location you’re at on a stage at the NEFR, you’ll probably have access to a nearby tall tree. I feel it’s better to connect your HT to a roll-up j-pole antenna made from common 300-ohm feed line. If you can make one from 450-ohm ladder line, it will probably perform a little better.
You can use a simple water bottle to get a thin string up into a tree branch. Use this string halyard to quickly pull up your j-pole. This antenna up 25 or 30 feet in the air will give you an enormous advantage.
The best setup, in my opinion, is to have a mobile radio in your car or truck that’s got 50 or more watts of power. It’s vital this radio has cross-band repeater functionality. Often you need to be standing away from your parked car or truck to be in a safe position and have great visibility of the race course.
My Yaseu FT-8900 has this simple magical cross-band repeat feature that allows me to use very low power on my HT set at a 70-centimeter frequency going into the 8900, but the mobile radio blasts out my signal on the 2M stage frequency so all can hear. With my HT set on low power, it sips juice from its battery so I know I’ll have power all day long.
If you pair this higher-powered mobile radio with a tall antenna in a tree or mast support near the truck, you’ll be heard and will hear everything.
Do Radio Operators Have to Set Up and Takedown?
The second day of the NEFR is always a test. There are at least three radio teams and the team you’re assigned to may have to work three different stages on the same day.
You might meet at 6:30 am and begin to drive 50 miles to get to where you need to set up. After that stage is complete, you’ve got to hurry and break down all your equipment, load up and move to relocate to the next stage. I’ve worked thirteen hours straight on certain days. It’s fun but exhausting.
Operators and other stage workers caravan together as they move to the next stage and it’s quite exciting.
Do Accidents Happen at the NEFR?
Yes, accidents happen and some can be serious. Ken Block’s car caught on fire and was completely destroyed in the 2018 NEFR.
Some are so serious that they make national news. You could have been the radio operator who called in the Ken Block car fire that happened at the NEFR in 2018. This incident made the national news.
Local towns provide ambulance services in case a crash goes wrong.
What’s In It For You
If I’ve not already answered that subliminal question roiling around in your head, “What’s in this for me Tim? Why should I go out and battle the dust and bugs?”, then I’ll finish with this.
Not only do you get a swell event t-shirt that commemorates your service and sacrifice, but you also get to meet some very interesting fellow radio operators from around the region. You can walk up and converse with world-class rally drivers that travel from around the world to race on these epic gravel roads.
But wait, there’s more! If you’re lucky enough to get assigned to the epic Aziscohos stage like I was, bring your bathing suit! Just 1.3 miles from the start line is a hidden jewel of a stream with three or four personal swimming holes about the size of a hot tub.
This stage is normally run twice with a three-hour break between the two races. That’s plenty of time to get in a great relaxing swim or break out your outdoor HF radio and make a few quick QSOs like I did.
If you need further encouragement to come join the fun, feel free to reach out to me. If you live somewhere other than the Northeast USA, believe me there are rally races like the NEFR very close to where you are. Just go online and look for them. I guarantee you they need your skills and you’ll not regret going.