It starts with a countdown.
"Five, four, three, two, one…"
The engine lets out a squeal as the wheels dig up gravel. In seconds, the Subaru Impreza WRX STI hits peak speed of 210 kilometres per hour as it cruises along a narrow dirt road, whizzing by pine trees.
This is when minutes slow for Alan Ockwell. He instinctively knows how many breaths he has before the next turn or whether there are enough milliseconds to blink. For the next hour and a half, all his senses are focused on his notebook, filled with detailed directions and timing — timing is everything.
While rocking around like rubble in a landslide, he spurts out a non-stop stream of pace notes over the radio headset.
"Short five right keep it in, into five left plus 80."
Even with a helmet on, it's loud. The motor revs and rumbles as Squamish rally-car driver Patrick Richard races through gears. Rocks and pebbles striking the underside of the car mimic the sound of heavy rain on a tin roof.
This is called driving blind. Until mid-2000, rally car drivers never saw the course before they raced it. Now competitors do a once over at a limited speed the day before the big race.
But even with a run-through, it's impossible to remember every switchback, turn, widening and narrowing of the track, slippery section and jump. Ockwell is Richard's eyes for the next 200 kilometres. He delivers precise information on the course a second and a half before the car's wheels hit the features. His accuracy can make the difference in whether North America's top-ranked rally driver reaches the podium.
Ockwell won his first navigational rally at the age of nine. Ockwell has completed more than 70 rallies, the past five years with Richard. He's reached a point where dirt roads seem smooth, speed is irrelevant and Ockwell can tell where the duo are on the course by the movement of his hips in his car seat. He doesn't have to look up.
But he does. At the "slow" points in the race, Ockwell admires the scenery or catches up on life's adventures with Richard. He loves the sense of adventure, seeing remote parts of the world and the challenge.
Co-driving isn't for everyone, Ockwell says from his home in Toronto. In the book Performance Rallying, famous rally car champion Gene Henderson stated that co-drivers share common traits — they're as brave as Dick Tracy, can compute square roots during an earthquake and honestly believe their driver is God.
Being a co-driver, or navigator, is like being a therapist and administrative clerk, Ockwell says. An average workday consists of 14 hours behind the windshield. You have to read the driver's thoughts, know how he or she responds to situations while managing time and quickly processing information. And while rally car drivers get all the fame, their teammates' names often go unrecognized.
This all adds up to an intimidating field, Ockwell acknowledges, and because of that there's a shortage of high-level co-drivers in the industry.
"There are not a lot of people that can ride with Patrick," he says frankly, adding that a iron stomach is also a key ingredient.
A driver must have the utmost faith in a co-driver's directions and a co-driver must respect the driver's abilities, Richard says, while getting ready for a test day at his Rocket Rally Racing headquarters in Squamish.
"You are focused 100 per cent on listening to the co-driver and doing exactly what they say," Richard says.
Richard started racing 25 years ago. In the late '90s, when Richard wasn't on Whistler's ski slopes, he was behind the wheel tearing around the area's backroads. He legitimized his pastime after seeing a rally on television. Six months after his first race, Richard was picked up by Subaru Canada.
"My first co-driver was my buddy Ian McCurdy. We went to our first rally and it was me and my best friend on a closed road and we were allowed to go as fast as we wanted," he says with a flash of a smile.
McCurdy retired in 2002, the year the duo won the Canadian National Championship. Richard's younger sister Nathalie then stepped into the passenger seat. For four years, she directed Richard through twists and turns around the world.
"It was good because she knew what I was thinking and I knew what she was thinking," Richard says.
Nathalie now co-drives for Mitsubishi. In 2011, she held the top spot in the co-drivers' Canadian Championship final standings. Her streak at the top continues, as she holds the record for the most wins as a co-driver in North America, Richard proudly notes.
When his sister left, Ockwell put on the helmet. Next month, Richard will be behind the wheel in Quebec for the three-day Rallye Perce-Neige 2013. Ockwell won't join him.
With a fulltime job as an IT consultant, for the past half a decade all the 30-year-old's vacations have been spent rallying. While he loves the sport, it's a mentally exhausting way to spend a holiday, Ockwell admits. A race wipes you out for a couple of days, he says. Ockwell's considering a break.
Richard has started his worldwide search for his next co-driver. The job description reads something like: nerves of steel, clear annunciation and the ability not to barf.
"There's a lot to it," Richard says. "I tried co-driving and I couldn't do it."