12 April 2016

Crashing, rebuilding and inspiring

Rally racing is a sport like no other. It is built on peoples’ backs who love the sport so much that they perform on-the-fly zip-tie and spray paint repairs while living off of cheap hot dogs and couch-surfing just so they can afford entry fees. Knowing that there is no financial return in the end, they are driven by passion. And whether someone is a dedicated spectator, mechanic or driver, anyone would offer the shirt off of their back if it means helping a team finish.

Tabitha Lohr entered the rally world in late 2010 while helping a local Rally driver, Matthew Marker, with his sponsorships and marketing. Sadly, Marker passed away in April, 2011 while competing in the Oregon Trail Rally. Marker’s accident and untimely passing inspired Cody Loveland, one of Marker’s close friends and sponsors, to pursue a life-long dream and race Pikes Peak in his honor.

But racing Pikes Peak isn’t a solo endeavor and thus Lohr joined Loveland by co-driving with him. Avoiding and negotiating hazards such as rough terrain, blind turns, cliffs, trees and junctions are among a driver’s responsibilities and thus they depend heavily on their co-driver’s instructions and notes. Every road surface and weather condition must be mastered, and enduring long hours over hundreds of miles requires Herculean stamina.

Seeking to learn more about co-driving, Lohr co-drove in SnoDrift 2012 in Gaylord, Mich. for Tyler Witte, a driver from Ohio. It also helped her prepare for the Pikes Peak event later that year. Throughout the first Pikes Peak event, the tenacious team displayed grit and a strong spirit while overcoming multiple challenges throughout the week. Although it was Loveland and Lohr’s rookie year, they completed one of the toughest motorsport events in the world. This accomplishment was especially amazing because seat-time before the event was limited due to delays building the car.

Additionally, Loveland launched them off the mountain at 60 mph on the second day of practice. Lohr was hospitalized with spinal and rib injuries while Loveland repaired the car overnight. Both teammates proved their dedication by returning to the grid the following day, catching future sponsors’ attention. Unfortunately, as of 2013, Pikes Peak banned co-driver participation, but Lohr didn’t let this stop her from returning to the seat.

Lohr joined driver Tracey Gardiner from North Providence, R.I. in her family-owned and operated team, Tag Rally Sport. Together the two talented women and their 2007 Toyota Yaris hatchback gained experience and followers as one of the few all-girl rally teams.

One of Lohr’s greatest rallying memories is from the February, 2014 Rally in the 100 Acre Wood. There is a monumental jump at this event called the Cattle Guard that allows cars to achieve some incredible air. It is a well-known spectator area that attracts lots of media coverage, and Gardiner, who had run the event before, debated hitting the jump at full speed, risky to the hundreds of spectators and potentially damaging to the car.

Lohr called out the landmark as they approached. It was in Gardiner’s hands. Lohr recalls, “She nailed it! I felt her put the accelerator to the floor, and we literally FLEW over this jump. Being weightless with all four wheels in the air was such an awesome feeling! I will never forget those brief milliseconds, [we were] invincible.”

Rally racing includes many triumphs, but also obvious ample risk. Tabitha’s worst crash occurred in May 2014 at the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally. Everything was going well on the rally’s second day. The sun was beaming, and Gardiner and Lohr were looking at a second-in-class finish. Lohr’s notes were flowing smoothly, correctly and on pace.

Reflecting on that moment, Lohr said, “I called out an R3 (Right, semi slow corner) and noticed she wasn't slowing down. So I yelled it a few more times. And realized we weren’t going to make the corner as planned. I remember seeing the tree coming up fast. Then it was gone. The car went dark, and I was upside down. Again. And again. And again.”

The team hit a small sandy hill and flipped into the air, rolled, struck a 20-foot tall tree with the car’s roof, and rolled into a ditch hitting more trees on the way. Gardiner pulled the emergency brake upon crashing to earth, preventing the car from tumbling backwards down the huge hill behind them. “I couldn't see much,” Tabitha says, “but I reached over and grabbed Tracey's arm, yelling her name to make sure she was conscious. She had blood on her hands — they were full of glass from every window being broken out.”

Lohr recalls the pain hitting her once other drivers arrived at the scene. They immediately called an ambulance for the two racers. “I wiggled my toes for sensation, and was thinking it was just my pelvis that was fractured. After being pulled out of the car and carried up the wooded hills on a backboard, Tracey hopped in the ambulance with me for the bumpy 45-minute drive down the mountains to the Hospital.” Lohr had major strains and bruising on her neck, back and thighs and Gardiner was pulling glass out of her hands for about two weeks.

Car damage was mainly just cosmetic; all of the glass and all but one body panel was replaced, along with a headlight and some wiring. The insanely tough roll cage by Nameless Performance probably saved their lives — the car body literally crumbled around the cage.

Then, the road to recovery started, only making their deep strength and dedication to the sport even more apparent — another triumph for the team.

Lohr’s severe pain lasted for about three months and her schedule included frequent chiropractor visits to reset her rib cage. They missed a few events, but the car was also being rehabilitated. Mostly recovered and buckling down in September, Lohr worked out daily and got right back in the co-driver seat. With the car repaired and the accident behind them, Gardiner and Lohr competed together at the Lake Superior Performance Rally in October 2014. They placed second in class, and brought home second in class overall for the Rally America National Championship.  As if that wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, they were also the only all-female team to compete in the Nationals that year.

Being a woman who rally races does include odd challenges: Events rarely have women’s bathrooms and nearly all race gear is fitted for men, so good luck trying to use a non-existent restroom wearing a race suit. But the best part of being a woman in a “man’s world,” Lohr explains, is seeing all of the young girls they have inspired — young women that love cars and racing who, until recently, didn’t have relatable role models. “The best feeling is signing their shirts at Fan Fest (Parc Expose), hugging them and letting them sit in our race car.  I love seeing their faces light up when I tell them that I once was in their shoes, staring at car magazines with my dad and wanting to be out on the track. I leave them with the inspirational and true words of: ‘If I can do it, I promise you can too.’”

Lohr considers the friendships gained, endless automotive knowledge and travel an incredible experience. But the racing is the best part:

“Sitting at the start-line, counting down the last few minutes until we transit to stage 1, I feel like my heart is going to explode. Honestly, I want to vomit; the nerves and adrenaline are making me grind my teeth. The exhaust is rumbling the car, and the smell of race gas floats back from the Super Production cars ahead of us. I can't help but wonder, ‘what the hell am I thinking?!’ But, we are waved forward to start the event, and all nervousness is instantly gone. At the start of each stage, I check my harnesses, get my footing and elbows tight, take a deep breath and yell ‘GO!’  Throughout the stage, I focus on my timing for each note, listen for my driver’s shifts and ‘lifts’, and get us to the finish as fast as possible. And when you see that flag at the finish-line, the sense of accomplishment is overwhelming.”

Looking forward, Lohr will be expanding her knowledge of driving conditions, with tarmac training, and hopes to get seat time in some Southern USA Time Attack events. She’ll also continue developing her driving skills, and working as a marketing subcontractor for multiple companies.

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