Durhamites represent at Monte Carlo rally

Feb. 07, 2014 @ 09:25 PM

The sun already has set over the winding French countryside, and the 1961 Alfa Romeo the color of limoncello is almost out of fuel. Not many places are open, and the ones that are don’t take American credit cards.

About 314 teams participated this January in the 17th Rallye Monte Carlo Historique, a week-long challenge for throwback European cars to maintain speed and their drivers and navigators to maintain street smarts on fourteen fixed courses.

Only three of the teams included Americans. Car No. 295, the 1961 Alfa Romeo Giulietta TI, had Duke neurology professor Don Sanders as its navigator.

The 1961 was one of the oldest Alfa Romeos at the rally and the most popular model of Alfa Romeo after World War II, with a 1300cc engine, a design that seats 5 comfortably, and a speed that handles well on mountain roads.

“I came away absolutely enthralled by the car, just a magical little car,” Sanders said.

Sanders’ longtime friend from the U.K., Jon Dooley, served as driver. They met when Sanders served as an Air Force physician in the early 1970s in England, where they both participated in an Alfa Romeo club. 

The duo competed this January with millionaires using NASCAR-worthy rigs to humble husband-and-wife rally enthusiasts from around the globe.

Four men served as the “pit crew” for car No. 295. Dr. Mark Skeen, a Duke neurology associate professor, and Cliff Cox, The Durham Herald-Sun’s press manager, were part of that team, which followed behind in a 1992 Mercedes SUV, surrounded in their car seats by four spare tires, 10 gallons of fuel, snacks, water and spare parts and tools.

They were called to the line of auto duty due to their backgrounds in car mechanics and racing.

Skeen, who worked at a service station in high school and has worked on cars and raced them ever since, is a BMW man who loves the unexpected speed associated with the little “tin-can” cars. Tongue-in-cheek, he said he tolerated racing an Alfa Romeo.

Cox used to race motorcycles and open-wheel formula cars, winning a championship at only 17 years old. As he described the Monte-Carlo rally, “It’s one of the most dangerous, scary things I’ve done.”

The team of two cars would navigate “hairy” roads in the mountains, where the pavement was caked with snow or ice, or both. There’s nothing separating mountain cliff and car if there’s an unexpected turn of the wheel.

Skeen would sit with five gallons of spare fuel in his lap, as the crew, noses in their French maps, tried to navigate through small towns to meet their rally car at the next checkpoint.

“The goal is to walk a fine line when you’re in control versus out of control, and kind of barely crossing that line,” Skeen said. “You never get completely where you can do it best. There’s always more of a challenge left.”

They traveled from Reims, northeast of Paris, to Valence, the first route of the rally, and the trip took them 24 hours. They were completely lost. Stepping out of the car, they’d use the positioning of the moon and Orion’s Belt to gain a sense of direction, and they finally managed to find their way again.

When both cars reunited again, some members wanted to quit in a haze of exhaustion. But after showers, a change of clothes, a dinner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and champagne, and then blissful sleep, they changed their minds the next morning.

In the next days, the team found their groove, pulling off to the side of the road and creating checkpoints, where the lead car duo would refuel on water and chocolate as the crew members wiped the windows, checked the oil and refueled the Alfa Romeo.

“That was the best part of the whole deal, in my opinion, when we were able to pull off the perfect pit stop,” Cox said.

Jaguars to Porsches to Saabs participated in the rally, all normal cars that were transformed for the racetrack. A Porsche and Opel Kadett stayed in the lead until the end.

After a week of being home in the States, they said they have yet to talk plans for the 2015 rally. De-accelerating from the trip needs to happen first.  

“We were thrown together, to the wolves, and we made it to the other end,” Cox said.