I’m lucky to have a great relationship with my dad.
So when I got the nod to represent AutoGuide.com in the 2017 Mazda Adventure Rally, I knew exactly who I wanted to bring along. As much as the event is predicated upon fun first and foremost, it’s incredibly important to pick a partner that you’re not going to hate by the end of it.
Think of the rally like a three-day version of The Amazing Race for auto journalists, only instead of competing for personal accolades you’re doing so in the name of charity. Rather fittingly, very few of the challenges along the way take place outside the car you’re confined to as you cover hundreds of miles — about 600 of them this year — in a location that’s not disclosed until the final days before departure.
Understandably then, there’s a reasonable risk of resentment building between teammates. Which is why I chose to compete alongside my dad. We’ve survived 2,500-mile road trips together — though some flooded back roads in North Dakota nearly changed that — and so I had no reason to doubt whether we would make it through this event unscathed. He’s both a father and a friend, and the most supportive guy I know. But there was little time for sentiment; we had a rally to run.
In the four-year history of the Mazda Adventure Rally, the folks responsible for planning the event have consistently kept it veiled in secrecy. Details like where it will take place or which vehicle is involved are withheld for as long as possible. This year was no different, with Mazda informing us just days before it was set to get underway that we would be heading to the Muskoka region north of Toronto.
When it came to the chariot of choice for the event, we were left guessing until the very last minute. It didn’t take much deductive prowess to narrow it down to either the 2017 Mazda CX-5 or Mazda MX-5 Miata RF, given the newness of both of them. My gut was telling me it had to be the hardtop roadster for its fun-factor alone, but there was no way to be sure.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Review
The speculation about which it would be continued well into the morning of Day 1. Gathered at a hotel near Toronto’s airport, all 10 teams participating in the event were fraternizing cautiously but cordially. Rumor quickly began to spread that someone spotted a smattering of CX-5s somewhere outside the hotel. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little relieved.
I had driven the Miata RF just two weeks prior, and it didn’t take long to learn that its cozy confines weren’t enough to comfortably accommodate my 6-foot-4 frame. That my dad stands 6-foot-3 and is built like a linebacker surely wouldn’t work to our advantage in such a small space. And so our hearts sank just a little when our rally master revealed that we would be spending the next three days in the Miata RF.
Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign
The first leg of the journey spanned 80 miles (130 kilometers) or so, and we were given a little more than two hours to get to our destination. We were also given a handful of tasks to complete along the way that tested teams’ collective attention to detail. Stopping to check or re-check the wording on a sign — did that say ‘snowplow’ or ‘snow plough?’ — quickly cut precious minutes from the time allotted for the leg, putting us perilously close to a points penalty.
The second section of the day covered about the same distance, with plenty more sign-spotting along the way. It was also chock-full of the types of tight twists and turns that any Miata, RF or otherwise, is made for. With the six-speed manual gearbox at my disposal and the traction control system disabled, the unpaved roads provided plenty of opportunities to get sideways. The car’s cabin may be tiny, but the perfect 50/50 weight balance engineers achieved with the addition of the retractable roof made for the ideal distraction.
The collective mood of participants was far less tense at the end of Day 1, with a combination of revelling and reassessment as teams decided whether they underestimated any of their foes. As scoring was announced Team AutoGuide.com breathed a collective sigh of relief. We had netted 17 out of a possible 20 points to put us in third place — a decent showing for a pair of rally rookies. It also gave us a better understanding of what we were up against.
Smiles for Miles
Day 2 brought with it some new challenges — and not all of them were found in our route book. The charm of driving with the top tucked away had long since worn off, which meant dealing with the lack of headroom head-on. My only option was to slouch and slide forward in the seat to avoid the type of spinal compression that can result from driving fast down a rutted road in a car two sizes too small.
Along with more — not to mention more difficult — sign-spotting challenges, we were also tasked with finding a local landmark using a photo as our only clue. To prove we found it we had to take a photo of our own with our car parked in front of the undisclosed building. We familiarized ourselves with the photo but decided we weren’t going to encounter it until later in the day. Apparently we weren’t the only ones that made the assumption.
As we rounded a sweeping corner I glanced to the right and there it was: The Bala Bay Inn. We pulled into the parking lot and not one of the handful of teams that left before us were there. Knowing that we were right in the middle of the pack and that the rest of the teams would be along shortly, I parked our car behind a front-end loader just in time to watch four other teams cruise past without a clue. We snapped our photo and set back out on our way.
ALSO SEE: 2017 Mazda CX-5 Review
In addition to staying on the lookout for signs, the afternoon section brought with it a pair of additional challenges that were sure to test teams’ discipline. First up was a fuel economy challenge that required us to burn as little gas as possible as we cruised through Algonquin Provincial Park. Points would be awarded to the teams that consumed the least.
We knew our collective mass meant we had little chance of earning points here, but we still managed a respectable 41 mpg (5.7 L/100 km) over the course of 65 miles (105 kilometers) or so of driving. Even more impressive is that not one but two teams were able to achieve a ridiculous 49 mpg (4.8 L/100 km), though they did so by cruising well below the speed limit. For those keeping score at home, the highway rating of a manual version of the car is 33 mpg (7.1 L/100 km).
Encompassing the fuel economy challenge and beyond throughout that afternoon was a distance challenge that awarded points to teams that traveled the same distance as the baseline runs conducted by rally organizers. That meant no turning around to double-check the signs we still had to spot during the rest of the day; we had to get it right the first time. And it was when our scores from the day were announced that we kicked ourselves the hardest. An extra 100 meters, or the distance we traveled when we stopped at a coffee shop, cost us an extra point — not to mention a spot in a three-way tie for third in the overall standings.
Still, things were looking alright for Team AutoGuide.com two days into the event. We had nabbed 27 points out of a possible 32 for a total of 44 points. With the first-place team only four points ahead with a total of 48, we were still in it.
A Sprint to the Finish
Setting out on the third and final day of the 2017 Mazda Adventure Rally, we knew we had to be pretty close to flawless if we were going to pull out a podium finish. There were fewer sign-related challenges this time around, but our navigation skills were put to the test early. While we relied on detailed maps and GPS systems during the previous days’ routes, the morning of Day 3 left us with a very vague map to find our way. It also didn’t start as smoothly as our first two days.
If my dad’s poor eyesight wasn’t bad enough, the longer he stared at the map the more his motion sickness took hold. My frustrations boiled over for a brief moment as I was forced to stop the car to look at the map myself. We weren’t stopped for long, though, and we were able to get things straightened out after only one missed turn.
The morning of Day 3 also felt far more like a race. The thing you may not know about automotive journalists is that most of them wish they were race car drivers. Naturally then, timed events bring with them an extra dose of competitiveness. As we turned onto the hilariously named Butter & Egg Road, I was overcome by that very spirit. A thin layer of snow and ice had formed overnight, but it did nothing to slow us down.
We boogied into small towns in the area and made our required stops — running into craft breweries to buy some non-consumable souvenirs — before heading back out on the road to spot more signs or make sense of what was depicted in the partial photos we were provided. It was a whirlwind day to end a whirlwind event.
When it was all said and done we collected an additional 24 points on Day 3 for a total of 68 points — seven points behind the first-place team and just one behind third. So there you have it; Team AutoGuide.com didn’t win this year’s Mazda Adventure Rally, but I wouldn’t say we lost either. And if I could do it all over again you know who’d be sitting right there beside me.