Updated: Aug 10, 2020
Kelsey Stephens is an accomplished Rally codriver and shop owner. She brings us through the responsibilities and fun that come with driving in Rally and how we can support the growth of this sport! Check out Kelsey's YouTube channel in the link below.
Do you drive with a driving association? What region do you belong to? What car do you drive and can you tell us a little about it?
I compete in the American Rally Association as a Co-Driver in a '91 BMW 318is in the Open 2 wheel drive class. It's been swapped up to an M50 and has rally spec Samsonas adjustable suspension. I also drive with the St. Louis Region SCCA in Rallycross in a '91 BMW 325Xi in the Stock All Wheel Drive class.
How long have you been driving in rally? How did you get started? Have you always been a codriver? What do you love about being a codriver?
Back in 2012 I saw a Stage rally for the first time just outside of my hometown. I grew up working on cars but, this was the first time I had ever seen women in race suits. It was kind of my awakening to the fact that women could race. It really inspired me to get into rally specifically. When Calvin and I met in 2016 and went on our first date we hit it off with our shared love of cars and even talked about rally. We started rallycrossing together in 2017. Then, we competed in our first stage rally in March of 2018. Our car # is 723 which is the anniversary of that first date. I have always been a codriver in Stage rally. The excitement of racing down gravel stage roads in beautiful forests can often feel like a dance. Calling notes is almost like music because the timing has to be just right so the driver can process the notes. You often have to deal with intense situations and work under a lot of pressure when problems arise on stage which can be very stressful but exciting.
What are the responsibilities behind being a rally codriver?
In SCCA when folks hear the term "Codriver '' they think of another driver they share the car with. In stage rally, however, the driver and codriver always remain in their respective seats. The codriver, at its roots, is a navigator. Before the rally you can find me creating and studying maps and schedules for the team called 'movement plans’. Since we travel all over the US and race hundreds of miles in remote areas over a couple days we need to plan schedules and routes ahead of time. These schedules and maps help us prepare for many different possibilities since rally can be so unpredictable. Schedules help us coordinate with our crew so they can set up the remote service areas in time to meet us there. Before we begin racing the stages we are allowed to do reconnaissance. This is when we drive the racing stages the day before the race and create pacenotes. During reconnaissance Calvin focuses on the road and tells me what he sees while I write it down in a special shorthand. These notes must be extremely accurate to ensure we can drive as fast as possible into blind corners and crests in the road while also being safe. Once the event starts I must direct the us through given routes between competitive stages and make sure that we arrive at check points on our calculated times to get to the special stages. Once we arrive at the Special Stages I then read our pacenotes as we travel at racing speed down varied loose surface, public roadways.There is a lot of work on every codriver's plate with a goal of creating a smooth race weekend for their driver.
Have you driven any other forms of motorsports? If so, what kept you hooked on Rally?
Almost all of my motorsports experience is with rally in its different forms. I've done Time Speed Distance rallies as a driver and Rallycross. My goal this year is to try some new motorsports experiences starting with a track day.
Sometimes, when I feel like what I do is too crazy I have my rally family to remind me why I love being a codriver! I have made amazing friendships with fellow competitors, organizers, and volunteers that will last the rest of my life.
How do you and your codriver prepare mentally for race day?
Before each event Calvin and I review onboard video from the previous year of racing to familiarize ourselves with the local road conditions. Each day of racing typically begins with what is called "Parc Expose" which is like a car show for the rally cars. Getting to meet with fans really energizes us for the day of racing.
How can someone get started in Rally? Do you have any words of wisdom for someone interested with no experience?
Find a mentor! Rally is full of so many kind amazing people who are open to sharing their passion. If you don't know anyone involved you can also sign up to volunteer at any of the events. This is a great way to begin learning about the sport while getting to meet teams and organizers.
Can you tell us about your BMW repair shop? What started that and what is the passion behind it?
While Calvin was in tech school he developed a passion for BMW's. When he and I met that passion rubbed off on me. He had a dream of running his own shop and so it was a goal we both worked towards together to make it happen.
We understand that you not only own your own shop, but are the Team Manager of your Rally team. What does your day to day look like, to keep that going so successful?
Calvin focuses on running the business and making sure the race car is ready for each rally. To help him do that I set my sights on managing us as a team. Rally is a year round sport which means there isn't much of an "off season for us." I help Calvin track work that needs to be done on the race car and, when I can, get into the shop to help. I'm looking ahead and creating our plans for the next event. I coordinate travel plans with our service crew and team videographer. I work to acquire sponsors for our team. I also manage our social media and assist our videographer with the production of our youtube series.
How was the 2019 season for you and your team? Successes? Challenges? What are your 2020 goals?
2019 was the first season we competed in enough events to be in contention for a season championship. We set a goal of finishing top 10 in our class which we both felt was very realistic. We had big challenges and big thrills! At the New England Forest Rally we busted our oil pan on a rock. Another team, Margret Sharon and Amy Dilks of Frog Racing, flat towed us back with their Princess STI after they had hit a tree earlier in the day. Calvin and the crew stayed up almost all night to JB weld our oil pan back together. The fix was risky but held together and we were still able to finish 4th in class. We never could have finished without the tow from a competitor. At the Susquehanna Trail Performance rally we slid off the road and crashed sideways into a tree. We were ok but the car suffered. We limped through two stages and back to service. The crew was able to patch the car back together during the next 30 minute service so that we were able to finish the rally. Calvin and I both grew so much over the season and our reward was a First in class finish in East Open 2 Wheel Drive. It was an incredible season competing with my best friend, business partner, and team mate!
Hopefully in 2020 we can earn ourselves more podium finishes, finish the build on our new rally car, and win another championship title!
Do you find yourself facing any challenges in Rally based off of your gender?
Once we are in the car we are all equals. Occasionally, I meet someone who has the assumption I just come to race stuff because my boyfriend dragged me along. After just a few minutes talking with them and pointing out all the other Women who came to compete in one of the toughest forms of motorsports in the world I can usually turn those assumptions right around.
How is the participation of women in rally? What do you think is important to increase participation? How can we help?!
One of the reasons I was drawn to rally was the fact that women have historically been a part of the sport at the top level. Most notably In 1981 Michèle Mouton and her Codriver Fabrizia Pons accomplished 4 WRC event wins and 9 podium finishes as a World Rally team. Long before her in the 50's and 60's Pat Moss and her codriver Ann Wisdom were making waves with outright wins and podium finishes in international rallies. I am not sure of any other motorsport that can boast such a large participation of women at the top level throughout its history!
Here in the US as the sport of rally grows so does its inclusion of women. In 2019 the number of women registered as competitors with the American Rally Association surpassed 100 which was a growth of 62% in one year. Of the 30 championship winning drivers and codrivers 9 were Ladies, including myself. What an honor to be surrounded by so many amazing women!
I think the best thing we can do to increase participation is by setting a positive example of what being a motorsports woman means to each of us. You never know who is looking up to you to set an example or who might relate to the way YOU drive.
What other things are you doing outside of driving to spread the love of Rally? YouTube Channel? Can you tell us more about that?
I will tell everyone who will hold still long enough about how much rally means to me. One of the most exciting and biggest things we took on this season was working with R1 Images on a YouTube series following our rally adventures. The series is called "Flat Over Crest" a name that was inspired by rally pacenotes. We hope to share what it's like for a grassroots team to compete in a full season of such a tough motorsport while being surrounded and supported by such an amazing rally community. You can find us online anywhere by searching for Cooper Autoworks.