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After a torrid Side x Side Challenge debut at Rally Calder at the beginning of this month, Naomi Tillett and Darrell Knight are raring to go in next weekend’s second round, the Forest Rally in Western Australia.

Tillett is co-driving with ATV (all-terrain vehicle) legend Knight in one of two BRP Can-Am Commanders in the inaugural national SxS series.

While both are accomplished in their respective fields – Tillett in rally co-driving; Knight in ATV competition – Rally Calder was something completely new.

For Tillett, it was her first rally in an ‘open air’ vehicle.

“The rough terrain wasn’t a problem because I’ve co-driven in off-road rallies, but it was a bit strange with the wind, rain and mud coming into the cabin,” she said.
“Darrell’s probably used to getting covered in dust and mud when he rides his quad bikes, but it was a new experience for me!”

For Knight, Rally Calder was the bottom of an even steeper learning curve.

“Driving the Commander was very different compared to a quad,” he said. “It’s more like driving a car, because you’re strapped into a seat instead of standing on the foot pegs. You can’t move your body to affect the centre of gravity like on a quad.”

Knight also had to get used to a co-driver calling out each corner and hazard along the competitive stages.

“On a quad you have to look into the distance to pick out dangers ahead while you’re riding, but with a co-driver you can concentrate 100 percent on the part of the track you’re driving,” he said. “The trick is having your co-driver call the instructions exactly when you need them, and then following those calls without question.

“That didn’t come automatically at Calder after so many years of riding solo and trusting my own judgement.
Now I understand why most of the top rally drivers and co-drivers have been together for a long time – it takes a while to build the trust that lets you drive flat-out along tree-lined dirt tracks without looking at what’s coming next.”

Knight quickly discovered why Naomi Tillett is called the ‘Co-driver Princess’ in Australian car rallying.

“The only practice run that Naomi and I had before Rally Calder was a short drive through the Adelaide Hills in a road car, but it was enough for her to teach me the basics of pace-note rallying,” he said. “She brings a totally professional approach, as you’d expect from someone who has co-driven with some of the country’s top rally drivers.”

Knight, who tunes the Commanders for BRP Australia’s official X-Team at his property in Middleton, South Australia, admitted that it was a battle just to be ready for Rally Calder.

“The Side x Side Challenge was only announced at the end of December, which didn‘t give BRP much time to prepare two vehicles for top level competition,” he said.

“Although the series rules don’t allow many modifications, there were things like CAMS-approved roll cages and other safety equipment to be installed. We fitted Holz +3 Racing suspension kits, because the Commander has all-purpose suspension rather than competition suspension like the Polaris RZR that we’re competing against.

“Our first Commander for Michael Guest was finished a week before Rally Calder, but mine wasn’t ready until the day before the event, so we couldn’t do any testing. The first time Naomi and I sat in it was on the first day of the rally! We were in a new untested vehicle in a new category in a new event format – it’s fair to say that the first round of the Side x Side Challenge was a ‘challenge’ for us in more ways than one!”

Despite those handicaps, Knight and Tillett acquitted themselves well in their first side x side rally.
They scored consistent midfield results on the short and mostly all-terrain competitive stages, and were trailing Guest by less than three seconds when a minor incident put them out on the second-last stage.

“A body panel pushed against a fuel line, which popped a fuel injector clip off,” Knight explained.
With the difficult first round of the ARC SxS Challenge out of the way, Tillett believes the experience will help the X-Team to make a step forward at the Forest Rally.

“Experience is a huge factor in rallying, and our opposition has a big advantage there,” she said.

“The Polaris RZR has been around for most of last year while the Can-Am Commander has only run one event, so we have a long way to go to catch up but we’ve had heaps of help and advice from Quad Squad in Pakenham, Austraco in Ballarat – even an onboard video camera from Race Recall in Dingley, and some awesome Calder YouTube videos by Mammoth Sound and Vision in Adelaide – so we’re getting there.

“Darrell and I are confident that we can start to close the gap in WA next weekend, and show the Polaris teams that we’re not here just to make up the numbers!”

Photo: Joel Strickland

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