Last weekend the first round of the Australian Rally Championship was held in Canberra, this year we have a new name in the Australian scene. Alex Gelsomino is no newcomer to the sport though, he just happens to be Ken Blocks co-driver and also Rhianon Reeves new husband, Alex has joined the ARC fraternity co-driving with crazy Irishman Richie Dalton in the 4WD National Series.
I had a brief chat with Alex over the weekend and I must say he is a true gentleman, makes time for everyone and loves Australia, so I decided to put together a few questions to ask Alex about where he has come from, his history and what the future holds for both him and his new bride Rhianon.
Hi Alex, tell us about Alessandro, where you are from and how you got involved in the sport?
I’m from Palermo in the south of Italy and I got involved in Rallying at an early age, first by spectating in the numerous Rallies in my region and then by going to a codriver school organized by a local motor club when I was 17. I graduated as one of the best students and then club then found me my first ride
So you got involved fairly young, how did you end up in the US and what had you been doing before joining Ken in 2005?
I moved to USA in 1994. After coming on holiday I decided to stay as I really liked it. It was a great opportunity as I was born and raised in Southern Italy which is a beautiful place but an area with high un-employement rate and not many opportunities for a 20 years old out of college and the Army just like I was. When I started codriving for Ken I was running my own car parts import export company in California, but as I turned pro in Rallying I sold it to focus on codriving.
How did you manage to get the seat alongside Ken Block?
In 2005 Ken Block was getting involved in Rallying when one of his best mates (Travis Pastrana) was also signed by Subaru of America. Ken saw Rallying as a progression of the sport of motocross that he had done from many years along the tracks of southern California and jumped full on at the opportunity to do the Rally America championship. The team he got involved with (Vermont Sports Car) was looking for an experienced codriver to sit alongside Ken and to help him in progressing. My phone rang in December 2004 and after couple meetings Ken and I did the first Rally in Tennessee.
Whats life like working with Ken? He looks like someone who lives life to the fullest and enjoys everything he does immensely?
Co-driving for Ken has been and is a great experience. He’s someone that does things right or nothing. So, every program, project or single event is always aimed to achieve solid and consistent results for the sponsors. It has been an awesome experience to sit with him from the early days and no experience to doing Rallies in the WRC with teams like Msport, representing some great corporate sponsors around the world. I’ve also been fortunate enough to follow closely many of the other projects, like the Gymkhana videos and lately the Rallycross program and I have learned a lot from the marketing side of things, which is a vital side in today’s motorsport.
You have competed in quite a few WRC rounds now, would you like to compete with a team for a full season? What are the demands like on a Co-Driver?
I have been fortunate enough to compete in WRC programs with Msport and Monster World Rally Team (now Hoonigan Racing Division) in 2010 and 2011 and few more rounds in 2012 and 2013 (also WRC Spain scheduled for this year). Having worked with a World Championship team has been a very important part of my career and has given me great understanding of what it takes to compete at that level. Our early events in the WRC were an eye opener and made us realize that unfortunately we come from a part of the world where Rallying was at a very young stage of the development. Once we got things figure out we were able to consistently finish in points scoring positions and get closer to the top on the stage times, which was very rewarding. There is a speed that the top three or four have in the WRC and that speed is hard to comprehend for many people involved in Rallying and also for many fans and media. The demands for a codriver in WRC are absolute commitment on everything. From the travel schedule to the workload going, during and after the events to the fitness and diet regime. If you want to be among the best in the world all your preparation must be perfect.
You have competed at the highest level in the sport whats your most memorable moment, both good and bad thus far?
Most memorable moment…Well, there are really many ones, like every stage win, every outright win, every point scoring finish in WRC but also other things like co-driving for Colin McRae on a day testing prior to X-Games in 2007. It was definitely a career highlight to be able to call the notes to such a Rally legend that unfortunately is no longer with us.
Now that you have done 1 rally in Australia 🙂 how does it compare to the American series? as we seem to draw quite a few similarities to rallying in the US where it plays second fiddle to other motorsport disciplines and there seems to be quite the lack of money to drive the sport.?
Yes, first event in the books for me in ARC and it was a positive one. I was getting in a car with a new driver for the first time in 10 years, which will always be a challenge. Also Richie Dalton’s and Ken’s systems of pacenotes are in many ways different. It was a shame that a mechanical issue robbed Richie and I of many stage km of practice that we needed, but the car ran reliably on day two of the Natcap Rally and we were able to continue the work we had started on Leg 1, which was to get familiar with each other. Me with the pacenotes and Richie with my calls. We had a very big improvement between the first and the second pass of the stages and were able to score much faster times, winning 6 of the 7 stages scheduled for the day, which is always the sign that things are working the way they should. I have spent couple hours already reviewing the on boards from those stages and I’m now very familiar with Richie’s notes and him and I have already discussed and agreed in ways to improve the communication even more and try to gain a further edge on the 4WD competition.
I find many similarities between the ARC and the Rally America championship, including the flow of the stages and the surfaces. But also there are many differences, like the classes of cars allowed. ARC is moving towards a 2WD championship, while in America we have full Open 4WD cars as the top class, which at the stage where North American Rallying is (needing to impress fans, sponsors and media to grow) is still very much needed at this point.
You are competing in 3 more rounds of the ARC with Richie this year, how was the first round? and do you think you can get a seat in the other 3 rounds?
I’m competing in 4 rounds of this year’s ARC with Richie Dalton (Natcap, SA, Coffs and Vic) and I’m working on a deal to compete in the APRC portion of Rally Queensland. I’m looking for options for Rally Perth and been talking to couple drivers on that side of the country. If I can find a competitive ride for Perth that will make a complete ARC calendar for me, which is what I was aiming at. After the first round with Richie I’m very much looking forward to the remaining 3 events with him. For a codriver it’s very rewarding to sit with a driver and see constant improvements, stage after stage and that’s what it was with Richie. We obviously needed to put a Rally together to get used to each other, the notes, the delivery from my side and processing from his side. Now that’s out of the way and we are both comfortable with each other. I’m impressed by Richie’s pacenotes as after only few events under his belt he’s able to carefully pinpoint the areas that need caution or in general the areas where the car needs to be “in the middle of the road”. That is very hard for a new driver, but he has that figured out and I realize it’s one of the reasons why he has had a 100% driving record (no crashes) so far. It’s extremely positive to see that and one major area that doesn’t need work on his development. We can focus on just improving the speed consistently just like we did at Natcap day two, where we won all the stages in 4WD minus one that was repeated from the day before (which we missed due to mechanical) and our competitors had already run twice at speed.
What are your thoughts on the Australian Championship and the 2WD class? You mentioned that the 4WD Class in the Amercian series is still something that needs to be utilised to draw in sponsors and media, obviously Brendan Reeves competed in the 2WD category last year in the US does it have much of a following as a category? is the series looking like moving to that class eventually?
I don’t think you will see Rally America moving to a 2WD outright class anytime soon. The full blown Open class cars in USA are a fantastic show for the fans and TV and albeit are expensive, they are what’s needed in North American right now. I think the formula that ARC is pushing for (2WD outright) is a good one, but they need to make sure that they keep attracting manufacturers to showcase the sport. I was a bit surprised when Honda pulled the plug on ARC when the championship offers over 45 hours of TV coverage on National channels. We don’t have that amount of Rally coverage in USA (more like a 1/5th of those numbers) and having Rally on TV is very expensive. If we had 45 hours of Rally on TV in USA our sponsors would be extremely stoked and very keen to be part of it.
You mentioned in Canberra that you and Rhianon are out here for a while, I know you are trying to find a seat for Western Australia, what else are you planning to do while here?
Beside completing my calendar in ARC, I’m also looking to get into Targa codriving. There are some money in Australian Targa events, which is something important when you do codriving for a living like I do, so I want to get my feet wet and try to possibly get a ride for Targa Tasmania and the remaining Targa championship events. I’m also discussing options in the Middle East Rally championship and keeping my eyes open for APRC opportunities. Rhianon and I will be in Australia for few weeks and while I’m here, I’m spending time between her large family and also we are keeping fit thanks to the awesome OZ weather. It’s been a pretty cold winter in USA, but here there is so much outdoor we can do, like mountain biking, which I love and it’s one of the main way I keep fit.
Do you have a preference in terms of Gravel or Tarmac events? Targa Tas obviously being the Holy Grail of Tarmac Rally in Australia it has quit the history and always draws in large numbers?.
I really like tarmac and it’s a shame that we don’t have more tarmac events in North America. Gravel is very rewarding when driven properly, but I prefer the adrenaline rush I get from braking and cornering on a grippy tarmac road.
Whats the next event you are competing in with Ken?.
The next event I’m competing with Ken is round 4 of the Rally America championship in Pennsylvania. It’s one of the oldest Rallies in North America and one I enjoy the more. Ken and I won it last year for the second time and it will be great to come back to those forest roads and challenge Higgins and Pastrana again for the wins. Later in the year I’m doing WRC Spain and the Monza Rally in Italy with Ken, so it’s a total of 4 Rallies with him this year.
Do you have much to do with Ken and the Gymkhanas?.
I’ve been fortunate enough to follow closely many of the other projects, like the Gymkhana videos and lately the Rallycross program and I have learned a lot from the marketing side of things, which is a vital side in today’s motorsport.
Have you ever wanted to swap seats and drive? were you a driver in the past?
I have swapped seat at one Rally about 10 years ago as I wanted to compete as a driver once to help me understand more what’s like from the “other: side of the Rally car. It was a great experience and I learned a lot, but nothing I plan to do again soon. But Rhianon and I spoke about doing a Rally together not long ago, so you never know.
So a few aussie questions now, have you tried vegemite? like or not? Kangaroo? Emu? Crocodile? you know apart from the vegemite and kangaroo they all taste like chicken 🙂
I tried Vegimite last year, didn’t care for it much haha…I like the occasional OZ style fish and chip, but I have not tried any Roo or Croc. But I like to see those animals in the wild as I’m not used to them and they still look so diverse to me. However I didn’t enjoy seeing kangaroos in the stages in Camberra while on the rev limiter in top speed..Luckily they move out of the way fast!
Now just some of the obligatory questions rally fans generally like to ask 🙂
Favourite Rally Stage Co-Driven on?
Favourite stage..Of course has to be the stages of WRC New Zealand! In particular Whaanga Coast is a stage that enjoy a lot.
Favourite Rally competed in?
Favourite Rally..Must be Rally Mexico. It’s the WRC event I have competed the most at, the fans are absolute fanatics, the stages huge challenges and start and finish very unique. I’m very proud that Ken and I have achieved our best ever WRC finish in such a challenging Rally.
Favourite Rally Car?
Favourite Rally car is the Focus WRC. Albeit the latest generation of World Rally Cars have better chassis than the Focus, it was an interesting feeling to Rally (and be responsible for) a million dollar Rally car in 2010. I loved all the technology in that car.
Coffee or Tea?
Neither! A Monster Energy Java will keep me up and running when I need to!
Beach or Slopes?
Both! I was born and raised in the mountains but I love to spend time in Hawaii, California or St. Kilda beaches.
Australia or America? 🙂
Hmm. Australia or America..that’s a tough one!
Thanks for the quick chat Alex, its great to have you in Australia competing.