There are not many parents who happily wave goodbye to their teenage daughter as she climbs into a car driven off at 160km on gravel by a 21-year-old.
“I was more comfortable doing that than watch her head off to a Troye Sivan concert with a thousand other teenagers,” Rocky Hudson laughs.
That’s because 15-year-old Amy is an experienced rally co-driver and has been around cars since she was a spark in her parents’ eyes.
Rocky and his wife, Lisa, met about 28 years ago on the rally circuit as spectators and then, after moving to Wellington, travelled the North Island following the sport. After they moved back to Christchurch, they bought a car and Rocky started driving with Lisa as co-driver.
After a break to have children, Rocky moved over to co-driving and some years later Lisa returned to the sport as well. It’s meant that Amy and her 12-year-old brother Jared, who went to his first rally when he was just four days old, have grown up surrounded by cars and noisy, dusty, skidding entertainment.
As the children have grown they’ve joined their parents in the co-driver seat. Because rallies are held on private or closed public roads, it is legal to co-drive from the age of 12. Amy has been doing so for several years now and Jared recently co-drove his first rally, in Balclutha.
A co-driver gets a map book filled with pace notes that look like some sort of weird shorthand but which lay out every turn, bump, bridge, hill and straight on the route from start to finish. While the driver drives at an insane pace, the co-driver calls the notes. It’s a highly developed skill to calmly read out calculus-type instructions, up to five turns ahead, so a driver can anticipate the road and plan what to do next.
It’s a language in which all members of the family are fluent. As a group they also radiate the characteristics that make a good co-driver: “You have to be unflappable,” Rocky says. “And organised,” Lisa says. “Also be able to concentrate,” Amy says. “And you have to keep practising,” Jared adds.
As the family huddles around a laptop watching footage from the in-car camera of one of Lisa’s recent co-drives, there is a break in the animated conversation as they watch her car pass within kissing distance of a concrete power pole as it skids off a corner.
“The skidding and rolling is no problem,” Rocky says. “It’s when the car comes to a sudden stop…”
There’s no doubt being the co-driver in a speeding rally car comes with risks, but the family is very aware of them, having seen the dangers first hand.
“And there are risks in most things,” Rocky says. “Also, these cars are designed to be safe. They have roll cages and six-point safety harnesses.
"We also wear flame-retardant overalls, neck restraints and helmets,” Amy says. “The seats are set to fit me. Everything works together to make you feel safe when you are going fast.”
For Jared and Amy, being part of the rallying community was critical to them getting their first breaks as co-drivers.
“We asked drivers we knew and trusted to take the kids in their cars,” Rocky says.
“Trust is really important. Drivers have to trust that their co-driver knows what they are doing – understandably because you’re asking a driver to speed into a blind corner. And co-drivers need to trust that the driver won’t be reckless.”
The World Rally Championships are one of the most watched sporting events in the world and the Hudsons lament the fact the New Zealand leg of the rally went to Australia “for three years” in 2012 but hasn’t made it back.
They hope New Zealand’s enthusiastic fans will support rising Kiwi star Hayden Paddon and back his call for a return of the New Zealand event to the World Rally Championship calendar.
For now, however, the family is happy to travel the country to events, relishing the fact that co-drivers have the most fun.
“When we finish we get on the plane and go home,” Rocky says. “Drivers still have to sort out their cars, get them unloaded and washed and ready for the next race.”
The Hudsons, meanwhile, head home to walk the dog, play soccer, and watch replays of their races so they can hone their skills for the next event, which is usually just a couple of weekends away.
Reported by Kim Triegaardt for our AA Directions Autumn 2020 issue
Visit Motorsport New Zealand for details on how to get involved in the sport.