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What Happens When Your Rally Car Breaks Down in Croatia

Around midnight, somewhere in Croatia, a clutch cable in our clown car snapped. A dispatch from the Mongol Rally.

by Justin Hamilton
Aug 13 2015, 1:15pm

L to R: Matt, Justin, and Tyler. Photo: Mad Bombers

This is the fourth in a series of dispatches from the Mongol Rally.


Essential Tech for Rally Car Racing 10,000 Miles Across Eurasia

A Rally Car Named Desire

We Are Three Former Bomb Techs Driving a Rally Car Across Europe and Asia

SHETPE—We're currently in Kazakhstan, and managed to clock 100 whole miles in the last 7 hours on spotty roads. I figure now's a good time to bring everyone up to speed on what we've been up to.

Early on the morning of July 19, in a field outside a racetrack in Southern England, we were awoken by an unforecasted rain that soaked our sleeping bags. We had slept on the ground, forgoing our tents and hammock shelters for convenience. Our six-week journey had began. London to Ulan Ude, Russia, was really happening.

This trip had started with a simple question: Would we really ever do this crazy thing? But it was becoming a reality, and it sunk in quickly. The three of us knew we were embarking on the journey of a lifetime, one few people have undertaken, and yet we didn't fully envision the gauntlet before us. We tackled the pre-trip planning with vigor—the EOD Warrior Foundation means the world to us, and it was easy to get wrapped up in the ultimate goal: fundraising. We researched what to bring, and what not to bring. We figured executing the trip would be the easy part.

Teams lined up at Goodwood. Photo: Matt Cook

The first leg of the rally, and the only checkpoint along the route to Prague, was Goodwood, England. Goodwood has a Formula 1-style track, perfect for showcasing the raw horsepower of Desire, our tiny Saxo, all 86 thoroughbreds corralled under the hood. All rally teams were allotted one lap around the track, before spinning out into the wilds of Europe. It started organized, until one team took a pass on the inside corner. Mayhem ensued. Tyler was the first to drive, and didn't back off until we had gained 20 places. Our cramped clown car showed that it could hold its own, at least on a paved track.

Leaving Goodwood, we set out for a ferry across the English Channel, from the white cliffs of Dover to Calais. Landing in France, we hadn't yet had a proper meal. We ate halal pizza—the only place that hadn't closed by the time the ferry landed.

We pushed on through Northern Europe, with stops in Bastogne, Frankfurt, and Grafenwoeher. Prague was the first gathering of ralliers since the start of the race, and we were shared some stories and saw a few familiar faces we were sure we'd run into.

We have a different agenda than most Mongol Rally teams, in that we want to visit as many EOD units as we can along the way. It's a nice way to bond with members of the bomb squad community the EOD Warrior Foundation supports. It also give us a break from road food and sleeping bags.

So the next day we set off for for an EOD base in Aviano, Italy.

Spotted at the Sedlec Ossuary (the bone church) in Prague. Photo: Matt Cook

After our first night in Prague we camped in the Austrian Alps, at a small clearing a few kilometers off the main road. It was all we needed for an amazing night's rest. Three hammocks, a flowing stream, and clear skies.

Our campsite in the Alps. Photo: Matt Cook

Portions of the Alps tested the small 1.1-liter engine on our car, but we got through to Aviano, which is nestled at the base of the Alps. It was a dramatic backdrop for a welcoming meal Aviano EOD flight had prepared for us. Desire also got an upgrade: a much-needed roof rack, thanks to a huge favor provided by the 31st Civil Engineer Squad Metals Shop. The rack is sturdier than the car itself. As much as we wanted to stay, thousands more miles lay ahead.

31st Civil Engineer Squadron Metals Shop hooking us up with a sweet roof rack. Photo: Mad Bombers

In Croatia, we had our first breakdown. Around midnight, a clutch cable snapped. Two guys in their 50s, locals who barely spoke a word of English, towed the car to their shop to fix. We were near Plitvice Lakes National Park, so at least it was a nice place to camp on Sunday evening.

Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia. Photo: Matt Cook

By morning, Desire was ready to go again. Also: new wheels!

Desire got some new wheels too. Photo: Matt Cook

Getting through that first hiccup, I could tell the three of us are beginning to grow as a team, learning to work through unpredictable circumstances. We've fought like siblings over mundane things, but have worked through it so far.

Where the author jumped. Photo: Mad Bombers

We stopped in Dubrovnik, on the coast of Croatia, home to a large castle with walls towering 40 meters over the water. As part of our fundraising efforts, we let contributors establish challenges for us to complete. With the first challenge, I had to face my fear of heights. Thanks to a generous donor, someone I thought was a dear friend, I had to jump from a 75-foot ledge into the sea. After some coaxing from Matt and Tyler, I lept.

There's some welts and bruising, but all for a good cause.

Brian Castner contributed to this dispatch.

Read more about why we're sponsoring a rally car in this year's Mongol Rally.