It was supposed to be a one-time thing when Susan Little got into a rally car for the first time. Her husband, Dan, was a driver and one of his friends had lost his regular partner to a smashed clavicle.
So Little, who in a lower-speed part of her life teaches German at Rosemount High School, jumped in the passenger seat. Things went well, and she’s been hooked ever since.
Now she and the driver she was helping out are a regular team. They compete against Little’s husband and hundreds of other teams at races around the country.
Actually, Little’s description of her first race might seem a little contradictory at first.
“Puked a ton,” she said. “Had a blast.”
Turns out Little, whose role as co-driver is to call out the direction and severity of upcoming turns, gets some pretty serious motion sickness. That doesn’t sit well with a sport that involves high speeds and twisty dirt roads.
“Dramamine, what people would normally take, doesn’t come anywhere near touching it,” she said.
These days Little wears a motion sickness patch behind her ear and that seems to do the trick. She hasn’t thrown up since, but she said the driver she partners with knew she was a serious competitor in that first race when she swallowed her own vomit rather than let it get in the way of the race.
Little never actually wanted to get involved in racing. Her husband, a Rosemount High School graduate, has been racing different kinds of vehicles for years, and she always used to give him a hard time for everything he was doing. When she had a chance to fill in, though, she thought it would give her a better idea what her husband sees in the sport. Worst case, since she and her husband wear the same size they would have an extra safety suit for him.
But Little quickly saw the appeal of motor sports.
“It’s a really good adrenaline rush for sure,” she said. “It’s challenging. You’re always learning something new.”
For each race, Little receives a book with a set of notations that might seem like gibberish to someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking at. It’s her job to decipher a line like R4-Cr L45 Kinks 400/Cr 50 and let her driver know what to expect on the road ahead.
It was a steep learning curve, but Little picked it up quickly. She said working with a foreign language every day helps.
It’s important that Little knows what she’s doing. If the driver doesn’t trust her, he might not be prepared for an upcoming turn. At speeds that sometimes top 100 miles per hour, a miscommunication can slow them down or cause them to crash.
“It’s odd to know that you’re sitting in the passenger seat where, technically, my life is in Paul’s hands,” Little said. “It’s all gravel roads and heavily tree lined, so we have a lot to bounce off of. It’s exhilarating. We like to have fun with it.”
Rally racing is an expensive sports. Teams put hundreds of dollars into their cars, and at the level where Little competes there is little hope of making it all back.
Little races five or so times a year in Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri and elsewhere. She and her husband are in different roles, but there is still competition between the two. Race officials like to let them know at checkpoints what the time difference is between the two teams.
“We like to razz each other, but because we’re in different roles it makes it difficult,” she said.
There are a few other women in the rally racing world, but most team with their husband. Little figures it’s better for the health of their marriage, as well as for safety, that she and her husband are on separate teams.
Her competition might have inspired another generation, though. Little’s daughter is already talking about taking up the sport. She wants to do what her mom does.
“My daughter will say someday she will be a co-driver so she can boss people around,” Little said.