Welcome to W1RLY!

The Northeast Rally Radio Club is an amateur radio club specifically dedicated to rally communications in northeastern North America. We’re a niche group of the ham radio community, but by banding together as the rally community as a whole does, we can improve the quality of communications at events we support. We support all stage rally and rallysprint events and are not affiliated with any particular sanctioning body. The club will help arrange classes and acquire equipment for use at rallies, up to and including portable repeaters to help cover difficult terrain. Our club callsign is W1RLY.

Anyone who is interested in the unique application of amateur radio to stage rally and RallySprint is welcome. An amateur radio license is NOT required to join. Feel free to check out and join our Facebook group as well.

The purpose of this web site is to post and preserve the collective wisdom of the group regarding amateur radio communications at rally events. It’s difficult to find information in a Facebook group so the best tips and tricks about ham radio, rally, and how they work together will appear here. Though our group is based in the northeast United States, we hope that radio and rally enthusiasts everywhere can make use of this information as well.

80 Meter Net a Success at NEFR

The South Arm and Icicle Brook stages are notoriously difficult for 2 meter communications. A big hill in the middle of the stage prevents direct communications between the start and finish, requiring a midpoint relay on top of that hill (usually me) to act as a human repeater. That was unnecessary this year, though, as a result of a bold new idea: move the net to 3.850 MHz, and use 80 meter NVIS to get our signals over the hill.

NVIS stands for Near-Vertical Incidence Skywave. This is just a fancy way of saying that we’re sending our signals straight up and bouncing them off the ionosphere to come straight back down again. We accomplish this by setting up dipole antennas very close to the ground. I traditionally attach my 2-meter J-pole to a 12-foot tall painter’s pole. This is way too low for effective DX communication, but it’s perfect for NVIS. I run it as an inverted-vee, with a pair of stakes on either end holding the wire just four feet off the ground.

Chief of Communications Tim Carter, W3ATB, suggested this idea as far back as 2019, the last running of NEFR. There, he and a couple of other hams informally set up 80 meter stations along the stage just to see how it would work. They heard each other quite well. With the cancellation of NEFR in 2020, Tim, myself, Tim W1FOY, JT N1JTI, and Wayne KA1CPR, ventured out to South Arm on our own to test 80 meters at the actual locations we use during the rally. This was also a resounding success. Starting at 100 watts on SSB, everyone could hear everyone else all up and down the stage. We gradually reduced power in steps all the way to 5 watts. This low power level was a bit marginal, but even at 10 watts we could all hear each other well enough to communicate reliably. You can read Tim’s full write-up of this experiment here.

Justin, KJ1H, operating the 80 meter net as W1RLY. Allison, KB1KNG, ran the 2 meter net.

It was time to put this idea to the ultimate test and try it at NEFR. Tim assigned a number of General and Extra class hams to South Arm/Icicle Brook, enough to run 80 meter stations at start, finish, and all of the usual radio locations. Once again, I was placed at point F, the traditional midpoint relay position. If 80 meters failed, we’d fall back to the 2 meter net and do it the old fashioned way. I ran the 80 meter station from inside my camper van, while Allison, KB1KNG, was on 2 meters. We both set up our HTs to crossband repeat through my Kenwood TM-V71A. Both rigs ran off my house batteries and solar power. To avoid callsign confusion, we both used the club call W1RLY for consistency.

There was some initial confusion as to which frequency we were using for what. We still needed 2 meters not only as a backup, but also for contact with course opening and rally officials, who didn’t have 80 meters in their cars. During the preparation for each stage, we did some relaying back and forth between the bands. When it came to actually running the net during the stage, though, that took place exclusively on 80 meters. Allison relayed the sequence numbers, car numbers, and times to the 2 meter frequency.

The result was a smashing success. For the first time since I’ve been working NEFR, the net, as well as the stages themselves, went off without a hitch. On 80 meters, start and finish communicated directly just like they do at every other stage on 2 meters. For the first time, I had nothing to relay, and was able to step away from the radio (with Allison listening in case I was needed) to take some pictures.

This time, Ken Block did not set the forest on fire.

In fact, 80 meters was such a success that for the first time ever, stages had contact with each other and rally HQ. Paul, W1SEX, ran a separate net specifically for keeping all the stages in contact. This is the norm at most rallies, but due to the long distances the stages are from Sunday River, this has never been possible before. Not only has 80 meter NVIS fixed the communication problem on South Arm / Icicle Brook, it’s also opened up new possibilities such as this.

All other stages still used 2 meters, as normal. This isn’t going to change. All hams can use the 2 meter band, and the equipment is cheap and easy to set up. Our 3.850 SSB net is squarely in the General band, which locks Technicians out from participating. It also requires an HF rig and an 80 meter dipole, which is a cumbersome 134 feet long from end to end. We still need Technician class operators, so don’t worry! We’re not putting you out of a job. But if you’ve been thinking about upgrading to General or Extra, we could certainly use your help on the 80 meter nets if you do.

Online Remote Exams Available

If you’ve been waiting to take a license exam but couldn’t because in-person exams have all shut down, here’s an option for you through HamStudy.org. I’ve helped with a few of these as an examiner, and they work pretty well. For the applicant, it’s barely any different than the online practice tests you’ve already been banging through, since the question pool is exactly the same. For examiners, it’s super easy, because all the paperwork is generated automatically by the ExamTools system. This is here, now, and available for you to get your license super quickly. Since there’s no physical paperwork involved we’re seeing new callsigns appear in the FCC database literally the day after the test.

Justin, KJ1H, has been learning the ropes of this system from an examiner point of view under the Columbia University Amateur Radio Club and Alan, N2YGK, who heads them up. Justin is one of his regular online VEs now. Alan has also become a liaison between the ExamTools product and the ARRL VEC, who ultimately grants the individual groups permission to test online. (It’s on a case-by-case basis right now.) Ultimately we’d love to have enough VEs among our group that we can run our very own W1RLY exam sessions. That would require three or more other VEs of General class or higher. Since a Technician license is all you need to do rally, we’d be perfectly happy accepting General VEs and not offering the General or Extra tests, at least unless/until we have enough Extra class VEs among us.

(CANCELED) Tech License Exam At CTTC 2020

(With CTTC getting postponed until 2021, this license exam session will not be taking place this year. Tune in next year for information about an exam session then.)

The W1RLY Group in conjunction with the Woodmont Amateur Radio Association is sponsoring an Amateur Radio exam session at this year’s Climb to the Clouds event at Mount Washington.  This is your opportunity to get your Technician license and help out your fellow pro rally teams or help at events like the Boston Marathon by providing essential communications.

What’s needed to achieve this?   Pass a simple 35 question exam and score a 74 or better (26 out of 35).  Simple knowledge of FCC rules and some radio theory.

When are Where: The Exam session will be conducted at the Great Glens building on Saturday, July 11. Doors will open at 2:00pm and the exam session will begin at 2:30 pm (no one will be admitted after the exam starts).

What do I need to bring?

  1. One legal photo ID (identification):
    • State Driver’s License
    • Government issued Passport
    • Military or Law Enforcement Officer Photo ID card
    • Student School Photo ID card
    • State Photo ID card
  2. Two number two pencils with erasers and a pen.
  3. A calculator with the memory erased and formulas cleared is allowed. You may not bring any written notes or calculations into the exam session. Slide rules and logarithmic tables are acceptable, as long as they’re free of notes and formulas. Cell phone must be silenced or turned off during the exam session and the phones’ calculator function may not be used. In addition, iPhones, iPads, Androids, smartphones, Blackberry devices and all similar electronic devices with a calculator capability, may NOT be used.
  1. $15 dollars cash / check

Ok, how do I sign up? Simple, send the group an email at cttchams@gmail.com with the subject line of “VE Exam.”  That’s it!

Another Portable Mast Design


Here’s another variation on a portable mast that uses a different key ingredient. Instead of fiberglass pole sections, this one uses a telescoping painters pole for the mast. They are available in sizes that range from 4 to 8 feet, 6 to 12 feet, and 8 to 16 feet. This is the 6 to 12 foot version.

The antenna is the KB9VBR breakaway J-pole for 2 meters. When split into two parts it fits perfectly into the trunk of Justin’s Subaru WRX. In fact, the only part of this setup that doesn’t completely fit in the trunk is the painter’s pole itself, which does fit with half the back seat folded down.


The base is a 1×6 scrap of wood that was found in the basement. You can use a piece of plywood, sheet metal, or anything else solid, flat, and wide. The car parks on top of the base to hold it securely. A pipe floor flange is attached near the end, and a steel pipe screws into it. The painter’s pole sits alongside this pipe, and three hose clamps secure both of them together. (A cordless drill makes short work of tightening and loosening the hose clamps but isn’t required.)


Up top, two more hose clamps attach the J-pole to the telescoping section. You might want to attach the antenna before putting up the mast, especially if you’re short since you might not be able to reach it afterward. (And don’t forget the coax!) Extend the telescoping portion, and the antenna will sit far above cars and people on the ground. This not only transmits and receives better than a mobile antenna, it also significantly reduces RF exposure to people on the ground.

Justin first tested this setup at the 2018 Team O’Neil Winter RallySprint. It worked perfectly, even in moderate winds at the north end of the facility. Where he normally ran 45 watts through his mobile antenna, he could crank the power all the way down to 5 watts and still be heard perfectly at the south end. The reception was improved as well, particularly from mid-point handheld radios.

At the 2018 New England Forest Rally, this setup proved instrumental in providing communications when Ken Block crashed and set the Maine forest on fire. Justin and another ham were positioned at the midpoint to relay between start and finish, who couldn’t hear each other directly. With officials at the start and the incident near the finish, this setup was put to the test in a true emergency situation. It worked perfectly.

Best of all, this mast system cost less than $50 to build, most of which was for the telescoping painter’s pole itself. Even if you buy a KB9VBR J-pole antenna rather than build one yourself the entire setup can cost well under $100. Though not as critical at a small facility like Team O’Neil, the performance advantage could be a huge help at other rallies.

The Technician Question Pool Is Changing!

If you’ve been studying for your Technician license, make sure you take your test by June 30, 2018. Why? Because a new question pool just came out that will be used from July 1 through 2022.

From time to time the question pool gets updated to reflect changes in rules and regs or new communication modes. The National Conference of Volunteer Examiner Coordinators has just released the new Element 2 question pool into the public domain. This means that publishers and developers have time to incorporate the new question pool into books, websites, apps, and other training materials before the change takes effect July 1. That way, you can study for whichever version of the question pool will be in effect at the time you take your exam.

Realistically, question pools don’t change much over time. It’s likely you could pass a test with the new question pool if you only studied the old one. So don’t stress out over this — you won’t have to start from scratch if you fail the Tech exam in June and have to take it again in July. It’s just something worth knowing about so that the questions on the exam will look as familiar as possible to you.

Watch That Microphone!!!

It’s a pretty fundamental aspect of radio operation that you shouldn’t push the “transmit” button unless you actually intend to transmit. But you’d be surprised how often someone “sits on the microphone” on the net frequency! The resulting open carrier ties up the net, preventing any communication from taking place. Even coordinating a change to a secondary net frequency becomes impossible.

Of course we all know enough not to jam the net on purpose. But accidents happen. The microphone may get stuck under a clipboard, or wedged between a seat and another part of the car, in such a way to push the transmit button. So when you put down your mic, be extra careful about where you put it. Don’t be “that guy (or gal)”!

The Net

This is where the magic happens. The net, short for “network,” is a designated frequency on which rally communications take place. This could either be through a local or temporary repeater, or a simplex (direct) frequency.

Usually, there are multiple designated frequencies. For example, there may be a primary frequency where communications take place by default, and a secondary frequency to switch to in case there is a problem such as interference on the primary frequency. Frequencies may be assigned for different purposes, too — for instance, a dedicated frequency for rally officials to talk amongst themselves without tying up the main net frequency.

In some cases, different frequencies are used for different geographical areas if the rally spans too much territory for one frequency or repeater to cover. The Empire State Performance Rally has “north” and “south” repeaters to cover all of its stages. The New England Forest Rally is so spread out that each stage has its own frequency, operating independently of other stages. Yet the Black River Stages net handles the entire rally on one net frequency, as do smaller RallySprint events. Specific procedures vary from one event to another.

A net control station, who is generally located at rally headquarters with event officials, manages all communications on the net. All communications typically go through net control. If the start of stage 3 wants to ask the finish of stage 3 a question, the start of 3 would first call net control and ask for permission to talk with finish of 3. Net control would then either grant permission or ask start of 3 to wait if something more important needed to be discussed at that time.

Smaller rallies or RallySprint events are often less formal than larger events. Each event has its own unique way of running their net. Even at the same event, different net control stations have different preferences for how the net runs. But generally, their procedures are at least somewhat similar to what is described here.

Routine traffic

Before a stage runs, a great deal of logistical communication takes place on the net. As stage crews get into position and prepare to run the stage they keep net control up to date on their readiness. Course opening cars report their own progress through the rally to net control, as well as any issues they need stage crews to take care of before the stage goes hot with competitors.

When everything is ready and Car 0 declares the stage open for competition, net control gives stage start the time at which to send the first car. Once competitors enter a stage, start announces the car numbers currently on stage. Start may announce each car number as it enters the stage or groups of numbers at a time, depending on net control’s preference. Start may also give each car a sequence number, which corresponds to the order in which they start — in other words, “Sequence number 1, car number 75. Sequence number 2, car number 199.”

Radio operators stationed elsewhere on stage write down each car number that starts, as well as its sequence number if applicable. As each car goes by their location, they check off that the car has passed. When cars finish the stage, the finish radio announces it to the net in a similar manner as start. The end result is that when competitors finish running, we know what cars didn’t finish the stage. We also know approximately where they are based on the location of last radio operator to have seen them and the next one who didn’t. This way, the sweep team has a better idea what to expect when they enter the stage.

This is the most important purpose of the net: to keep track of competitors, make sure they’re safe, and send help if necessary.

Priority traffic

This is rally, so things don’t always go as planned. If (when) a competitor crashes and can’t continue under their own power, the net needs to know. This information could come from a radio operator stationed nearby. It could also come from another competitor reporting in at the finish. It is important to know that the competitors are displaying the “OK” sign, and whether their car is blocking the road or not. If the road is partially blocked, competitors waiting to start will need to be informed of this and the car’s location so that they can avoid it.

Other problems could involve spectators putting themselves into unsafe locations on stage, or getting too rowdy and disruptive at a spectator area. The course opening cars check for this before declaring the stage ready to run, but things can always change afterward. People may try to move up and down the road in between cars, either on foot, by ATV, or even in their own cars while the stage is hot.

Local residents or property owners along the closed road can sometimes cause trouble for a stage. They may not obey rally volunteers’ instructions to stop or recognize the legal authority the rally has to close the road. If the situation gets too heated, the stage may have to be stopped or canceled altogether.

Basically, any situation that’s out of the ordinary needs to be reported to net control. Use common sense and do your best to help at the scene, but ultimately it’s net control that will make the call about how to handle the situation, relaying instructions from rally officials and sending additional help as necessary.

Emergency traffic

A car crashing or going off the road and displaying the “OK” sign is not an emergency. If no one is hurt and cars can still get by, the stage will continue to run. But a red cross sign, injuries, or a fire is absolutely an emergency, and we pull out all the stops to assist. Emergencies always have priority on frequency. Routine logistic communications can wait. Do not transmit unless you are helping to handle the emergency.

That said, if you are able to report or help with the emergency, by all means, get on the net. That goes for competitors as well, who are often the first on the scene. Many competitors have ham radios and net frequencies. Mainly they just monitor the net to know what is going on, but in an emergency callsigns you may not recognize from the net roster may break into the net to report it. This is not only acceptable but encouraged, and one reason why competitors have the net frequencies. Though we strongly encourage only licensed amateur radio operators to transmit as per FCC rules, in a dire emergency involving an immediate threat to life (but not property), anything goes.

Net control will help coordinate the response of whatever help is needed, such as sending the ambulance stationed at stage start to the scene. During an emergency, ALL stations should listen closely in case net control needs information or resources that you might have. Even if you are working a completely different stage than the emergency is taking place on, net control may still call you — for instance, to request a second ambulance be sent from your stage to the emergency. But unless you are directly involved with the emergency itself, don’t speak unless spoken to by net control.

That’s the basics. Specifics vary from one event to another, but this is essentially how every rally communications net runs. Now you know what that radio chatter at a rally is all about!

How Do I Find a Ham Radio License Exam?

You’ve studied hard, using any number of methods available. You’re scoring well on the practice tests, so it’s time to take the license exam for real. But how, and where?

Go to the ARRL website to search for exam sessions using a number of different criteria — city/state, zip code, exam date, etc. For example:

Exam search results

Click on any listing for more information.

Exam session details

If walk-ins are allowed you can just show up, but it’s always appreciated if you pre-register. The $15 exam fee is collected at the exam itself, so you can always cancel at no charge if you have to. Bring the exam fee and photo ID, show up at the proper time and place, and take the exam. The Volunteer Examiners will walk you through the paperwork and the entire process.

A Portable Antenna Mast For Rally Use

A 2-meter mobile radio and magnetic mount antenna are adequate for rally use, but can still be tricky to use on remote stages. You may have to park your car very carefully to place your antenna in a hot spot for reception. Changing conditions can move that hot spot, which is quite inconvenient when it happens while a stage is running!

Fortunately, it’s cheap and easy to set up a larger antenna on a portable mast. While not quite as convenient as parking and going straight on the air, a little height can go a long way toward improving communications reliability, particularly on remote stages.

The Mast

This mast uses military surplus fiberglass poles originally intended for camouflage netting. These are available on MilitaryFieldGear.com for $41.99 for a 12-pack. Use as many or few four-foot sections as you need to place your antenna as high as you want it, up to 48 feet. Keep in mind that you will probably need to add guy wires to the mast above a certain height, but even 20 feet of elevation will be 20 feet more than you had before.

Aluminum poles are also available but are not recommended. Not only could they affect antenna radiation patterns, they also present an electrocution risk if any wires happen to be around!

The Base

There are any number of solutions for securing the base of your antenna. One is a tripod mount like this. Use three of your fiberglass poles as legs, then slide another for your mast through the center. The mast will then support itself.

If you have a 2-inch receiver hitch, you could consider this hitch mount. The vehicle becomes the support for the mast, which is less likely to blow over in the wind than a self-supporting structure.

You can also make your own base using a piece of plywood, a 2-inch pipe flange, and a section of threaded pipe. The idea is that you park your car with one tire on top of the plywood and the flange sticking out to the side. Screw in the pipe, then slide the bottom section of mast inside the pipe. Again, the vehicle becomes the support for the mast.

The Antenna

Of course, you’ll need an antenna for the top of your mast. J-poles are very popular and effective choices. The bottom section, below the J, is not a part of the antenna as far as radio waves are concerned so you can clamp this directly to the top section of your mast. They don’t require a groundplane, so no radials are necessary (though improved performance is possible with a ground rod and wire). A J-pole antenna for the 2-meter band is 69 inches long, which can fit in the back of a truck or SUV. A breakaway version is also possible, where the main element splits in two for easier transport.

J-poles are easy to build yourself. Though TV twin-lead isn’t anywhere as near as common as it used to be, you can easily build a J-pole out of it. If you’re not so mechanically inclined, KB9VBR sells pre-built J-poles for very reasonable prices. His standard 2-meter J-pole is $34, with a breakaway version selling for $39.

A variation on the J-pole that KB9VBR offers is the Slim-Jim. This design turns the main element of a J-pole back on itself, making it a folded dipole instead. This design has more gain and a lower radiation angle than a standard J-Pole, and is only 58 inches long. One disadvantage is that it works best at higher elevations above the ground, which may not always be possible. KB9VBR sells Slim-Jims in standard form for $45 and breakaway form for $54.


This may go without saying, but for the sake of completeness, don’t forget to bring enough coax to run between your hoisted antenna and your radio! You’ll want RG-58, with a PL-259 connector on one end to plug into your radio and whatever the antenna uses on the other end. if you use an SO-239 connector on the antenna you can use PL-259 on both ends of the coax to make life easier.


You certainly don’t need a mast to work rally communications. But it can help, and as you can see it isn’t too difficult or expensive to put the components for one together. This system is fast and easy to set up and take down, which is especially handy if your stage crew works more than one location in a day. It’s also quite flexible, allowing you to change the height of your antenna by adding or removing mast sections. Not only will your signal get out better from an antenna on a mast, you’ll also have an easier time hearing everyone else. A little height goes a long way.

How Do I Get an Amateur Radio License?

For rally communications, you will need a Technician class license. This involves taking a 35-question multiple choice test on a variety of subjects — FCC rules and regs, simple electronics, basic theory on how radio waves work and propagate through the atmosphere, etc. There is a standard question pool, and the questions and answers are public. A passing grade is 74%, so you don’t have to be an expert on the material to pass. And unlike the old days, you do NOT need to know Morse code for any modern ham radio license class.

There are many ways to learn the material, depending on what works best for you. The classic method is to read a book, such as The ARRL Ham Radio License Manual. Another popular book is The Gordon West Technician Manual. Other options include HamRadioSchool.com’s Technician License Study Guide and The No-Nonsense Technician-Class Study Guide, which is also available as a free PDF file.

If online methods appeal to you more, you can take free practice tests using the same question pool as the actual license test until you know the questions and answers. Many web sites offer them, including the ARRL, eHam.net, and HamExam.org. Some sites, such as HamTestOnline.com, will help teach you the material at the same time as drilling you on it, which some find more helpful than just taking practice tests over and over.

For some, there’s just no substitute for a classroom setting. You can look up available license classes in your area on the ARRL web site. Some classes run one evening a week for several weeks. Others run over a single weekend or even a single day.

However you learn the material, you will need to take an official license exam in person. These are usually included at the end of license classes. There are also groups of volunteer examiners who hold exam sessions regularly across the country. Once again, the ARRL web site can help you find an exam session near you. You will need to bring identification, and $15.00 cash, check, or money order for the cost of the exam. You will also need to provide your Social Security number, or your FCC issued Federal Registration Number if you already have one. (You probably don’t, unless you already hold a different type of FCC license.) You are allowed to bring a calculator with no formulas in memory, but you probably won’t need this for the Technician license test.

The examiners will give you an exam booklet and a separate answer sheet to mark your answers. There is no time limit, so don’t rush. Be sure to mark your answers clearly, as the examiners use an answer key to score each test. When you’re done, an examiner will take your answer sheet. It will be graded immediately, and you’ll soon know whether you passed or failed. If you failed, many groups will allow you to “register” a second time, with another $15, and take the test again immediately (with different questions, of course). If you passed,

If you passed, congratulations! You now have the option of taking the General license test at no extra charge. You are welcome to do so, or not, as you wish. The Technician license grants you access to all of the frequencies you need for rally communications, but having access to more frequencies never hurts. If you pass the General test you can take the Extra, again at no extra charge. Though it’s rare for people to go from zero to Extra in one session, it does happen!

After passing, the examiners will do some paperwork. You will get a Certificate of Successful Completion of Element 2, which is the Technician written test, signed by three of your examiners. They will also submit your information to the FCC to have them issue you a license. Typically your callsign will appear in the FCC database within a week or so. As soon as your callsign is assigned, you are officially a ham radio operator and may go on the air immediately.

Once your license is issued, you simply need to keep your current address up to date in the FCC database if you move and renew it for free every ten years. You never need to take the test again unless you let your license expire for more than two years.