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)”!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
Click on any listing for more information.
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 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.
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!
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. (Detailed instructions for this base to follow in a future post.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
To use amateur radio, you must be licensed by the FCC. (How to get this license is a subject for another post.) There are three license classes: Technician, General, and Extra. The entry-level license, Technician, grants you all amateur radio privileges above 50 MHz. Since rally communications take place on the 144 MHz band, this is the only license you need for rally communications.
Since stage rallies usually take place in remote areas, at the minimum you will need a mobile radio for the 2 meter (144-148 MHz) band, as well as an antenna for your car. Just about all rally communications take place on 2 meters, so a single band radio is all you need. You can find these available used at hamfests or online for less than $100, though a new radio like a Kenwood TM-281A or Yaesu FTM-3100R cost not much more than that.
As for an antenna, a 5/8 wave for the 2 meter band with a magnetic mount will work fine. In hilly areas, the higher radiation angle of a 1/4 wave antenna may work better in some cases. There are many other ways to mount an antenna to your car permanently, if you wish — trunk lip mount, rain gutter mount (do any cars even have gutters anymore?) or even directly to your roof or trunk lid if you’re bold enough to drill a hole through it. But a magnetic mount will work fine, and can easily be transferred from car to car.
For better performance, you could consider using a larger antenna, such as a J-pole, on a mast that you set up temporarily wherever you are stationed. This will be the subject of a future post.
Occasionally a HAM operator will ask how rallies fit in with the FCC section 97.113, which discusses pecuniary interest and commercial enterprises. After studying the issue, the ARRL has this to say about the matter:
“Communications for business entities by volunteers – that is, by licensed Amateurs who receive no direct or indirect compensation and who have no pecuniary interest in the communications – are legal as long as they are not conducted on a regular basis and otherwise comply with the FCC rules.”
Rally races certainly fulfill these parameters, as events are almost universally just once a year, and the kind souls manning the radios are all volunteers. A large part of the philosophy comes down to “is the radio operator getting paid to transmit“, and the volunteers, by definition, are not getting paid. Rally races don’t “conduct business” over the ham radio net: discussions of selling T-shirts or food, or restocking merchandise, or prices for anything are not the topic of conversation. The groups that put on rallies are incorporated in some form or another, the modern litigious society we live in demands significant insurance to be purchased to put on these events. Additionally, the ARRL concluded:
“If public safety is the principal beneficiary, then §97.1 is being fulfilled.”
If there were no need for safety, rallies wouldn’t go through the considerable trouble of setting up a communications network. Safety of the spectators, the volunteers, people watching the race from their own property, the general public in the area, and the participants is absolutely the primary reason to have a radio net at rally races. You can view the original ARRL document on their site.
As rally competitors slip, slide, and fly down the stages, there’s an etherial presence watching over them, making sure everyone completes the stage safely and sending help if they don’t. These creatures aren’t angels, spirits, or the Great Green Arkleseizure, but amateur radio operators keeping an eye on the competitors, as well as coordinating logistics to keep the event running safely and smoothly.
Your knowledge of amateur radio, also called ham radio (no one seems to know for sure exactly why), if you have any such knowledge at all, probably consists of some old guy pounding out dits and dahs on a Morse code key or monologuing into an ancient microphone about the weather, his tri-band Yagi, or his various medical issues, with some other old guy in Florida. There’s an old joke that the average age of a ham radio operator is dead. I, for one, skew the age demographic not only by actually being alive but for having had my license since I was 15. Knowledge of Morse code is no longer required, though some, like me, are still fluent and use it anyway. You can still talk into a microphone, or type through your computer using an endless variety of digital communication modes or even send pictures and video.
Many assume that ham radio is the same as the Bandit’s CB radio, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. You need to pass a fairly simple test and get an FCC license to transmit on ham radio frequencies. You can use more power and get much better range than CB.
There are also many more frequencies available. Rather than 40 CB channels, hams have access to a wide portion of radio spectrum, ranging from down below your AM dial all the way through to microwaves and beyond. Some of these frequencies are in the shortwave band with worldwide coverage. We can even communicate beyond this world, through satellites and with astronauts in orbit. Years ago, I personally contacted Russian cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev on the Mir space station and got a nifty card in the mail from him.
Although it doesn’t have a Daft Punk soundtrack, the net is where everything happens. It’s a designated frequency where rally communications take place. Most communication is between the start and the finish, each of whom reports which cars have started and completed the stage. If a car starts but doesn’t finish, the sweep team will know about it and keep their eyes open for it. Competitors running after the missing car can also be asked at the finish if they saw it and what their status is. Furthermore, other radio operators are placed all along each stage. They write down each car number as the start announces it, and check it off as they go by. This way, if a car passes position C but not position D, sweep knows to look for them in this specific area.
Course opening cars, sweep, stage captains, and other rally officials also monitor the net and participate when required. When car 0 completes their run through a stage, it is their radio call that declares the stage ready for competition. If there is a change in plans, such as a stage being canceled, that call comes over the radio as well.
A license is required to transmit on amateur radio frequencies, but it’s perfectly legal to listen with no license at all. Most scanners receive the amateur 2 meter (144-148 MHz) band, where pretty much all rally communications take place. Competitors are often given these frequencies as well, specifically so that they can listen in – or, if they have a ham radio in the rally car and the driver or co-driver are licensed, they can even break into the net themselves to report an emergency. I’ve heard it happen.
And that’s the main difference between rally and the other events where hams typically provide communications. Usually, the organization running the event looks for outside help to run the net for them. But in rally, I’ve seen many enthusiasts get their own licenses just to be able to help with communications. There is a wide variety of other activities you can pursue with ham radio, but some never even pick up a microphone outside a rally, and that’s OK.
Drivers, co-drivers, and service crews have also picked up ham radio – not just to monitor the net, but for their own team communications. If you bent a control arm on the last stage and need to replace it during service, you can save a lot of time by radioing ahead to your crew so they can be ready to do the job as soon as you pull in. You’re only allowed to spend so much time in service, but there’s no rule against calling ahead!
How Do I Get On The Air?
There are three ham radio license classes – Technician, General, and Extra, each providing access to more and more frequencies. The entry level license, Technician, gives you access to everything you need for rally communications. From the American Radio Relay League web site:
The FCC Technician License exam covers basic regulations, operating practices and electronics theory, with a focus on VHF and UHF applications. Morse code is not required for this license.
The exam is a 35 question multiple choice standardized test, with questions on each of these topics. There are various ways to learn the material you’ll need to know to pass it. You can go old school with a book, which covers all the material and includes the entire question pool from which your exam questions must be chosen. There are also classes available through ham radio clubs to teach you what you need to know. These may be spread over several weeks, or you may be able to find a “license in a day” class. Either way, these classes usually include an exam session at the end. You can also study online using practice tests, or take an online course. Local clubs offer exam sessions frequently, so when you’re ready you can sign up, pay the exam fee ($15 at the time of this writing), and take the test. The passing grade is 74%, so you don’t need to be a complete expert on the material. When you pass, you may go on the air as soon as your new callsign appears in the FCC database. The license is good for 10 years, and there is no cost beyond the exam fee to obtain or renew it unless you splurge for a vanity callsign. (I splurged for mine, KJ1H, because it contains my initials, and because my Extra class license allows me to get a shorter callsign.)
Then all you need is a basic radio setup. Rally communications take place almost exclusively in the 2-meter band, so any radio that covers 144-148 MHz should work. You can splurge on a fancy multiband radio with handy features like crossband repeat, but a basic radio that only covers 2 meters will work fine, and cost less, especially if you buy a used one. Small handheld radios are particularly affordable, especially the cheap Chinese brands, but you really need the extra power of a mobile radio for rally. They’re still great for listening to the net, though.
You’ll also need an antenna. A magnetic mount antenna for the 2-meter band will work just fine. If you intend to install your radio in your car more permanently, or if you don’t want to risk scratching your paint with the magnetic base, a variety of antenna mounts are available, making it easy to find something that will work with your particular vehicle. If you’re ambitious, you could also buy or build an antenna and small mast to set up outside the car once you’re in position, further extending your range. Power to the radio should be supplied directly from your car battery. If you want to use it at home, you’ll need to pick up a cheap 12v power supply, and some kind of home antenna as well.
Whether you’re a driver, co-driver, service crew, marshal, or a spectator, amateur radio can add a new dimension to your rally experience. In fact, if you’re currently a spectator, a ham radio license can be your gateway to the best seats in the house, somewhere blocking a crossroad on a stage, away from the normal spectator areas. Rallies are always looking for more volunteers, and a ham license makes you that much more valuable.