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.

What Is a RallySprint?

From the SCCA RallySprint rules:

A RallySprint is similar to a rally-type stage but with a relatively short stage length and lower speeds than typically encountered in stage rally. RallySprint events are run on sections of dirt, gravel or snow-covered roads or trails that are closed to the public. The course is primarily delineated by the roadway, with upright and pointer cones placed at key locations for way-finding and hazard-warning purposes. RallySprint events are typically run on off-road/rally school sites and short sections of dirt/gravel roads.

What Is a Rally?

From the NASA Rally Sport web site:

Stage Rally consists of a series of timed races, called stages. A stage is anywhere from one to twenty-five miles long and is usually a forest or logging road. The roads are closed to the public, and each competitor starts one minute after the next. Thus the challenge is driving the road, not rubbing wheel to wheel with your competitors. Keep in mind that the driver has never been on the road before, and has no idea what is behind the next curve or over the next hill. The navigator is equipped with a special odometer, accurate to the hundredth of a mile, and a route book which tells them what turns to make, as well as especially dangerous sections to watch for, like cliffs or river crossings. All of the stages, sometimes called special stages, are linked by transits, which are regular roads. Because the vehicles have to travel from one stage to the next on these transits, all of the race vehicles actually have to be street legal!!!

The vehicles need to be fully prepped for racing. This means a full roll cage, racing seats, skid plates, five point harnesses, and so on. Also common is seam welding the body, reinforcing the suspension, removing the interior, and re-designing the entire drive train. These are all out race vehicles that are loud and a nightmare on the streets. Definitely not daily driver material!

Because of the large amount of unknowns and the rough condition of the roads, there is a large potential for damage to the cars. This means that the service crew is a vital part of a team’s final placing. Much more than many other motor sports, rallying is a team effort. The driver must be skilled, but must also heed the navigator. The navigator’s job is to make the driver go as fast as they can, which involves either giving or withholding information! Both of them need to be able to fix the vehicle on the race course if something goes wrong, and the service crew has to be ready to keep the car running, somehow, till the next service.

The events are spectacles in themselves. Anywhere from twenty to one hundred and twenty or more teams participate. A large rally might have 600 people working the course as timers, crowd control, communication and radio relays, stage captains, safety marshals, and officials.


Is It OK To Use Ham Radio for Rallies?

From the NASA Rally Sport Web Site:

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.