Carl Merrill & Diane Houseal, 1st Stage 1989 Voyageurs - Mike Lotwis Photo
The "New Guy"
The first time I ever heard the name Carl Merrill was at the 1989 Dartmouth Highlands Rally in Dartmouth, NS. Diane Houseal and I were competing in my SAAB Turbo and we noticed that John Buffum and Tom Grimshaw were listed in a Mazda 323GTX. This seemed odd to say the least, but the word was JB was testing it out for a customer. The next day, in between runs of the in-town spectator stage, we got a chance to get the details from JB. The customer's name was Carl Merrill, and it just so happened he was in need of a co-driver. So, before we all headed out to the woods, Diane had agreed to co-drive for the "new guy".
After Voyageurs, Diane co-drove for Carl at the 89 POR and the 89 Tall Pines, with Carl getting faster at each event. Over the winter, plans were made to service for Lesley Suddard and Karen Erner who would be driving my rent-a-racer SAAB at the Sabattus Divisional PRO Rally in South Portland, Maine. Diane called Carl and he agreed that it would be a good event to do. By this time Carl was starting to act more like the person you know. At dinner the night before the rally, he was putting bibs on the ladies and holding classes on the proper way to eat lobster. The day of the rally was bone chilling cold with a 30mph wind. Bob Geleta drove up Friday night to help me service the two cars. Both teams had no mechanical problems, so all was well. At the awards, it turned out that Carl and Diane were first and Lesley and Karen finished ninth, a very good day. When Carl was presented with the trophy and the check for first place, he did what would become normal for him, he donated the check back to the event. Watching him do this, one thought went through my mind, "this man has class".
The 2nd Mazda and the Mitsubishis
In 1990 Jon Wickens signed on as Carl's regular co-driver with Diane taking over for events when Jon wasn't available. Carl had Libra Racing build him a second Mazda so if one broke, he'd have a spare. After he and Diane rolled the new car in Colorado, he painted it the same as the first one because he didn't want people to think he was showing off.
While we were at the 91 Rallye des Cantons, Carl told us he had bought two race prepared Mitsubishi Eclipses that he was converting to rally cars. He said, "Now I'll have a car with some power".
The first event for the Eclipse was the 91 Baie des Chaleurs, with Diane getting the first ride in the new car. They finished 8th O/A despite the car having some serious braking system teething problems.
Carl drove the Mitsubishis for the rest of 1991 and all of 1992. At the 92 Winter Maine Rally Carl told us he was going to buy one of the new Ford Escort Cosworths for next year. All I could say was, "Wow!"
Carl Merrill & John Buffum, 1993 Chatahoochie - Diane Houseal Photo
Enter the Easter Egg
In the beginning of 1993, Carl was without a rally car. The Mitsu's had been sold to Henry Joy and Wotjek Grabowski and the Escort was still under construction at Libra Racing, so Carl borrowed Tim O'Neil's Galant for the Rallye Perce-Neige. We again made our way to the "Great White North" with Diane in the right seat and me helping with service.
While there, we got all the latest info on the Escort's progress and also an interesting story on buying the Escort.
In March, the car was ready for it's first event. Carl entered the Chatahoochie Forest Rally for a check-out run. It was a Divisional, but they (Carl & JB) would be allowed to run for fun. When we heard about this, we decided we had to be there. We payed little attention to the weather report of a major winter storm heading up the east coast - after all, we were going to Georgia, how bad could it be!
We pulled into the hotel parking lot Friday morning and there it was in all it's lavender glory, "The Easter Egg". Carl wouldn't tell us ahead of time what color he was painting the car, but we should have known something was up by the grin on his face. We spent the better part of the next hour crawling in and out around the car, talking to Carl's service man, Carvel Whaley, and trying to decide where the Ford badges belonged.
By mid afternoon the snow had started to fall and the forecast was ominous. But who cares, we're rallyists, we run in snow, and after all, this is Georgia, how bad can it get!
Friday evening with the snow still falling, we went on to more important things, like where do we eat! The fellow at the hotel recommended a place down the road and asked if we'd like him to make a reservation. We said "sure", did a quick count and said "for 25". He then asked if we'd like them to send a limo, we said "cool". In a short while our group was ready to leave for dinner so we told JB and Carl, "Our limo is here", to which John replied, "Limo?" About then the stretch limo pulled into the driveway and we all piled in. Just as we were pulling out, Tom Grimshaw pulled in, having just made the drive from Florida. John opened the door and yelled, "Hey Tom, get in". Tom recognized John tucked away in the crowded limo, and with a bewildered look on his face, climbed in.
Sometime during the dinner, some of the overaged kids went outside to get snowballs to throw at those still eating (hmmm, how could we ever have thought Carl was conservative?).
Saturday morning dawned and the snow was still falling and to make matters worse, the wind was kicking up to a gale. The organizers decided that JB and Jim Kloosterman would go out to check the condition of the roads. When they returned, the news was bad. The Forestry Service had closed the roads, plus word was that even the Escort with Buffum driving would not be able to get through, so they were forced to cancel the rally.
By mid-afternoon the town lost electric power. Diane and I scouted out the local stores for snacks, candles, etc. In our travels we found out the restaurant down the street would be serving until dark, so it was back to the hotel and tell the rest of the rally people. Then Diane and I, with JB and Carl in the backseat of the trusty LeBaron, headed out to get the last hot food until the power came back on.
On the drive from the restaurant back to the hotel, it was obvious that driving on snow covered roads was a new experience for most of the locals. After watching a guy do a 360 degree spin, the always insightful, with his eye for detail, JB commented, "That guy isn't a totally bad driver, he did manage to keep going in the same direction".
Looking back, that evening was probably the best non-rally, rally party I've ever attended. We had a fireplace in the hotel lobby to keep us all warm and, once the lack of power situation was remedied by Jim Anderson's generator (Honda, of course) from his service van, we had power to the TV to watch videos and even a couple of lamps, beer, and some great rally stories - prompted by Dave Thomas - from John Buffum and Tom Grimshaw. What more could anyone ask for! The Press refers to that storm as the "Mother of all storms", I remember it as a great time spent with good friends.
Carl got to run the new car at the Wild West PRO Rally that year and finished second to none other than John Buffum driving the new S2 Audi Quattro. And the rest, as they say, is history. I've lost track over the years of how many "new" Escorts Carl has had, but he always would be sure to tell me -with a grin on his face- about the latest "trick" setup they just installed.
That all came to an end last Saturday, October 3, 1998, when the Rally Community suffered a terrible loss with the passing of Carl Merrill.
Carl was my friend. That statement in itself doesn't make me unique because Carl was your friend too, even if you never had the pleasure of meeting him in person. If you have competed, worked or followed rallys in the United States or Canada in the last ten years, chances are your life has been touched by Carl. Along with being a competitor at almost every National event since 1990, Carl was a major force in the behind the scenes organization of events.
If you have ever eaten a lobster at the Maine Winter Rally, thank Carl. In fact, if you have ever been to or watched a Maine Forest Rally on TV, a lot of the credit for the event being in existence goes to Carl and his contacts with the local area businesses and lumber companies.
We were fortunate to have known him from the beginning of his rally career. Since then we have spent many enjoyable times together.
Right from the start, it was obvious that Carl was a very special person, not only from his business accomplishments (which were many), but from his approach to life in general. Carl enjoyed living life to the fullest, be it driving in rallys, skiing, flying his airplane, or any of his other hobbies.
People have written many thoughts over the past week of how Carl touched their life by being friendly and always taking the time to talk to them. That pretty much sums up the man and why he was a success in everything he did. He would always go the extra step and extend his hand in friendship.
The Rally Community is a small, close-knit extended family and when we loose a member, we all grieve. When all is said an done, we are just a bunch of good friends that like to get together to play with our cars in the woods.
Once, while walking out of a hotel on our way to dinner, Carl showed up wearing a "Willy Nelson" pigtail. I laughed and said to him, "Carl, I always tell people I want to be like you when I grow up, who do you want to be like?" Well, thinking back I know the answer to my question, Carl was the person he wanted to be, and I still would like to be like him.