Rallying is a nuanced art. It takes years of training to get to the level where you can drive an open class car like this Subaru WRX STI with a sequential gearbox and 500 pound feet of torque. But I didn't have years of training. I had hours. And driving it has warped my brain forever.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru invited me to Team O'Neil Rally School in New Hampshire to drive their 2014 WRX STI Rally America open class car with champion David Higgins sitting shotgun. In the snow. I thought I drove fast. Then Higgins gave me a ride in the 2015 car. I did not drive fast.)
Team O'Neil is famous for their rally school where they teach the ins and outs of the technique needed to drive a moderately powerful car on rally stages over the course of a few days. The problem is that we did not have days. We didn't even have one day. We had less than five hours to learn the dos and don'ts of rallying before we were unleashed in an open class car.
That's not a lot of time to learn how to unhook your brain from habits you've developed over years of driving. But it can't hurt to try.
Actually, what am I saying. It could hurt, very much. Like, crash into a tree hurt.
Our training to drive the open class car was in older WRXes with snow tires and cages. We did a skidpad, slalom, pendulum turn, and trail braking exercises, all on snow. What you learn is that sliding a car around is a lot of fun, left foot braking is an art that takes a lot of getting used to (the brake is not the clutch!), and understeer is cardinal sin number one.
I found that I wasn't looking far enough ahead, which was getting me behind for each successive gate. I was also using my hands too much and not steering enough on the throttle. Finally, I was aiming for an apex, but the problem with aiming there in rally is that it isn't a curb that you might be running over, it's frequently a tree or a rock.
These are all things that could put the real rally car, the real $250,000 rally car, left four minus over crest into tree. I did not want to be that guy.
Before we get a chance in the car, David Higgins gave us a walkaround. The basic gist of it was "this car is very fast" and "please don't break my baby oh please don't break my baby." Then we got a look at the two mile course we'd be driving.
I had spent my morning driving a relatively low-powered WRX through a wide open slalom, and I was now expected to take a full on rally car through two miles of hairpins, blind corners, and trees — hard, unforgiving trees — without ruining the car in any way, shape, or form.
Think of it this way. You once shot a pellet gun at a piece of paper eight times. Now you're leading an armed heist of Fort Knox. Something doesn't add up.
Climbing into the STI is a tight fit. David Higgins is a skinny guy, so his seat is rather small. I have an affinity for burritos and am not as trim as I once was.
The pedals are placed so that your left foot falls naturally over the brake. The gearbox is a six speed sequential, and you only really need the clutch for taking off, though they asked us to use it for shifting up until third gear.
(Side note: Subaru said they'd provide helmets and race suits, but since I drove to the event from NYC, I decided to just bring my own gear. Better than wearing something someone else sweated in and I didn't have to check any bags. Well, apparently you only needed a helmet, not a HANS and a suit like I went for. Better safe than sorry, but I felt like this kid.)
Once you're strapped in, it's time to take off. They're very careful to tell you that the combination of a carbon clutch and a light flywheel means you need to give it a lot of revs and hold them to get the car off the line.
I didn't listen very well, and I immediately stalled the car. Then we restarted it, where I promptly stalled it again. Then we restarted it, where I stalled it a third time. I was the first journalist to get in the car, so I was under a lot of pressure, but that's no excuse. Higgins also looked at me like I was just a moron who owned a race suit (I basically am).
But the fourth time was the charm, and then I got it moving. Ummmm, wow. Everything I learned in the morning was out the window. First, it has studded tires, which have the grip of a woman in labor. It also has power. Oh so much power. And with anti-lag turned off, that power doesn't come in immediately. Instead it arrives in a solitary high RPM punch that transports the STI through space and time.
And that punch comes again and again via the brutal sequential gearbox. It's the sort of gearbox that we all dream about. A quick hard pull to shift up, a forceful push to shift down. You can use the clutch, but you really don't need to. In the days since I've driven this car, I've spent much of my time pretending I was using a sequential gearbox, and that includes while I'm walking.
Higgins and I do a few runs through the slalom, where I pick up my pace each time. Then he turns on anti-lag. Now there's just power always. It's crazy fast, but also something that Higgins obviously feels is a bit much for our first run through the forest, so he turns it back off. I'm very ok with this.
As we descend into the forest, there is very little drama or sliding, just tenacious grip (this can probably be attributed to the fact that I don't really know where I'm going and am driving much slower than the car can go). But then as I gain confidence, I start to go faster and feel it slide. Every time I go to catch a slide, Higgins tells me I don't need to catch it, the slide will be caught by me giving it more power.
Well ok then.
The braking is also fantastic for being on slick snow, but there is basically no assist on the very hard pedal. It requires more effort than any brakes in a road car to get an appreciable amount of stoppage out of them.
You want stoppage in these woods. A lot of stoppage.
I go for a second lap through the course at a pace that I'd deem faster, but not fast. I start to get it to slide a little better and you can feel just how controllable it is. It's progressive and easy to manipulate, and so fast. Especially when the anti-lag comes back on for the run up the hill. Instead of a delayed response, the STI is now a snow rocket with the afterburner permanently on. There isn't a gear where there isn't wheel spin, the way it should be.
We get one more run through the slalom and then into a tight right hander, where I overcook it and run a little wide, and that's it. Higgins told me I did a "great job," presumably because I didn't kill him or his car, so I stall it one more time for good measure, and then I hop out, a grin permanently etched on my face.
Anytime you drive a race car, you realize that engineers tend to treat physics as more of a suggestion than a law. The car can get to 60 in 3.3 seconds on gravel. Let that sink in for a second. It can take corners on snow far faster than your brain can grasp. The all-wheel drive system is smarter than that jackass who did ten points better than you on his SATs. It's a cybernetic wonder suit in the form of a car.
You also gain an appreciation for the truly superhuman abilities of a rally driver. I thought I went pretty quickly, and then I rode with Higgins. He was incredibly fast, I just couldn't stop laughing. I told him afterwards it was amazing to see him in his element, driving on a course that he's been testing on for days.
"Want me to let you in on a secret?" Higgins asked. "This is the first time I've driven that route, I learned it driving with you."
That both impressed me and nearly made me barf. He was inches from trees and sliding like a madman. He's done this for years, but it makes you realize just how talented rally drivers are.
And now I've caught the rally bug. The sad reality is that I'll probably never get a chance to drive a car like that ever again. But that's ok, because I don't need to know what it's like to crash one.
Photo Credits: Subaru, Raphael Orlove