First Slide: 2014 Subaru WRX STI Rally America Race Car
Zero to Hero
“OK, ready?” David Higgins’ soft voice crackles over the Peltor intercom. I shoot him a thumbs-up. “Let off the clutch slo -- ”
I stall before he could finish. I blame cold feet, an overzealous spirit, and a tricky (for my green foot, at least) Tilton racing clutch. “Don’t rev it like you just did,” he says. “Get on it slowwwww while adding throttle.”
A handful of moments in my life have made me wonder, Is this real? This is one of them. I’m sitting inside a 330-horsepower Subaru STI race car built to battle in Rally America’s highly competitive Open Class. This isn’t an ordinary office, and neither is its location in the frosty New Hampshire forests at Team O’Neil’s Rally School.
An impressive array of equipment accompanies us on this chilly morning: a rollcage, two scalloped seats, harnesses, fire extinguishers, a steering wheel, a tall hydraulic handbrake. A gearshift actuating the sequential six-speed Sadev gearbox stands 3 inches left of the handbrake. Semblances of a production car foundation are nearly all gone, save for a turn signal arm. A digital tachometer and Coralba odometer sit at my 12 o’clock.
Its outfitting is the sole responsibility of Vermont SportsCar. Among the upgrades of this car, which was built at the end of December 2013: a seam-welded body with replacement composite panels, a bespoke rollcage for safety and rigidity, beefier Reiger Suspension rally dampers, 15-inch-tall by 7-inch-wide Method gravel wheels, an FIA-spec fuel cell, more robust prop shafts and drive shafts, bigger Alcon brakes, and studded DMACK Grippa tires. The list goes on.
Minutes before my inglorious stall, the STI’s unrestricted pipes belch deafening grumbles while it idled in our makeshift pit (a dirt lot, really). The smell of combusted racing fuel wafts inside. My toes and fingers are almost frozen. I have trouble grasping the steering wheel. Heat radiating off the 2.0-liter turbo flat-four provides brief relief.
My sight line peeks just above the scooped hood. It isn’t ideal, but it isn’t deal-breaking, either. Both seat and pedals are set for the Manx buckled in at my right. This caged enclave is his office, his headquarters. He won last year’s Rally America Championship in my very Recaro. (He’s a four-time consecutive champion.)
I reminisce as we wait for fluids to warm. I have adored rallying since Speedvision’s late-night replays of the FIA World Rally Championship. I specifically remember drivers’ eyes. Their focus never seemed to wane. I remember the drivers’ calmness as mayhem neared, the seamless evasive maneuvers they executed, the unfettered awareness they directed at the next corner, straight, or hill. I remember the constant din of co-pilots’ voices relaying directions. To me, rally racers are heroes.
Hammering the STI’s throttle provokes ludicrous speeds and gargantuan clamor. The Garrett turbo spools and spews, throwing me backward in a relentless, g-loaded ferocity. Don't forget to upshift, I remember …
Driving a $500,000 race car demands a recalibration of my senses and reactions. Don't over rev the mill, or it’ll explode (literally), I tell myself. Don’t be too gentle with the sequential box, either. It loves to be manhandled. Oh yeah, it may also explode if it’s shifted wrong. Mind the brakes. You’ll need to nail the floor-mounted pedal to get any reliable bite. (ABS was thrown out along with the stock underpinnings.) Don’t underestimate the steering. It’s as sharp as helms get. Also, don’t mistake the hydraulic handbrake for the shifter, OK? Now, that would be a fun mix-up.
Good thing I dusted off my limited rallying repertoire ahead my drive. Pendulum turns, slalom navigation, trail braking, and left-foot braking are a few of basics retaught by Team O’Neil. The most challenging to implement is the essential turn-then-brake combo. My instincts want it reversed, like it is in road driving. In rallying, the maneuver sends weight to the front for optimal tail wag.
A shocking bang comes from beneath the floor with every shift -- I hope it’s normal. Each throttle stab produces a choppy PSSSHHHHH from the turbo’s wastegate. As speeds climb, so does my heart rate, yet I manage to reflect on my current state: I speed through an evergreen forest, dodging day-ending rocks, acting out the Speedvision replays I always adored. Glorious!
“Brake … throttle … brake … good … third gear … NOW!” Higgins instructions are on point. When he isn’t traveling or racing, he is instructing at his own rallying school. “BRAAAAKE!” my co-pilot screams.
The left-hand hairpin is so sharp and my speed so great that I almost miss it. I smack the gearshift forward twice until a bright “1” shows on my dash. Two immediate bangs -- like a 2-by-4 smacking a tree trunk -- rattle the cabin. Rallying 101 kicks into overdrive: dial-in steering angle … keep the revs up … brake to get your weight forward … look at your target … eyes up … trail brake more … counter-steer … BRAKE.
Higgins’ order finally registers. The squeaky Alcons annihilate momentum and in doing so initiate my most memorable drift ever. Our slide is so controlled that I think Higgins has a hidden steering wheel on his passenger side. The amazement paralyzes me for a moment. Finagling such precise, smooth, instantaneous redirections on ice and mud goes against all that I understand about grip thresholds and lateral g loads.
Once straightened, I again smash the right pedal. The Subaru’s talons grab voraciously as differentials translate 550 lb-ft of grunt into all-wheel-drive thrust. Anti-lag, sequential gearing, and a Rally America-mandated 2,900-pound maximum heft meant sprints to 60 mph take around 4 seconds flat. On pavement, it drops to barely more than 3 seconds. When flanked by mega trees, it feels like 150 mph in 1 second.
“Nice job,” Higgins says as we crawl into our pit.
My 20-minute sampling of his world comes to an end. We shake hands, exchange smiles and thumbs-up, and unbuckle. Almost immediately, my helmet smacks the rollcage, and I flop over the side bar. I have string cheese for legs. Color me embarrassed.
Still, joy pours through me. I’ve driven a legitimate rally car, as fast as I could, with a champion by my side. I feel like I conquered the entire New Hampshire forest in my quest for the Rally America crown. I feel like a Speedvision hero beaming on a podium. Next time, I’ll bring some bubbly.
Mr. Higgins, Take the Wheel
“Are you a good passenger?” Higgins asks. His grin can’t be wider. We fasten the last of our harnesses’ buckles.
The fun continues 20 minutes after my drive. Subaru Rally Team USA brought its new 2015 STI racer for us to experience with Higgins behind the wheel. Again built by VermontSportsCar, the newer STI employs a revised 2.0-liter boxer making 330 horsepower and 480 lb-ft (with a stipulated Open Class 33mm restrictor). The majority of last year’s equipment made it onto the younger car: a six-speed Sadev sequential gearbox, DMACK tires, Method Racing wheels, FIA-spec fuel cell, Recaro seats, etc.
“Aw yeah! Let’s do this!” I try not to sound too childish. I fail miserably.
The man holds nothing back. I honestly thought I had carried a decent clip on my run. Not in the slightest. The bloke from the Isle of Man engages his Attack mode, knocks off three gear changes in a span of 4 seconds (getting us to around 70 mph), clips a chicane, then climbs a hill. From there, it’s a steep descent toward a sharp right-hander.
Higgins charges the bend. Sideways. At one point, our pirouetting places my seat in front of the corner’s apex as we swing around it. Milliseconds later, the hill we just climbed fills my forward view. Higgins culls minimal speed during his blitz and instead, as a real rally racer does, leans into his brakes so as to pitch the car’s weight precisely when and where he desires.
Higgin’s feet and hands are steadfast in their finesse and calmness, not to mention blistering in their repositioning. His heels keep planted as his toes touch the pedals in brief, gentle, purposeful hits. You would think Higgins was born and raised on Tim O’Neil’s compound by the way he navigates about. In fact, he first traced the course only an hour prior to our run. The orchestration of his movements with the measured reactions of his machine is artistic and mesmerizing. In Higgins’ clutch, the STI acts as an appendage, not an appliance.
Attack mode carries on. We run through a blurry sea of whitened foliage. Second gear … third gear … fourth gear. The STI skips over the pitted, disheveled terrain. The same left-hand hairpin I encountered minutes ago lies ahead. Although belted in tight, my body flings into the Recaro’s outermost bolster as Higgins adds an abrupt yank of the handbrake to his attack. The STI pivots around at what must be double the speed I carried.
Against the g loads tugging my head, I glance at Higgins’ eyes. Focused, analytical, and undaunted they remain, like those of a consummate racer. Like those of a reigning champion. Like those of a hero.