The dirty fun of learning how to drive like a rally star


Shadowed by the Cascade Mountains, the town of Snoqualmie, Wash., near Seattle is known for its 236-foot Snoqualmie Falls – but also as the fictitious backdrop of "Twin Peaks," David Lynch’s cult TV phenomenon of the early ‘90s. Today at Dirtfish Rally School, where the office doubled as Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, we’re plunged into our own surreal mystery: Learning to drive a rally car.

But first, we’re told, forget everything you know about fast driving. Because rally racing, in which a driver and navigating co-pilot blaze at maximum speed over dirt, gravel, mud and snow, demands a unique set of skills.

It also demands the right car. For Dirtfish students, that car is the Subaru WRX STi, the fierce AWD sedan and hatchback that has won rally championships around the world. With beefed-up suspensions, and showroom interiors torn out and replaced with roll cages, racing buckets and five-point harnesses, these 305-hp Subies are born to conquer the torture trails at this playground.

A playground it is, a 315-acre sandbox where students get to play “vroom vroom” with grown-up Matchbox toys. But before recess begins, a brief-yet-important classroom session introduces newbies to driving techniques that will keep us safely on course. And ideally, shiny side up.

Our full-day Rally Fundamentals course is on tap, which costs $1,150. But Dirtfish offers everything from a 2-hour Taste of Rally introduction (at $399); to an intensive three-day Advanced Rally Skills course (for $3,250) that culminates with a simulation of an actual rally stage.

Beneath a sign that reads, “Eat challenge for breakfast and glory for lunch,” Don Wooten, Dirtfish’s chief instructor, introduces us to concepts that seem alternately familiar and backwards. As in all racing, training your vision is a key: Look where you want to go, never at obstacles in your path. Stare at the looming telephone pole, ditch or rear bumper that your car is sliding toward, and you’re virtually guaranteed to hit it, because your car naturally goes where your eyes are pointed. Instead, drivers must keep eyes up to gain the longest possible view, and turn their heads when necessary – even if that means staring out the side windows — to find the intended path, or the escape route in an emergency. Almost magically, the hands follow the eyes, and the car follows suit.

It’s a technique that could bail people out of fender benders, and much worse, on a daily basis.

But it’s here that conventional driving gets turned upside-down, or more accurately, sideways. To go as fast as possible on loose, slippery surfaces, rally driving requires skidding through every last turn. Hundreds of turns, to be precise, with races typically covering hundreds of miles of mostly unfamiliar roads, over three days and race stages.

“Real cars, real roads, real fast,” as Wooten succinctly puts it. Compare that to typical racing: Drivers cover lap after lap of the same familiar, well-practiced turns, on smooth surfaces and mostly ideal traction conditions. They’re protected by safety barriers and run-offs, not threatened by boulders, forests or plunging cliffs that await the rally driver who screws up. It’s the reason that professional rally drivers are considered some of the best, and certainly most fearless, in the world.

Since the rally driver “usually doesn’t know where he’s going,” Wooten says, his success and survival depend on a trusty co-pilot who follows copious “pace notes” and barks out coded commands on the proper speed and approach to whatever’s around the next bend – including jumps that see rally cars grab air like an extreme skier.

Eager to try it for ourselves, we slap on helmets and strap aboard our orange-and-black Subarus. Students start slowly, circling a gravel-choked skidpad and tackling a dirt slalom course to practice weight transfer, lift-throttle oversteer and left-foot braking, essential techniques to maximize speed and control on loose, slippery surfaces.

We’re taught to suddenly lift off the gas to prepare for a turn – which transfers the car’s weight onto its front wheels -- then to turn the steering wheel and squeeze the brake with our left foot. That trio of moves puts the car into a gentle sideways skid, but without turning it into a spinning top.

Get it right, and you find yourself squaring the circle: Turning a road’s gradual bends into a series of 90-degree angles. The idea is to pitch the car sideways, get it settled and pointed straight as soon as possible, and only then to squeeze the accelerator and blast toward the next corner.

“In races, the guy who can keep his wheel straight the longest, wins,” Wooten says.

With just a bit of practice, our WRX’s are drifting around turns like orange-and-black waterbugs, kicking up thick roostertails of dirt and stones. Naturally, the experience is a hoot, the kind of controlled chaos that I often attempted – sometimes with unhappy results – as a teenager in snowy Michigan.

Dave Higgins started much younger. The Subaru Rally Team USA star grew up in a rally-racing household, with a father and grandfather who both loved the sport.

“I drove my first rally car when I was 8, a Group 4 Ford Escort,” Higgins recalls. “It’s not something I ever remember learning, it was just what we did.”

The four-time champion in the Rally America series is set to compete in the scenic Oregon Trail Rally the following day. There, Higgins grabs a big lead for three days to win going away over noted X-Gamer Ken Block.

But on this day, Higgins takes me for a hang-on-tight lap in his team’s 360-hp, purpose-built WRX, rocketing through Dirtfish courses whose names include The Boneyard and The Mill Run.

Built on the site a defunct, nearly century-old Weyerhauser wood mill, Dirtfish has hosted races including the Twin Peaks Global Rally Cross finals in 2011. That race saw drivers negotiating a 70-foot jump over a yawning gap, and blasting through Weyerhauser’s abandoned planing shop – a massive freestanding wood building – at speeds of 130 mph.

If it all sounds like something out of a Vin Diesel action movie, you’ve got the idea. Best of all, with Dirtfish and its enthusiastic instructors hosting students from around the world, you don’t have to be a Hollywood star, or stunt driver, to try it for yourself. Just remember to brake with your left foot.