Rally Driving 101

Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
In this article
  • Where to learn how to drive a rally car.
  • The differences between race driving and rally driving.
  • Details on a brand new car based on a rally superstar.
Rally Driving 101

At times, life can throw you a curve. But if you’re a professional rally driver, your life consists entirely of curves — and your success depends on how skillfully you negotiate them.

Rally Driving 101

In North America, rally driving is like the foreign cousin of the motorsport family: not well known and, at first glance, maybe a bit strange.

First off, rallies take place on all types of surfaces: gravel, dirt, pavement, snow and sand.

The rally driving team features both a driver and a co-driver, also known as the navigator. While the driver puts the pedal to the metal, the co-driver shouts out what to expect just around the next bend and the bend after that.

Whereas most forms of racing are comprised of many laps of a circuit, rallies are point-to-point races. The competitors start a stage at one location and complete it somewhere else, often very far from the start. Rallies are usually multi-day events consisting of many of these "stages." Finally, the techniques used to drive a rally car are different from those used to drive a racecar.

Where to Try It Out

Because rally driving is not exactly the most popular form of racing on these shores, there are only a few places to go if you’d like to try your hand at it. One such place is the European Rally, SUV and Performance Driving School, located in Starke, Florida, roughly an hour inland from either Jacksonville or Daytona.

How do you know you’re attending a European driving school? By the distinctly British accents you hear coming from every one of the instructors. A group of honest-to-goodness rallying professionals, these guys jet over from the UK whenever classes are scheduled.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a one-day course there. Not only does this school teach students the tricks of the trade, the instructors also introduced us to a brand new road car based on a rally superstar: the Subaru Impreza WRX.

For years now, Subaru’s Impreza model has enjoyed great success at the World Rally Championship. At last, the Japanese car company has decided to bring a higher-powered (and redesigned) version of the Impreza to these shores — starting this year.

With a turbocharged, 227-horsepower engine, all-wheel drive and a host of other nifty technology, the 2002 Impreza WRX is a serious performer that offers wicked traction and oodles of power. The only question is: How would it cope with a group of lead-footed journalists with more ego than common sense?

For the answer to that question and more, a group of us found ourselves at the Keystone Heights Airpark, a small airfield in the middle of a scruffy looking forest. This airfield serves as the school headquarters and is an ideal location considering the nature of their curriculum.

The Details

Stage One. The day included four stages, but they weren’t exactly traditional rally stages. In order to become familiar with the performance capabilities of the WRX, we started out on the airfield itself. A small, six-turn course was on tap, a route made up of two runways and a few linking sections. I blasted around for four laps, the instructor in the passenger seat encouraging me to explore the limits of adhesion.

Stage Two. The second stage also took place on tarmac, but a much rougher version, totally unsuited to landing airplanes. A skill-testing path was marked with pylons, but the really interesting characteristics were the imposing potholes and gravel strewn all over the course. You have to give the good people at Subaru a lot of credit, because on this stage alone, the new cars were subjected to a lot of abuse.

With no modifications apart from the addition of a metal skidplate under the car (to protect it from rocks, stones and stumps), a free-flow exhaust and racing harnesses, the WRX was essentially in dealer showroom form. The only other adjustment the disabling of the anti-lock braking system (not recommended outside of the racing context). Even the tires were the standard all-season performance rubber to be sold with the 2002 model.

So, on the second stage, the objective was to weave in and around the pylons, trying to set the car up perfectly for a series of tight turns. The course was only taken in second gear, but I quickly learned you can lose your way even at relatively low speeds. While tossing the car this way and that, I had the steering wheel spinning like the Tilt-A-Whirl at the state fair. I skated off the course, knocked over a few pylons, then set about having some more fun.

My instructor for this stage, a Welshman, was less than impressed. And he was even less impressed when I repeated virtually the same maneuver the next time around. I was being far too aggressive with the car, but I wanted to see what the WRX would do. Besides, there was nothing to run into on this course (besides pylons) and I wanted to take advantage of that freedom.

The one aspect of the course I did manage to master was the hairpin turn. Those intimately familiar with a car’s handbrake know that when you pull up on the device suddenly, you lock up the rear wheels. This is how rally drivers negotiate very tight, slow-speed turns. My years of experience making doughnuts in the snow using the beloved handbrake served me well; I threw the WRX around the pylon marking the turn, then sped off in the opposite direction. Sweet.

Stage Three. The third stage was where the rubber really hit the road. Or, rather, where the rubber really hit the dirt. A tight course that wound through the trees, this stage challenged the driver’s ability to set the car up for various turns, many of them of the hairpin variety. The handbrake technique learned in the previous stage came in, well, handy. Fully 75 percent of the turns were negotiated using the handbrake, then powering away in first gear.

The other techniques that are particular to rallies are left-foot braking and something called the "pendulum technique." Left-foot braking is just what it sounds like: using your left foot to brake while your right foot stays on the gas. This enables you to balance the car as you approach turns. It’s particularly effective with turbocharged cars because it lets you keep the revs up and, therefore, keep the turbo spinning and generating more power.

The other technique, the pendulum, is used to negotiate turns when the handbrake isn’t the most effective method. Approaching a turn, you actually steer away from the turn, then back towards the turn firmly but smoothly. This makes the back end of the car swing around — like a pendulum — so that you can go through the turn with greater momentum.

Both left-foot braking and the pendulum are tough to master. The reason? They require you to think about driving in a whole new way. After all, who in their right mind would steer away from a turn to negotiate that turn? And who would use the brakes and the gas at the same time in order to go faster?

Stage Four. The final stage was the most demanding by far. Combining the hairpin turns from stage three and the uneven surface from stage two, this test was truly demanding for both car and driver. Given that many of the turns were paved, the handbrake technique wasn’t the best choice. But the thought of using the pendulum around a turn with big trees mere inches away was daunting, to say the least.

By the end of my run, I managed to avoid hitting anything…apart from a few piles of old tires used to mark the course. But I didn’t really become confident enough with the lessons I’d learned to attack the route with any real aggression. Of course, this is an absolute must if your sights are set on becoming a rally driver.

The Impreza WRX

The WRX handled all the turns and techniques with alacrity. The all-wheel drive system offered plenty of grip and the turbo engine, when kept in the proper rev range, offered plenty of grunt. But the true joy in driving the Subaru comes from experiencing its handling. Even with the stock tires, this sedan clearly belongs on slippery surfaces. After all was said and done, each WRX had burned through three sets of tires, but the cars themselves ran flawlessly.

The European Rally, SUV and Performance Driving School offers standard and advanced driving courses that range in price from $625 (US) to $3,550 (US). For more information, visit http://www.gorally.com or call 1-877-U-RALLYE. For more information on the Subaru Impreza WRX, visit www.subaru.com.

This article last updated on Sunday 10th October 2010
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