You might live next door to the Nürburgring, but that doesn't mean you can take a lap whenever the fancy strikes. But what if you built your own track where you could drive as much as you want, whenever you want, in your own automotive Disney World? That's the dream, right there.
With your own track, you could round up some buddies and hold your own time trials. Design your own corners. Tinker with your car and see if you can make it quicker - all on your own terms, on your own schedule. But that fantasy is beyond the means of just about everybody, because it takes a rare wealthy lunatic to embark on construction of a race circuit. Unless, that is, the circuit in question is a rally stage.
Building a road course is hard. You need all sorts of permits and engineers and heavy equipment and pavement. To build a rally track, you need only a forest and a naive belief that you can build a dirt road simply by removing a few trees. As luck would have it, I have access to some woods - thirty acres of them, up in Maine. When my parents moved there in 1979, the place was idyllic. Now, there's a giant gravel pit across the street.
My parents don't live there anymore; they've had the property on and off the market for years. I get the idea that they don't really want to sell it, because inevitably the next owner will follow the example of the neighbors and promptly despoil the terrain with excavators and dump trucks. I have a better idea: repurpose the land for a noble cause, use it as raw material to sculpt a stirring piece of artwork - a rally track. When life gives you gravel pits, make rally track-ade.
I arrive at the property armed with the following equipment: a chain saw; a 13-hp, Honda-powered brush cutter; a diesel Bobcat skid-steer loader; and a pair of hedge clippers. Of these items, I have experience using the hedge clippers. But I just assume that I'll be able to master the array of dangerous power equipment on hand. I mean, what is a chain saw except a two-stroke gas motor connected to a blur of whirring knives? And a Bobcat is simply a two-ton, four-wheel-drive steel exoskeleton with an articulating hydraulic bucket, no steering wheel, and a penchant for pulling wheelies. I'm sure I'll figure it out.
My brother, Graham, agreed to help, and we walk out onto the trails to see what we're up against. We learned how to drive out here in a 1982 Subaru GL 4WD, when I was eleven years old and Graham was nine. We didn't know it at the time, but we were pint-size rally drivers back then. As our comfort level increased, we started going faster, until our parents strolled through the woods one day and noticed that all the trails' corners were getting torn up. It's a statement of what annoying children we must've been that our parents handed us the keys to an actual car just to get us out of their hair.
The old GL didn't last long in our hands - in protest of its fate, it gradually lost power until it would start but refused to move - so it's been about twenty years since anyone drove a car out here. In the meantime, nature's been busy. Two decades of persistent photosynthesis have obliterated the trails I used to drive. And my goal isn't simply to hack out a rutted four-by-four trail. I want a smooth road with fun corners. And a jump. We definitely need a jump.
First, I walk the path that I intend to use for the course, which I dub Forest Stage 3. (Why stage three? Because it sounds cool and implies that there are two other, undoubtedly less dangerous, stages.) It's all a mess, with felled trees crisscrossing the trail and thick underbrush crowding in from both directions. I reach out to shove a rotten tree out of the way, and a sapling snaps back and whips me across the eyeball. My contact lens is sliced in half. Great. I've nearly lacerated my cornea, and I haven't even fired up the chain saw yet. Mother nature, it seems, is not happy to see me.
Graham and I decide that he'll run the brush cutter while I clear the larger trees with the chain saw. I'm terrified of the chain saw. The owners' manual cautions that there's a part of the chain called the "kickback zone," and if you touch that part to a tree, the chain saw will probably plow halfway through your femoral artery before the motor hydrolocks on your gushing blood. So I grip the chain saw like it's a rabid raccoon, keeping it as far away from my body as possible.
And yet, it's an awesome tool. Trail-obstructing trees are obliterated in a cloud of sawdust and noise. Branches that crowd the path are surgically removed. I even get low and flatten out a few stumps that look like they could imperil a rally-car tire. It turns out that I needn't have worried about those. Because tree stumps, I soon learn, are no match for an angry Bobcat.
The Bobcat is like a Tonka toy scaled up for adults. It's an incredible machine - a grader, an earthmover, a stump-digger that's able to turn on its own axis and crush anything in its path. There's something fundamentally appealing about rearranging the landscape with a bucket loader. But there's a bit of a learning curve. My initial stint in the driver's seat is a neck-snapping procession of jerky movements as I learn to manipulate the controls. My first project is to cover a narrow rock that juts up out of the trail in the perfect position to decimate a suspension arm. The rock is adjacent to a steep banking, so I use the Bobcat to scoop earth from the hill and cover the rock. When I'm done, the rock is covered, the trail is widened, and we have our first piece of terrain that actually looks like a road.
Now all we need is a rally car. Luckily, I've coerced Subaru into loaning me a set of wheels. A fellow named Aaron from Vermont SportsCar arrives with a trailer containing a piece of cargo that is about to elevate our level of silliness by nine or ten notches. He lowers the door and backs out a silver and black Subaru Impreza WRX STI fitted with high-profile dirt tires and, as required by Subaru Insane Rally Car tradition, gold wheels. The interior is gutted. There's a red roll cage and a spare wheel and tire mounted where the back seats should be. Aaron explains that the roll cage shouldn't be trusted, since it's just a cosmetic piece installed for this car's former role as a star in Fast & Furious. The film connection is also why this particular STI wears a deep, ground-hugging, aftermarket chin spoiler. That could be trouble out on Forest Stage 3.
Inside the car, every idiot light is blazing. The STI's SI-Drive system isn't working, and the center differential is locked in a "safe" mode instead of offering its usual adjustability. The exhaust periodically coughs blue smoke. The emergency brake has all the grip of Larry King on a Teflon chin-up bar. If cars could talk, this one would probably say, "Please fill my crankcase with sodium silicate and stop the madness." Sorry, STI. No rest for the weary, I suppose, because tomorrow you'll begin your new career as a rally car.
The next morning, we arrive early, excited to groom our creation into a mini World Rally Championship proving ground. My first priority, naturally, is to build a jump. Since I've never built a jump, I'm not sure how steep or tall to make it, so I just keep adding buckets of dirt with the Bobcat until it seems about right. I want to get air, but I don't want to punch the front struts up through the hood when I land. That said, my jump looks weak. But better to build it up gradually than make it too Red Bull X Games Xtreme right away. Rallying is only fun when your car's not broken in half.
With the most important part of the track in place, I apply driver and navigator ID decals to the Subaru. And with the heroic Scandinavian team of E. Dyerssson and G. Dyerhämäläinen occupying the front seats, you know this car will surely be sideways in those rare moments when the wheels are touching the ground. Graham and I don bright blue Subaru firesuits and open-face rally helmets, and I feel almost ready to give postrace interviews laced with Norwegian profanity and punctuated by straight pulls off a bottle of Svedka.
I fire up the STI to take a practice lap. "This seems kind of familiar, huh?" Graham says. Indeed, we've been buckled into a Subaru hatchback out here before. This one just has, oh, more than four times the horsepower. The Subaru boxer four-cylinder has enjoyed severe horsepower inflation since the '80s.
The course layout is basically a sprawling figure eight, with plenty of elevation change and a nice straightaway connecting to an uphill right-hander that leads into a tunnel of foliage. At the end of that tunnel: the jump.
The jump looked modest when I was standing atop it, but from inside the car, heading up the hill, it looks like a horizon-blotting ramp to outer space. Surely, though, that must be an optical illusion, so I grab second gear and hit it at about 35 mph.
The Subaru explodes out of the forest, all four wheels clear of mother earth, and touches down about twenty feet beyond the launch point. That was a little bigger than I'd anticipated. And actually, just about right - big enough for excitement, small enough that it won't break the car. Hopefully.
I park the Subaru and get back in the Bobcat to refine the track. A couple laps later, I've removed the crown from the road, eliminating the ruts and dispensing with the shorn-off saplings that were grabbing the bottom of the car. While I'm at it, I widen a few corners, bulldozing stumps into oblivion and dragging the bucket in reverse to smooth my handiwork. I get so lost in my Bobcat projects that Mike, the photographer, wanders down to the far reaches of the course - where I'm digging stumps and making "Vroom, broom!" noises with my mouth - to remind me that I might want to get back to driving, you know, the car.
Good point. It's time to go hot. Some parts of the track are too narrow and need more tinkering, but others are exactly as I'd envisioned. For example, after landing the jump, there's a gravel right-hander that's wide enough to get some serious sideways action, followed by another right-hander and a downhill left. With a little more excavation, there could be some speedier sections, but as it stands, it's all first and second gear. Then again, when you're doing 45 or 50 mph with trees whizzing past your ears, you don't feel like you're going slow. In fact, when I stop to take a break, my hands are shaking from the adrenaline. This is usually the point where, at every other track I've been on, someone tells me to get out of the car. Here, there's nobody to stop me.
It turns out that sometimes I need somebody to stop me. After launching off the jump, I spin the car around and try to stop to talk to Mike. Instead, I sail right past him, grinding to a halt against an embankment. The brakes are AWOL. Inside the car, it feels like the ABS is having an argument with itself, with the calipers and rotors paralyzed by indecision. Maybe rocks got into the brakes, or maybe the smaller rotors on this car (to allow the fifteen-inch gravel wheels) confused the ABS sensors somehow. At any rate, I write off the incident as a one-time aberration, because immediately afterward, the brakes return to normal. And they stay that way right until my final lap.
Coming down the straightaway, I hit the brakes to set up the car for the right-hander. But the phantom ABS gremlin is back. The pedal pulses, but I don't slow down. I switch to Plan B - try to steer around the corner - but the car is going too fast, and I understeer wide. Right into a tree. The passenger-side headlight caves in, and the fender wrinkles with a sickening crunch. Crap. Hack drivers always blame the car for their mistakes, but I really did lose the brakes! Really. Honest. No, seriously.
The resilient Subaru still drives, albeit with a plaintive new whine from the power-steering pump. I pry the fender back into an approximation of its regular shape and consider taking a few more laps, but my better judgment belatedly kicks in. Brakes are important. I shouldn't drive without them. And yet, I'm having so much fun that I ponder ideas like, "What if I just went slow and used the emergency brake? That sort of works." It's clearly time to park the car and hang up the Nomex.
Usually when you get déjà vu, you can't figure out why. But it so happens that, back in 1988, Graham drifted off the trail and hit a tree with our Subaru GL, taking out the passenger-side headlight and folding the fender back onto the tire. Then, as now, I got a pry bar, pulled the sheetmetal off the rubber, and called it a day. Listen, Simba, while I tell you of the Circle of Fender Benders.
All told, I spent $530 to rent the Bobcat and the brush cutter. Graham was compensated with beer and cheeseburgers. I don't know the value of the land, but when my parents bought it in 1979, it cost less than the Subaru that I restyled today. So if you, like me, will never have a factory ride or a super-platinum membership at the Monticello Motor Club, despair not. With some cheap land, a little elbow grease, and a basic familiarity with chain saws, you could have a track of your very own. It's no Goodwood, but these are pretty good woods.