When a James Bond film stunt driver tells you he’s never done anything as wild as what he’s about to do, it’s time to pay attention. That is, if the sight of a vertical U-turn made of ice clinging to the side of a jagged Alpine mountain hadn’t already supercharged your adrenal glands. How, exactly, does a car company decide it’s a good idea to toss a car down the world’s oldest bobsled run? It turns out it’s a shockingly simple process, at least for Subaru.
Jeremy Hart, a London-based journalist and founder of Inc. Content got in touch with Mark Higgins, Hollywood stunt driver and Isle of Man TT record holder, to see if it might be possible. Higgins, in his humbly confident way, thought it would work. They took the idea to Subaru of America’s Dominick Infante and within weeks, the plan was being hatched.
It would be a complicated plan, not least because a six-foot-wide Subaru WRX STI is a bit too snug a fit in a five-foot-wide ice chute. Because of the narrowness of the chute, the slickness of the ice, and the presence of a harrowing, vertical-walled 200-degree turn (The Horseshoe), Subaru engaged the help of the brilliant Brits at the world-renowned motorsports engineering firm Prodrive to solve its mathematical riddles. The first part of that process involved modifying the course: St. Moritz’s Olympia bobsled run.
Unlike other bobsled runs, the Olympia isn’t a thin layer of ice laid over a concrete form. It’s made the old fashioned way: from about 19,000 cubic yards of snow and another 9,000 cubic yards of water by a team of Tyrolean ice workers who build the run from the ground up (except for a couple of stone-backed banked corners) every year. It’s a variable and treacherous course in the best of times. In a turbocharged, all-wheel-drive rally car, it was a complete unknown.
With the official bobsled season at an end, the course was doomed to melt down the hillside, so carving it up a bit to accommodate a rally Subaru was merely a matter of moving many tons of ice and snow. The course’s standard width is about 63 inches (1.6 meters). To fit the 70.7-inch-wide Subaru down the track (and just barely, at that), the team had to widen the track to 78.7 inches (2.0 meters). And even then, the mostly stock STI ended up rattling off the sides of the chute.
To combat the beating the STI would take as it pinballed its way down the narrow chute, the Prodrive team added some structural bracing in the form of heavy square tubes welded into structural members at the front and rear. This added even more rigidity to the structure, which was already upgraded for its 2015 Isle of Man TT run with a full cage, though the entire back seat and most of the stock interior remains intact. All of the glass in the car was replaced with Perspex to reduce the danger of broken glass and make it easier for Higgins to escape the car in the tight confines of the bobrun. To help the car squeeze through the narrowest sections, machined nylon blocks were bolted to each corner of the car.
Other mods included a set of tungsten-studded professional rally snow tires inflated to 50 PSI to help fight the threat of de-beading in the corners, very high spring rates and firm dampers to prevent the car from completely bottoming out during the high compression loads of the fast banked turns, deleted side mirrors (they’d just get knocked off in the first corner), and a special set of progressive bump stops, because that’s where the car would be spending a lot of its time during the downhill run — mashing the bump stops to varying degrees of thinness, despite the heavy-duty springs and dampers.
The night before the event, Higgins appeared lighthearted, laughing at jokes about the lunacy of what he’d attempt the next day, all the while exuding a quiet confidence that he would be the first person ever to pilot a car down a world-class bobsled run. If there was an ounce of doubt in him, he hid it well.
On the morning of the attempt, Higgins knew he’d likely only get one run at the challenging Horseshoe — if things didn’t work well the first time, the car could easily be damaged beyond immediate repair, landing on its roof or side. He carefully walked the course, observing his marks: hyper-yellow dots of paint along his intended path around the Horseshoe. Go too high, and he’d risk coming out the top of the chute and going over the edge. Go too low and it’s all over but the grinding slide down the mountain on door or roof. Higgins’ face showed his focus — and just a hint of concern — as he carefully studied his path up the 90-degree face. Once launched into the chute, he would have only minimal influence over the car’s position and attitude. Higgins and the STI would be more projectile than vehicle. Getting the aim right at entry was key.
Fifteen minutes later, Higgins was helmeted and strapped into the STI, the engine popping and crackling as all four tires spun, launching him down the ice track toward the icy Wall of Death. His trip down the long chute running up to the Horseshoe had already ended in near-disaster during a partial practice run, with the STI rattling back and forth until blowing a car-sized hole out of the exterior wall of the bob run, nearly ejecting Higgins from the track onto the Alpine road below. This time around, Higgins would have to make it through the chute smoothly or lose all momentum just a few dozen yards from the Horseshoe. It would be a disaster.
But Higgins is no ordinary driver. He’s not even an ordinary rally driver. He’s a Hollywood stunt driver, known for handling the wheel — and the stunts — in Bond films, among others. With just one shot to stick the entry — and hopefully, the landing — he shot the gap and cleared the chute at just the right speed, the studded tires scrabbling their way up the wall as the car instantly flipped from horizontal to vertical. After the run, Higgins would say it felt like about 4g of vertical load. That load compressed the car’s suspension, allowing the braced portions of the car’s nose to dig into the ice, scrubbing speed, threatening to drag Higgins back down the wall. He added throttle, powering around the center of the Horseshoe toward the abrupt transition back to the horizontal.
Nearing the exit, the car veered slightly farther up the wall than planned, coming out of the chute a bit high and a bit late, nearly launching itself over the top of the exit. Two wheels landed on top of the wall, the Subaru’s left front fender and the edge of its roof grinding down the other side of the icy enclosure. It looked for one frightening instant like the car would complete its barrel roll and end the run with the shiny side down. Then, somehow, Higgins brought the car back down into the run, hundreds of tungsten studs searching for grip, doing their best to haul car and driver back from beyond the edge of control. Higgins had done it. The STI had landed.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It’s something I’ve never really done before. But it was pretty cool. A bit of a knock at the end, you could just feel it rattling around, as you would of course in a bob sleigh run…It’s a bit interesting to go around in a car,” said Higgins in characteristically understated fashion. “It’s almost slow motion when you’re doing it,” he said.
Right, Mark. Slow motion. Almost.