As the old saying goes, records are made to be broken. But before you can break them, you gotta make them.
That’s part of the reason why I’m here sitting shotgun in a specially prepped Subaru WRX STI during a pouring rainstorm on Romania’s National Road 7C, aka the Transfăgărășan, a serpentine stretch of road in South Central Romania that has captivated the imagination of automotive enthusiasts the world over. So much so that Subaru decided it was well past time for someone to lay down a record time.
I’m awaiting my turn to be tossed about in the newly installed passenger seat on the slithering path up the mountain with veteran rally ace Mark Higgins at the controls. The weather has been pure garbage ever since the Time Attack Romania—Subaru’s name for its record-making extravaganza—officially got underway. As the rain pounds down on the car, I’m wondering if this is the best idea.
Fog has also been rolling in and out of the valley’s basin at the northern end of the road carved into the Carpathian Mountains like a constantly emptying and filling glass, and bad weather has generally been playing havoc with most of the 52.4-mile attack route.
At first, Higgins thought it would be straightforward enough to lay down a solid time after his reconnaissance run earlier in the week. But that had been done in good weather conditions. Though much of the route is heavily patched, with significant dips and ruts and various other imperfections, the surface itself isn’t all that challenging for someone with Higgins’ experience considering some of the insanity he’s driven over during his career. Instead—for Higgins and anyone else tackling this road at race pace—it’s more about navigating some 624 twists, turns, bends, and kinks. One of the biggest challenges Higgins had was getting used to using first gear far more than he normally would in any other rally-style drive due to all of the super-slow-speed corners.
Not even the wet is necessarily an issue for someone with a résumé like Higgins’, but when it’s raining on parts of the course and not others, tire choice can be an issue. Then there’s the fog, two different kinds of it as I quickly found out during my abbreviated hike up the Transfăgărășan run in the passenger seat of the race car.
Things seemed solid enough as we launched from the start, tires spinning and spitting rain in our wake, Subaru’s signature 2.0-liter turbo boxer four tuned to 600 horsepower and 447 lb-ft of torque emitting the scream of a thousand pissed-off beehives, paired to a specially prepared, semi-automated six speed automatic. If you ever get to experience a passenger ride with a pro driver, prepare yourself for some serious g-forces going to town on your senses. I’ve been in with a few pros on race tracks during my career, but this was very different, far more visceral and intense.
As Higgins quickly got comfortable with the tires and conditions, my helmeted head started bobbing, weaving, and pinging off the safety harness thanks to his hammering of the brakes, the uneven tarmac, and the mix of slow hairpins and faster, straighter stretches. But then the fog rolled in—into Higgins’ field of view, that is. Sure, there was fog outside the car, and that was manageable enough; but when the windscreen itself fogged up right in front of Higgins, we had to slow dramatically, nixing the rest of the fun run. The fog was a constant issue during the two days and would scuttle one of the record attempts. The use of rain-friendly rally style tires dramatically impacted another attempt, as they essentially disintegrated down to the cords by the end of the route, as the last part of the road was dry.
Then there were the usual problems that can crop up when you’re hammering the bejesus out of a car like the specially built and prepped Subaru WRX STI Type RA, such as a balky boost controller (a replacement had to be flown in) and an electrical issue that briefly stopped the car. Subaru commissioned longtime collaborator Prodrive Ltd.—the motorsport and technology company that won rally championships with Subaru and has recently enjoyed a successful partnership with Aston Martin in sports car racing—to build the special time attack machine based on a U.S. spec 2015 WRX STI. The car first saw action with Higgins at the wheel in 2016 when he took on the Isle of Man TT Mountain Course and set a record lap for a car with an average speed of 128.73 mph. In 2017 the Subaru did the Nürburgring thing, with New Zealand driver Richie Stanaway setting a four-door car record of 6:57.5. Then the WRX STI went up the hill at the Goodwood Hill Climb with Higgins back in the driver’s seat, where it finished third.
And now Romania and the Transfăgărășan, where Higgins joked that Subaru’s public relations team was “trying to kill me” with all of these crazy record runs. The British native has been driving for the better part of 30 years in all manner of rally series, from the FIA World Rally Championship to a recent stint in the FIA’s relatively new World Rallycross Championship. Higgins has also done a fair amount of stunt driving work, including for the last three James Bond films. He drove a car that was later edited into a vehicle Han Solo would drive in the Star Wars film “Solo” as well. If Solo can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs, certainly Higgins can make a serious go in Romania in the STI RA.
The STI RA Higgins and co-driver Darren Garrod used to attack the Transfăgărășan weighs around 2,425 pounds; the Prodrive crew set it up similarly to a rally car taking on a tarmac stage. It underwent further revisions to enable it to better handle the rigors and special nature and length of a course with elevation changes ranging from roughly 1,607 to 6,699 feet. Modifications include working headlights, a barometric sensor, and a larger, 100-liter fuel tank.
In between the record attempts, a few of the assembled journalists had an opportunity to tackle part of the route in stock WRX STIs with the road closed to traffic for several hours. (Some Romanians were none too pleased about it. Sorry!) It was one heck of a harrowing and hair-raising time, as the elements played havoc with us as well during our drive. But when you get a chance to do a four-wheeled dance along a stretch that former “Top Gear” and present “The Grand Tour” host Jeremy Clarkson dubbed “the best road in the world,” you attack it as fast as the chase car and your skills will allow.
The northern part of the route is the glorious stretch you may have seen in photos, coiling up the rugged Făgăraş Mountains in the Southern Carpathians. Built during the rule of brutal dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu from 1970 to 1974 as a military road, it was a controversial project that took many lives during its construction. On the straighter, faster, southern back side, we hustled like STIs out of hell. Other than some brake shudder chalked up to the superheated pads, the stock WRX STIs took all the abuse we could dish out. And we were dishing out more than a delicious four-course Romanian pork dinner.
It was surreal to be able to bum-rush the Transfăgărășan with no traffic to worry about. Still, Subaru didn’t employ some 100 people—including a full photo and video crew, a helicopter, police and security, fire and rescue, Prodrive engineers and techs, and Subaru’s automotive events support team—for a bunch of journalists to hustle STIs. This was some serious big-boy stuff, and time was getting short for Higgins to get in a truly fast run.
It seems like it’s always the way it goes, but on the last attempt, everything finally fell into place. The weather sort of cooperated, the road was dry-ish, the car behaved, and Higgins didn’t get fogged in. Even the helicopter got in the air and did some filming for the first time. The full 52.4 miles of the run went by in 40 minutes, 58.8 seconds. Average speed was 76.69 mph. Record made.
The gauntlet has been thrown down, the stake is in the ground, the time is in the books—and we’re out of clichés. Who’s got next? And can we come, too?