My winters growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan were spent in snow-covered parking lots, pulling the handbrake on rear-wheel-drive cars and power oversteering them while simultaneously avoiding curbs and light poles. I have no fear of the white stuff and, before attending Team O’Neil Rally School on the East Coast, felt sufficiently self-trained in snow driving.
Boy, was I naive. During my time at the 566-acre facility near Dalton, New Hampshire, Team O’Neil cleansed me of deeply engrained instincts that are completely wrong in the rally world. Fortunately for my ego, it’s an issue they see often at the school.
Old habits die hard
The day started with a classroom talk where characterful owner, Tim O’Neil, said that he was “trying to fit 10 pounds of shit in a 5-pound bag.” Meaning he usually spends five days — instead of four hours — with a group before they’re ready to drive a rally car. After the talk, I climbed into a first-generation Subaru Impreza WRX and drove into the northern training area, a big, open lot with a slalom course and a skidpad.
A strong cold front had moved through the night before, turning slushy snow into glare ice. I gave my self-trained technique – aggressive throttle-induced oversteer and handbrake — a try. Fun? Of course. Fast and correct? Not even close. My Dirty Harry level of restraint only worked against me, especially on ice. The name of the game in rally is left-foot braking, to rotate the car with fluid weight transfer. The rally program typically starts with front-wheel-drive cars because, according to O’Neil, “it helps break people’s bad, rear-wheel-drive habits.” For me, that’s like trying to get the Marlboro man to switch to Nicorette.
Same dog, more bite
We didn’t have time for that level of rehabilitation. Warming up outside the classroom was the 2014 Rally America championship-winning Subaru WRX STI.
O’Neil reminded us that a full-on rally car is a whole different animal compared to the school’s clapped-out cars. The biggest disparity is the tires, which were studded for the day’s activities. Driving on conventional winter tires on school cars, you avoid ice. On studded tires, you look for ice because the metal-encrusted tires dig into ice better than they do snow.
The 2014 Rally America STI may look like just a decal-covered Subaru WRX STI at first glance, but it’s far from it. It weighs less than 3,000 pounds and has a sequential dog-clutch gearbox; programmable center differential; limited-slip front and rear differentials; and a 2.0-liter, turbocharged flat-four engine with 350 hp and 480 lb-ft of torque. I put on a Peltor helmet and worked my way into the driver’s seat harness. In the passenger seat is 2014 Rally America champion David Higgins. His specs are as impressive as the car’s: born on the Isle of Mann, resident of rally-mad Wales, three-time British Rally champion, and past SCCA Pro Rally (now Rally America) champion. I’m smart enough to know that I can’t impress Mr. Higgins, so I put my ego in my pocket.
Short but sweet
After one stall, I was off, flying along a fully-fledged rally stage, a narrow road lined with large, healthy New England trees. Higgins quickly scolded me for too much steering input but we enjoyed a nice chat over the intercom as I came to terms with the focused rally car. Its turbocharged engine is very powerful, with an almost diesel-like flat torque curve. While you don’t need to use the clutch for upshifts or downshifts, Higgins recommended it, for better metering out the engine’s torque between shifts. The studded tires bit down hard on every patch of ice, and the unassisted brakes were easy to modulate with my left foot. It was so much easier to drive than the school cars and I indulged my boyhood instincts and enjoyed a few Scandinavian flicks.
The whole experience was far too short, but at least I stayed out of the trees. The massively hopped-up Subaru WRX STI was fast and controllable, even on unpredictable, icy and bumpy terrain, and I walked away even more impressed by rally car drivers. A ride with Higgins in the new 2015 Subaru WRX STI Rally America car at the end of the day further proved their insane level of car control. I plan to return to Team O’Neil Rally School for some more snow-driving lessons and, in the meantime, will try to avoid snow-covered parking lots in real-wheel drive machinery, so not to fall back into my old habits.