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Ripping Around the Isle of Man in Subaru WRX STI Rally Cars

Just make sure you have small feet.

John Lammwriter

We're rushing headlong toward a 180-degree second-gear corner in a Subaru WRX STI rally car when I drop down the gears and hit the brake pedal. There's just one small problem - we aren't stopping.

Rally driver Mark "The Brave" Higgins is in the passenger seat, prompting ever louder for me to slow down. Heaven knows I'm trying, but I'm mystified as to why the brakes aren't grabbing. Suddenly, I realize what's happening. My wide, size 13s are spanning the brake and gas pedals, and those two were coming in conflict.

A little judicious toe work got us slowed and turned, but lesson learned: If you have big feet and ever get the chance to drive a Subaru WRX STI rally car, take your shoes off. If only I could have chucked them in the back seat...

Shoes or no shoes, I'm getting the chance to run wild in a race-prepped Subaru on the Isle of Man, a self-governing British island territory located in the middle of the Irish Sea between Ireland and the U.K., during the annual International Isle of Man TT (Tourist Trophy) motorcycle race. Even if you aren't a big motorcycle fan, it's one of the most outrageous (and exceedingly dangerous) racing events in the world of any type and well worth the trip. The sidecars alone are amazing. These are some seriously brave men and women.

Subaru is the official car of the TT and the Isle of Man is also home to the Manx National Rally, a closed course asphalt rally car event where plenty of Subarus compete. Today on the island we're getting a chance to rip around in a Group N version of Subaru's WRX STI rally car. While not as highly modified as the Group A cars used in the World Rally Championship, they're still plenty potent. Visually speaking, the Group N spec car is bodied as an older, third-generation WRX.

Subaru's 2.0-liter turbo flat-4 huffs through a 33-mm restrictor in the Group N car and it exhibits a delightful exhaust growl. It's tuned for torque, 413 lb-ft to be exact at 3,000 rpm to go with 280 hp produced at 3,000 rpm. Matched to that is a Hewland 5-speed dog-gear box, front and rear limited slip diffs, and an electronically controlled center diff. You can imagine the rest. It's stripped down 3,071 lb despite a full roll cage, the brakes are set up for gravel or tarmac, and there's a firm grip-your-butt seat and full harness inside.

Higgins explained that with the engine tuned for torque, we should shift at 5,000 rpm max, which is prompted by a light near the tach. The gearshift has short, narrow positive throws and we were warned that it's easy to hit a downshift instead of an upshift. I'm delighted to report I never did that.

Needless to say, the brakes and steering happen RIGHT NOW, which would be critical on a tight rally stage. Also, the WRX STI's all-wheel drive doesn't want to be stuffed into a corner, so it's important to ease up and then accelerate through. The suspension is quite stiff and the sensations sent back remind one of what it would be like to drive, oddly enough, a roller skate.

Our first taste of the car was on the grounds of an old RAF base from World War II on which we dodged cones and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. But that was just a tune-up.

Later we went to the Druidale stage of the Manx rally. Our subject car was now a current Subaru WRX STI and built to the Group R spec that replaced Group N in 2013. New name and the gen-4 WRX STI body shape, but with the same basic rules and the same turbo four with the same 413 lb-ft of torque and 280 horsepower.

After my turn in the Group R car, Higgins, an Isle of Man native, takes me on a wild ride, which for him is a proverbial walk in the park. It includes rises and dips, narrow cattle guards with walls, and two spots to get airborne. If you've ever watched rally car videos, the driving can look rather violent, but that's not the sense you get when you're riding along at speed.

Higgins is intimately familiar with the route and what comes across from the passenger seat is the ease and flow with which he drives. Having ridden with other famous rally drivers -- the late Erik Carlsson in his Saab 96 and former World Rally champ Sandro Munari in a Fiat 131 Abarth -- it's eminently impressive how overtly forceful they aren't when setting up for a corner or catching the car in a slide. It's like watching an aggressive ballet. Ride with Tanner Foust when he's drifting and he's doing many of the same things, only in a more brutal manner.

Guess who else is adept at driving Subaru WRX STI rally cars? Higgins' brother, David, the U.S. Rally America champ the past four years running. And he currently leads the 2015 championship.

The U.S. version of the car is somewhat different, looking like a flared-fendered wide body version of the Group R car. In the U.S. the restrictor is one millimeter bigger at 34 mm (1.3 inch) and its engine is also set up for more torque, 480 lb-ft to go with 330 horsepower. The transmission is a 6-speed SADEV sequential dog-engagement box. Built by Vermont SportsCar for the Open Class, the car weighs around 2,900 lb.

Rallying has long been a hit-and-miss proposition in the U.S., perhaps too much of a bivouac motorsport for fans used to being coddled in grandstands and luxury boxes. And it's a shame too because it can be so exciting, particularly the snow and gravel stages. I look forward to driving a rally car again soon -- that is if I can find some size 13 ballet slippers.

If you're interested in checking out some rally action here in the U.S., check in at www.rally-america.com for an upcoming rally near you.