Hittin’ the Skids

You don’t have to be a gearhead to geek out for rally driving, but a need for speed helps.

By Matthew Halverson January 12, 2011 Published in the February 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Mud slinging Master the art of getting down and dirty at DirtFish Rally School.

IF ONLY I COULD remember specifics. I have no memory of learning how to accelerate out of a controlled skid on loose gravel. Couldn’t tell you when the concept of automotive weight transfer clicked in my brain. Heck, I don’t even know exactly how many cones I hit. No, all I can recall from my eight-hour driving course at the DirtFish Rally School are sensations: the way my head pogoed on my neck and against the roll bars inside my 300-horsepower 2009 Subaru STi, the burning in my shins and calves from pistoning my feet on the gas and brake pedals, the nauseating mix of fear and exhilaration that flooded my gut when mud spattered my windshield and obscured my view of the road.

My only memory of something actually happening at the school’s 315-acre outdoor campus in Snoqualmie is from late that gray, drippy Monday in early December, when the only sound I could hear was the rumbling idle of my car. I’d just finished an exceptionally slippery lap around a track called the Boneyard, when my instructor, Ted Anthony Jr., turned to me from the passenger seat, grinned, and yelped, “Now you’re rallying!” I’m not calling him a liar, but it was more motivational war cry than statement of fact. Imagine driving to Grandma’s house. Now imagine that you’ve never been there before, you’re flooring it the whole way, the streets are unpaved, and—instead of getting directions from the monotone voice of your turn-by-turn GPS navigator—you’ve got a codriver who’s barking “Turn right!” half a second before you get to a corner. That’s rallying. In other words, my 35-mile-per-hour run on a dirt track marked by traffic cones was to rallying what pedaling around the driveway on a bike with training wheels is to downhill mountain biking.

Now that’s not to say Anthony wasn’t doing his job. DirtFish calls itself a school and offers rallying courses complete with class time and instructional PowerPoint presentations, but its main mission isn’t necessarily to train future professionals. What it’s really selling is an experience. It’s wish fulfillment for anyone who’s ever felt hemmed in by the rules of the road. It’s an opportunity to hit the gas without a hint of guilt. It’s a license to push your automotive limits without spinning out of control.

Speaking of spinning: The one-day course begins with a trip to the skid pad, a flat patch of gravel—save for the occasional bump and mud puddle—with a purpose as simple as its name. With an instructor riding shotgun, you push your car progressively faster in a tight circle, learning to turn and brake to let your rear wheels drift out behind you before accelerating to get them back into line. Then it’s on to the slalom course (more turning, braking, and accelerating, in quicker succession), before graduating to the Boneyard, where the difficulty—and intensity—ramp up to the point that you’re lucky if you can drown out the sound of your heart hammering in your ears long enough to hear your instructor’s directions through the headset in your helmet.

Competitive rallying is, as Anthony pointed out, a sport of attrition: The winner isn’t always the driver with the fastest car, but the one who manages to finish the race. The margin for error is so slim on professional courses—which often careen through small towns in the European countryside—that wrecks are common. (During lunch in one of the school’s classrooms, another instructor, Forest Duplessis, queued up a wince-inducing highlight reel from a handful of early ’90s races, and it was hard to tell whether he was trying to amp us up for the second half of our day or driving home a not-so-subtle “safety first” warning.)

And even out in the tame, wide-open Boneyard, where foot-tall orange cones play the part of trees, it’s hard not to feel like you’re always one wrong pedal push away from losing it. They don’t offer you a $100 crash insurance policy for no reason.

In the cockpit DirtFish’s 300-horsepower Subarus are speed demons.

Of course, the threat of disaster and the adrenaline rush that comes with it are what make the whole thing such a gas. And not surprisingly, having to rely on someone else to tell you what to do and when to do it only accentuates that sense of driving along the razor’s edge. Left to my own devices, I could have made it around the Boneyard’s series of straightaways and hairpin turns in one piece, albeit without ever pushing the needle past 20. But as Anthony goaded me to drive faster—and as the higher speeds and loose surface completely altered the dynamics of otherwise simple turns—everything he taught me about weight transfer and traction slipped away. My fingers dug into the steering wheel, my nostrils flared, my eyes dilated. I downshifted to an instinctual gear and focused on the sound of his voice. Turn. Brake. Wait…wait. GO! GO! GO! I may have been behind the wheel, but I was just along for the ride.

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