The grass was wet with dew and the mud was glistening from the condensation which still hung in the air of the small fairground lot. Surrounded by houses, this little motorhead gathering seemed somewhat out of place, considering the attendants would soon be blaring their exhausts and chucking mud in every conceivable direction. The residents must have a decent sense of humor. Today was rallycross – and the drivers waited anxiously, smiling through gritted teeth as registration putted along and tech inspection gave them another thing to think about.
Rallycross is an entry-level form of motorsport that isn’t prohibitively expensive, is extremely safe, and teaches its students all the fundamentals of car control. Because of the low level of grip, the cars are moving at a relatively slow pace, though sliding constantly. At the very least, it will teach one the core skills of motorsport, like weight-shifting, power-on oversteer, trimming a line, and threshold braking, just to name a few. Nobody races wheel-to-wheel, but go out on their own for their quickest possible lap.
A Quiet Kind Of Competition
What’s first noticeable about the event is the low-key atmosphere and the sense of fun and excitement here. Nobody is glaring suspiciously at their competitors, looking over their shoulders, or grimacing as they see someone’s bested their time. Instead, the drivers and spectators seem to be cheerful, magnanimous, congratulatory, and calm – but beneath the good-natured banter lies some serious competitiveness.
The machinery here is eyebrow-raising, to say the least. Predictably, a stable of Subarus makes up the majority of the entered cars, but they weren’t all fire-breathers. For every three WRXs, there was a stock Legacy or an Outback, and they seemed to be driven just as aggressively. Outside of those, a classic Volkswagen Bug, a classic Volvo PV544 (which would meet its demise on the course), a couple of Celica All-Tracs, a lone Volkswagen Golf, and even an ’80s Civic made up the ranks. It was a varied gathering, segmented into run groups based on their drivetrain and preparation level.
I was running in the Stock All-Wheel Drive group thanks to my friend Anthony, who had been kind enough to share his 2015 Subaru WRX with me for a few runs on that misty morning. The plush, leather-bound seats and fake-carbon trim elevated the WRX’s once-flimsy looking interior to another level. With decent switchgear, plenty of legroom for two guys standing six feet tall, strong air conditioning, and a decent sound system, inside the new WRX is a nice place to be, whether it be for a long-distance trip or a short blast through this course.
It’s a tricky thing, getting a relatively long car like the new WRX to rotate around a cone-lined, slippery course that is just wide enough in a few places to squeeze the car through. I quickly realized this would be more difficult than I had thought.
Trading Blows With A Heavier, Punchier WRX
The car felt long and could be a bit lethargic at times, but changed direction decently since the rear end was stiff and did not roll or pitch much. Therefore, it was predictable and only once did the car surprise me. Thankfully, as the silver Subaru speared off in the wrong direction, a dab of the brake was enough to swing it back, and with some feathering of the throttle, the slide was neutralized with response and easily-accessed torque.
Replacing the long-running line of EJ motors is the new FA20, which lacks the quintessential WRX burble due to equal-length headers, but gains remarkable response. Whereas the older EJs needed to be revved to the moon to make much power, the twin-scroll turbocharger and increased compression help the engine pull strongly from low down in the rev-range. This delivery makes it feel like a bigger motor and that annoying turbo lag is minimized.
If the new engine makes the car easier to drive, the drivetrain keeps the experience challenging. Anyone who has swapped a limited-slip differential into their rear-wheel drive car knows the feeling of confidence and predictability it offers. Well, the viscous center differential can leave you guessing. Which tires will spin? Will the car push or snap towards the ditch? In a sense, it’s not such a bad thing since the throttle can’t always be relied on to turn the car; weight-shifting is still the only way to get a consistent rotation.
Getting To Grips With The Track
The trick to getting a good lap was getting the pace right in the three sections of the course. While the first and last thirds were technical, twisty, and required a very tidy line and early rotation into the corner, the middle section was fast, open, slippery, and rewarded guts and commitment.
To find time in the middle I had to focus on entry speed. Essentially, I had to hustle the car into the corner, keep it from getting too sideways and running off-line, though in on the dirt, the line is wherever the grip allows the right foot to be pinned as long as possible. Here, I’d use the handbrake to change direction and try not to slide the car excessively – a little understeer wasn’t such a bad thing as long as the motor was howling. However, the trickiest part seemed to be going from piano to forte to piano again in one, half-mile lap, since it required both a delicate hands and a heavy right foot in one versatile package.
Technique For The Technical Sections
To keep the momentum up in the tighter sections, I focused less on outright speed and more on attitude adjustment – often compromising my entry speed somewhat so the car would be pointed in the right direction at the apex. Having a 104-inch wheelbase and a street-oriented steering rack meant rotation required some effort. With the course’s low grip levels, relying on the front tires to turn would only end in molasses-slow understeer.
Therefore, to turn cleanly and quickly, sliding the tail was always necessary. The constant dabbing of the brake pedal was not only used to slow the machine, but to shift the weight to the front, unload the rear tires, and pivot around the central axis of the car. As the corner approached, I would release the brake and flick the steering wheel to slide into the apex. When I found myself trying to cancel out some surprise understeer, I’d dip the clutch and pull the handbrake momentarily. A smidgen of throttle-oversteer could help round a corner, but it was only the icing on the cake – the car had to already be rotating to do this.
When the course tightened up, there was less time and space to adjust the line, so using the pendulum effect would prevent understeer. In the final right-left switchback, I’d oversteer aggressively out of the right-hander and slide the tail so that I was pointing away from the upcoming left-hand hairpin by the time it arrived. With a dab of the brake pedal, that rotation could be harnessed to snap the car back in the opposite direction and slide into the apex. This little right-left flick meant I never relied much on the front tires to turn; the rear end was doing most of the pivoting for me.
Think of the first time you lost control of your car. Chances are, you didn’t catch the slide quickly enough and the car would abruptly spear in the other direction before you straightened it out. This movement, when timed correctly, can help a car sashay and turn quickly when there isn’t enough time to turn, brake, and rotate in a conventional fashion.
After that left-right flick and a short squirt over the finish line, the brakes are applied and we slid across the gravel into the parking lot, panting heavily and laughing. It’s amazing how even at relatively slow speeds, the focus, steering input, and hand-eye coordination required can cause a relatively fit person to sweat a lot. I did switch the air conditioning off for those few horsepower, though.
It was both educational and exhilarating – the buzz didn’t leave me until the next morning. One needs precision and finesse to excel on the slippery rallycross course, but at the same time, gusto is required for a quick lap. Finding the right doses of these three elements is what make it so challenging, and the amount of car control one learns, seemingly overnight, is hugely motivating.
Constantly countersteering makes sliding almost second nature, and the driver becomes acutely aware of their car’s willingness to rotate and how to harness it. The most important thing one can learn from this experience is how a car must be driven around its center, and turned with the brakes and the throttle as well as the steering. With the low-grip of a rallycross course, the need to quickly adjust a car’s attitude is at an all-time high, and it acquaints any aspiring driver with the idea of using momentum and weight transfer to get all four tires turning the car – not the front tires alone. This understanding applies to, and rewards in, any form of motorsport.
Driving challenges aside, it was a pleasure and a privilege to be lent a turbocharged, four-wheel drive machine to hustle on loose surfaces and feel, momentarily, like a rally ace. Not only was the car a joy to drive, but it showed me how far Subaru has come in making a comfortable, sensible car that still turns and accelerates well. I wouldn’t have minded another hundred horsepower and a more predictable deployment of power, but hey – beggars can’t be choosers.
For more of Allen Stauffer’s photos: check here.