The dirty fun of learning how to drive like a rally star
Shadowed by the Cascade Mountains, the town of Snoqualmie, Wash., near Seattle is known for its 236-foot Snoqualmie Falls – but also as the fictitious backdrop of "Twin Peaks," David Lynch’s cult TV phenomenon of the early ‘90s. Today at Dirtfish Rally School, where the office doubled as Twin Peaks Sheriff’s Department, we’re plunged into our own surreal mystery: Learning to drive a rally car.
But first, we’re told, forget everything you know about fast driving. Because rally racing, in which a driver and navigating co-pilot blaze at maximum speed over dirt, gravel, mud and snow, demands a unique set of skills.
It also demands the right car. For Dirtfish students, that car is the Subaru WRX STi, the fierce AWD sedan and hatchback that has won rally championships around the world. With beefed-up suspensions, and showroom interiors torn out and replaced with roll cages, racing buckets and five-point harnesses, these 305-hp Subies are born to conquer the torture trails at this playground.
A playground it is, a 315-acre sandbox where students get to play “vroom vroom” with grown-up Matchbox toys. But before recess begins, a brief-yet-important classroom session introduces newbies to driving techniques that will keep us safely on course. And ideally, shiny side up.
Our full-day Rally Fundamentals course is on tap, which costs $1,150. But Dirtfish offers everything from a 2-hour Taste of Rally introduction (at $399); to an intensive three-day Advanced Rally Skills course (for $3,250) that culminates with a simulation of an actual rally stage.
Beneath a sign that reads, “Eat challenge for breakfast and glory for lunch,” Don Wooten, Dirtfish’s chief instructor, introduces us to concepts that seem alternately familiar and backwards. As in all racing, training your vision is a key: Look where you want to go, never at obstacles in your path. Stare at the looming telephone pole, ditch or rear bumper that your car is sliding toward, and you’re virtually guaranteed to hit it, because your car naturally goes where your eyes are pointed. Instead, drivers must keep eyes up to gain the longest possible view, and turn their heads when necessary – even if that means staring out the side windows — to find the intended path, or the escape route in an emergency. Almost magically, the hands follow the eyes, and the car follows suit.