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Driving At The Dirtfish Rally School

There are worse ways to spend a day at work.

Dirtfish Rally

That’s what I said with smug, self-satisfaction to one of the other auto journalists lucky enough to spend a day at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. taking racing lessons from the Dirtfish Rally School team.

 

Offering a special inside look at the Subaru Rally Team, the automaker teamed with B.F. Goodrich to invite overeager car scribblers into the California desert just short of Palm Springs to get behind the wheel of well-worn rally cars and to get a tiny taste of the skills rally drivers like David Higgins, Dave Mirra and Tanner Foust use to power slide their cards around the sort of compact courses seen recently in downtown Los Angeles for X-Games 17.

 

The Dirtfish Rally School usually teaches its craft by tearing up dirt and gravel roads in the woods of rural Washington. But, they headed south to offer the one day Fundamentals of Rally course. They brought with them specially built, all wheel drive Subaru rally cars that have seen plenty of actual competitive race laps. Built as official competition rides by Vermont Sports Cars, the Subaru sedans are a few years behind the curve of the 2011‘s elite rally cars, but they were built to the same specs used by drivers like Travis Pastrana and Dave Mirra in the Rally America series.

 

Dirtfish Rally School

 

They are angry and highly responsive, with roll cages, racing manual transmissions Tein suspension and fresh B.F. Goodrich rally tires. The gearbox shifts with heavy, mechanical clunks. The engine utters that unique sucking whine of air intake as you accelerate. And, the high-tension handbrake with its extended handle offers swift additional braking for the tightest of turns.

 

While tanker trucks drenched the expansive infield parking lot at Auto Club Speedway – creating a huge skid plane – Dirtfish instructors went about explaining the basics of rallying. While other forms of racing rely on steering and acceleration, successful rallying requires the ability to “rotate” a car.

 

The primary technique involves the build up of acceleration and the sudden, subtle application of the brakes. The braking shifts the car’s center of weight forward. A slight adjustment of the steering wheel combined with that weight shift will cause the car to rotate accordingly. By releasing the brakes once the car is rotating, the car will drift or turn in an arc, maintaining speed until the straightaway returns. If the brake pedal isn’t responsive enough, a quick jerk on the parking break can have an even more dramatic “rotating” effect.

 

If you develop the necessary touch on the steering wheel, brakes and accelerator, rally car driving becomes less of an exercise in steering and more of a racing fuel-powered “dance” – with the car thrown into precise power slides in and out of turns.

 

A key element in rallying are the right tires. B.F. Goodrich provides all-weather, heavy duty rubber that feels significantly stickier to the touch than the average treads you find in showrooms.  While the reporters did their laps all day long in stock editions, the tires can be custom grooved by race team pit mechanics for the preferred effect under varying race conditions.

 

To get the would-be racers up to speed, the Dirtfish team starts by having new students literally drive around in tight circles at ever-increasing speeds. The newbie driver gets acclimated to sliding at high speeds as he or she gets a feel for controlling the steering wheel.

 

By the end of the day, the instructors set up a complete racing course with traffic cones that mirrored the rally course in downtown Los Angeles for the 2011 Summer X Games. The challenge for the reporters were to complete multiple laps on the course without nicking a cone. This reporter managed that feat, but not without throwing a pin out of the sports suspension.

 

As I wrapped up my brief venture into rallying, a day of complete bliss rapidly devolved into winsome sadness as I realized that, unlike the pros like Higgins and Foust, I would not be rally car racing tomorrow or the next day. All I’ve got are the memories of power sliding and the hope I might get to revisit Dirtfish again in the future.