There's nothing quite like the sound of a high-strung boxer engine in full rage. Each dip of the throttle sends the opposed four-pot barking and popping like some sort of caffeinated prehistoric beast as David Higgins shoots his very unique 2012 Subaru WRX STI through a tight section of chicanes on the back side of the DirtFish Rally School's 315-acre playground. He's traveling at the approximate speed of a Japanese bullet train, if bullet trains spent the majority of their time sideways and on ball bearings.
The cacophony can likely be heard all the way from Snoqualmie Valley to the hipster bars in downtown Seattle, but situated as I am in the passenger side of the car, all I hear is the rush of gravel pelting the machine's underbelly and my own laughter. Higgins has just sent his hyperactive triceratops pirouetting around a teardrop-shaped hairpin, pivoting the nose on a group of photographers at the apex. He took time to give the group a friendly thumbs-up before grabbing another gear and leaving them all in a cloud of Washington State silt.
An hour ago, this car was cleaner than a sundress on Sunday.
An hour ago, this car was cleaner than a sundress on Sunday, meticulously prepared by the guys at Vermont SportsCar. We caught up with the team who built the machine that Higgins drove to his fifth Rally America Championship win last month for a look at what makes this car so damn fast.
From the factory, the WRX STI is as close to a manufacturer-bred rally car as you're likely to find, but the Rally America Open Class isn't a playground for street cars with roll cages and a few stickers. If you want to play up here, you better be prepared to do everything you can within the bounds of the rule book to keep the car competitive. From engine bay to underbody and everywhere in between, Higgins' racer is the STI evolved to the Nth degree.
The Rally America Open Class isn't a playground for street cars with roll cages and a few stickers.
At the car's heart, a turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder dumps around 350 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque to the ground, all while breathing through a mandated 34 mm restrictor. A MoTec ECU keeps all the bits playing nice and gives the co-driver the luxury of a MoTec display in the cabin. The screen can be set up to provide detailed information from any sensor on the vehicle on command. Not a bad trick.
All that grunt gets funneled into a KAPS five-speed dog box via an Exedy twin-plate clutch, and Cusco front and rear differentials spit the power to each wheel through beefed up STI axles and hubs. But the parts list only tells a fraction of the story.
A turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder dumps around 350 horsepower and 480 pound-feet of torque to the ground.
Vermont SportsCar found some limitations with the vehicle's floorpan. Rather than simply accept the shortcomings and move on, the team effectively quartered the STI, scrapped the stock belly and started with a clean sheet. The Rally America rule book mandates that open-class cars must maintain their frame rails, so the team kept the tubes and built the pan as flat as possible while maintaining rigidity. The result is an almost perfectly flat belly with deeper, smoother wheel arches designed to not only allow for a greater range of suspension travel, but also to shed mud as quickly and cleanly as possible. Mid rally, a car can pick up a staggering amount of soil. Keeping that weight off means Higgins stays as fast as possible from the first corner to the flying finish.
Sketching out your own belly tray has other advantages, too. The new sheetmetal accommodates a custom 65-liter fuel cell mounted underbody accessible via a carbon fiber cover indoors, and the team was able to re-route the three-inch stainless-steel exhaust up and over the rear differential crossmember to decrease the chances of ground interference. The design also allows the team to completely remove the rear diff subframe, as well as the transmission, without ever unbolting the exhaust.
They actually had to add in more tools and spares to get the STI to the regulation 2,900 pounds.
Vermont SportsCar took as much weight out of the hatchback as possible thanks largely to a generous helping of carbon fiber. The whole of the rear hatch is hewn from the composite, as are the interior door inserts, the roof scoop, side-view mirrors and those terminally sexy light pods. Some of the pieces are off-the-shelf items. The rest, the team made in-house. In conjunction with the new, lighter belly, the team took enough heft out of the machine that they actually had to add in more tools and spares to get the STI to the regulation 2,900 pounds. Extra parts always equates to a better chance of finishing a stage. For comparison's sake, a stock 2012 WRX STI rattles the scales at around 3,200 lbs.
The whole recipe rides on an EXE-TC competition suspension, and a set of AP/STI gravel brakes brings the party to a stop. I get a full introduction to the prowess of those stoppers as well as the grip available from the BFGoodrich rally rubber rolled around the machine's 15x7 Work alloys when Higgins sets up for another quick hairpin. The car immediately squats forward as I press into my harness under the frantic chatter of the blow off valve, and for a brief moment, our dusty contrail catches up with us. The massive radiator fans positioned in the nose of the STI suck up the airborne earth, snorting a quick cloud from the hood scoop before Higgins drops all 350 horsepower to the ground once again. The big fir trees lining each side of the course melt into a blur as I get an invisible backhand to the chest from the flat four's torque and we vanish once again.
Higgins cinched his fifth Rally America Championship at the New England Forest Rally in July by landing a second place finish. He only needed to come in sixth.
Higgins effectively cinched his fourth Rally America Championship win at the New England Forest Rally in July by landing a second place finish. He only needed to come in sixth to take home the crown, giving him a flawless five-for-five championship record even with one more event in the season. Then Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew took on the Olympus Rally in Olympus, Washington. Their efforts culminated in a second place finish behind Ken Block, which was good enough to nab the Subaru team a total of 95 points and the overall championship victory for 2012. That doesn't mean the team is done, though. While Higgins jets off for his various other obligations, Vermont SportsCar will be busy examining their creation to discern which of their efforts paid dividends and which didn't as they prepare to build next year's car. We can't wait to meet that beast.