Our goal here is pretty simple: drive consecutive laps around a varied and technical rally training course without killing 63 year-old world rally competitor and all-around good guy John Haugland. You see, the man has been brave enough to strap himself into the copilot's chair of the same race-prepped Subaru WRX STI that we've been charged with wrangling, and judging from the relaxed look on his face and his calm tone of voice, he doesn't quite get the mortal danger he's placed himself in. He must have excellent life insurance.
Haugland has trained some of the world's best rally drivers, including the guano-crazy-fast Petter Solberg, but today, he's trying his best to impart a minute fraction of his encyclopedic knowledge on the art of going faster to a handful of journos just outside of Oslo, Norway. The idea here is that Subaru wants us all know as much as we can about flinging the beauty of all-wheel drive around a rally course before we get introduced to the 2011 WRX and WRX STI next month. To that end, we spent about 20 minutes in a classroom where the underlying message went something like this:
Forget everything you know about proper driving lines, car control, traction and speed. You're in our sandbox now.
Things haven't exactly gone well so far. Of the eight of us out here, nearly everyone has sent their car pirouetting, and of the two STI racers on hand for
This, of course, is no fault of either Haugland or the cars. Subaru Norway was kind enough to roll out two machines prepared specifically for competition in the company's oven-fresh Subaru Cup. Think of it as a spec series designed to show off the STI's might in a racing environment. The competition is made up of a total of six races held on typically slippery road surfaces – gravel, snow and the like – as well as two events on tarmac. Each car is a mildly modified version of the same WRX STI you can pick up from the local showroom. The engine has been limited to 285 horsepower thanks to restrictor in the intake (the production car has 305), though torque still sits at close to 290 pound-feet.
Though the engine, transmission and differential are all as they came from the factory, the suspension has been swapped with adjustable pieces from Proflex and the brakes are AP Racing units that require elephantine calf muscles to operate properly. The interior has been gutted in favor of a sturdy rollcage and set of racing buckets that, in our particular car, aren't adjustable. While that means we won't be bouncing around the cabin like a ping pong ball at a bingo hall should we go shiny side down, it also means that even if we reach the clutch with our tippy toes, we can barely get the pedal all the way to the floor.
Haugland's voice, laced with the thick trappings of a Norwegian accent, comes over the in-helmet radio after we're both sufficiently snugged into our respective seats.
"Okay, we can go when you are ready."
We slot the shifter into first gear and let out on the clutch as slowly as our atrophied left leg will allow, only to stall the car. Twice. Watch out, Loeb – we're coming for you.
After finally getting the car in motion under the shaming glares of our fellow journos, we begin to tackle the course. The track is laid out in such a way that it gives the driver a quick taste of a variety of road surfaces, elevation changes, rises, dips and turns. If viewed from above, we're guessing it would look something like your small intestine after a Taco Bell bender. As we approach the first turn at the top of fourth – a decreasing-radius banked asphalt sweeper, Haugland begins to point out where we should be on the track, what gear we should be in and just about everything else we're doing wrong. It's a long list that lasts through the next series of twists until we come over a small blind rise and into a tight left-hander.
Haugland immediately stops his instruction and points to a small berm on the inside.
"Do not get near here on the track. If you touch there, the car will go over."
On the very next lap, we find ourselves with the beautiful blue nose of the STI pointed straight at the course's no-no zone. We've got the berm dead to rights, and all we can hear in the back of our minds is Steve Irwin chanting, "Danger, danger, danger" over and over again. The cacophony in our head is drowned out by Haugland chiming in with a chillingly calm, if not expedited, "Whoa, whoa, whoa." He follows it up with the demand for more power – something akin to a fireman showing up on the scene of a fully engulfed home with a tanker full of race fuel and asking you to hose it down. We do as he commands, planting our right foot on the go pedal and watching in amazement as the car darts back in line before the rear end swings out and around to a complete stop before stalling.
The now familiar voice of Haugland comes over the mic like a Norsk god, "This car is driving you. You are not driving the car. You need to be decisive, not reactionary."
Words to live by.
The problem here is that while some of the iron-clad laws of playing on a track remain in full effect – keep your eyes up, look where you want the car to go, etcetera – the vast majority of them simply don't apply. The adjustable center differential in the STI has been massaged to put most of the power where it will do its best work, so nearly every problem is solved by dipping into the bottomless pit of power on hand and spreading it on in full glory. It takes the kind of cojones that only grow in a land that gets 20 hours of daylight six months out of the year. We suddenly found ourselves conspicuously aware of the inadequacies of our physiology.
Things are made even more complicated by the fact that the line for taking a turn on a rally course and the one for getting through a twist on smooth tarmac are only related by Haugland's ability to draw both on a classroom chart. Lining up a series of apexes at Virginia International Raceway and skipping through a gravel-laden left-hander are no more kin than Mandarin Chinese and Apalachain Vernacular English – both involve the same basic motor functions, but neither exactly translates. Whereas a road racer is expected to straighten each turn to the best of his ability in order to maintain speed by barely touching each apex in a graceful exercise of parabolic beauty, rally drivers look at a turn and make up their own damn line.
As a result, we're supposed to politely sail right past what would normally be the turn-in point and well into an area on the track where Irwin would typically begin to go crackers in the back of our brain. All the while, our right foot is supposed to be piling on the power, even if the front of the car is pointed toward oblivion and kingdom come.
We fumble the ignition again and, true to form, stall the car.
After deciding that dejection is a feeling best left for a day when we're not bolted into a car with one of the world's best rally instructors, we manage to get the STI rolling once more, and the next three laps go somewhat more smoothly. By the end of our session, our favorite phrase in the English language has become "On the power and go," – the closest thing we'll get to outright praise from Haugland.
Over the next ten days, we'll spend every quiet moment thinking about how we could have driven better. Showers are spent replaying footage of Haugland manipulating the pedals and steering wheel in our minds as we attempt to process the mountain of instruction he hurled our way in a brief 30 minutes. We'll space out while tying our shoes, trying to wrap our brain around braking zones, turn-in and rotation.
Our wives worry.
We are addicts, hooked by the first taste of a world we've only seen on television and illegal torrents. One where man, machine and copilot can overcome any road condition at speed, but all we're left with is the cold knowledge that for now, we're best off leaving all four tires on the smooth stuff.