Lift, turn, wait. Lift, turn, brake. Those are the basics of rally driving, according to Ted Anthony, Jr., my instructor at DirtFish Rally School. That’s the mantra that Ted repeated while we spent the day kicking up dust and gravel from behind the wheel of a 2009 WRX STI – one of 10 that the school owns.
Rally driving is all about car control and the ability to transfer weight from one end of a rally car to the other. Braking puts more weight to the front of the vehicle; accelerating puts more weight to the rear. Simple physics.
Anyone – even me, a dyed-in-the-wool Outback driver – can learn to drive a rally car simply by applying the basics. Lift your foot off the accelerator. Turn the steering wheel. Brake to round the corner. Of course, prior to lifting, you’re mashing the gas pedal.
It also helps to have an instructor barking confidence into your headset while you’re trying not to knock down those dreaded orange cones on the slalom course.
Coursework in Controlling Chaos
One of a group of six lifestyle journalists, I was invited to take the DirtFish One-Day Rally Fundamentals course. How could I refuse?
The course focused on basic car handling, weight transfer, braking, and adapting to oversteer and understeer. We started with about an hour of classroom instruction that explained the physics behind driving under conditions that are nothing short of controlled chaos.
After the classroom, we helmeted up, plugged in the headset, and drove out to the first road course – the skidpad.
Skidding Through Fundamentals
It’s been awhile since I’ve driven a stick, so at first I was anxious about embarrassing myself by killing the engine. Fortunately, I didn’t stall the car and took off for the first lesson, which was to learn the feel of the car by using the steering, power, and brakes together to turn it on a gravel skidpad.
Ted’s instructions were simple – aim the car, get the longest possible view, and turn your head and look out the side window when necessary. Use the accumulated speed to power around corners and accelerate out of them.
The six of us took turns in three cars for a half-dozen or so spins around the skidpad, gaining confidence by increasing speed, practicing left-foot braking, turning, and – my own personal kryptonite – hand positioning.
Subaru steering wheels are designed so your hands are optimally positioned for steering control at 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock. This positioning allows your arms the most range and helps keep them out of the way during any potential airbag deployment.
Like many other students Ted has instructed, I have a terrible habit of driving one-handed, usually positioning my right hand anywhere between 2 o’clock and 5 o’clock. Most of Ted’s barking at me during the skidpad exercise had to do with just getting my left hand on the steering wheel.
Now, the Outback I drive regularly is not a car that typically slides sideways around a gravel oval, so it was somewhat disconcerting as the STI started to spin because of my one-handed oversteering. It was like sliding on ice in those 1970s rear-wheel drive behemoths in which I learned to drive. After that spin, it was much easier to understand the importance of proper hand positioning.