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February 26, 2012

News & Features

Rally up: A local school teaches the sport of rally-car racing

Special to NWautos

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DirtFish Rally School students practice on various road surfaces.

You've seen it in the movies: A car flies down a gravel road, hits a patch of mud and slides sideways through a tight corner. Wheels spin. Pebbles spray. The driver pulls out of the turn and roars away.

What you might not know is that it's possible to drive like that on a professional course only minutes from Seattle.

DirtFish Rally School opened near Snoqualmie in 2010 with the goal of giving the average person the chance to drive like James Bond. Some who attend are hard-core racers wanting to hone their skills, but others are just bucket-list adventurists looking for a speed thrill.

"Many customers see NASCAR and Indy-car racing as a sport for the old guys," says company President Ross Bentley. "The guys who want to fling mud and slide sideways sign up to drive rally cars."

Rally-car racing is one of the fastest-growing motorsports in the world, thanks to its inclusion in video games and extreme-sports events such as the X Games, Bentley says. Rally cars don't typically race on circuits. Instead, two-hundreds of miles over dirt, sand, gravel, ice and snow from one preset point to another. Drivers are not allowed to drive the course before a race, so they must rely on a navigator with a detailed route book to communicate what lies ahead.

Real-world skills
  • Practical driving skills rally-car racing can teach:
  • Vision: Most people look at taillights, but that's not far enough ahead to avoid accidents. Look where you want to go, not where you don't want to go.
  • Managing weight transfer: Get the car to do what you want by braking to move the weight forward and applying the gas to shift it back.
  • Choosing your line: Rounding corners at highway speeds can put a lot of strain on your vehicle. Choose the correct approach to improve your handling and control.
  • Visit DirtFish Rally School online at dirtfish.com

DirtFish is one of only three schools in the nation to teach rally-car racing. The classes range in price from $295 for a two-hour "taste of rally" to $2,995 for a three-day course. They cover everything from basics such as left-foot braking and high-speed slalom to advanced techniques such as handbrake turns and rally navigation. Instructors ride shotgun, giving tips and feedback using helmet microphones.

"In most extreme sports, like skydiving and whitewater rafting, when you first start, you're kind of a passenger," Bentley says. "But with us, you're in control. It's much more active."

The company uses all-wheel-drive Subaru Impreza STIs that are highly modified with items such as performance brakes and suspension, and a roll cage. Rally cars must be street legal, though, so they drive much like regular cars.

Thomas Fichtner of Federal Way got the idea to attend a class when he drove a friend's Subaru in the snow.

"I had a lot of fun and I wondered what it was like on dirt and gravel, and [wanted] to try it in a safe environment with an instructor," he says.

Another student, Billy Panui of Tacoma, grew up doing donuts in parking lots, but wanted to learn even more driving control.

"The biggest difference is that [driving rally cars] is so fast-paced compared to what you normally do," he says. "Drivers in the Northwest are terrible. I want to be comfortable behind the wheel."

While skidding around in the mud is a fun activity in and of itself, the training also has real-world applications, Bentley says.

When drivers hit loose gravel, mud or ice, many don't know what to do. On a closed course, he says, "you're going to do some things you're uncomfortable with, but you'll do them enough times that you'll eventually get comfortable doing them."

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