Dirtfish Rally School teaches us, and other SCCA members, a lesson or two
Any athlete can tell you about the benefits of cross-training. The more versatile you can be, the better you’ll be in your specialty. That even holds true when driving a racecar. Learning a new set of skills gives context to the things you’re already doing, and you might add a new trick to your toolbox.
To test this theory, we headed to the Pacific Northwest for a one-day training session at the DirtFish Rally School. The school is located about an hour from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in sleepy Snoqualmie, Wash. A repurposed lumber processing facility provides plenty of space to practice without fear of mistakes.
DirtFish, which is largely involved in SCCA and its RallyCross program, offers one-, two-, and three-day classes with the rear-wheel-drive Subaru BRZ and the all-wheel-drive Subaru WRX STI. We requested DirtFish sign us up for the BRZ course because this car’s layout and performance capabilities are similar to many common in autocross and road racing cars, not to mention the fact that the rear-drive RallyCross classes are quite popular and exciting to watch.
A Traditional Driving School Format
When we arrived at the school, we found 2006 Spec Miata SCCA National Champion and pro racing driver Andrew Caddell was our chief instructor for the day. “I think it’s good for anybody to take this school,” he said. “We get RallyCross competitors, of course, and we get autocross and road racing drivers, too. Drivers from every kind of motorsports can come out here and take a school and learn something.”
The day began with a short classroom session. Caddell laid out the plan for the day, beginning with basic car control on gravel and progressing through other individual exercises. The day would end up by linking all of the elements into a comprehensive rally stage.
The first exercise was a skidpad. The in-car instructors introduced left-foot braking right away, so students got used to inducing and controlling oversteer. The rear-drive BRZ platform makes it easy to steer with the pedals, so every student developed confidence quickly.
Following the skidpad, we moved onto a basic slalom on gravel, learning the rally line and discussing how it differed from the dry line used in a typical autocross. Then it was on to a gravel road course to practice different types of corners and additional fundamental skills like trail braking and weight transfer. Gravel amplifies every action, so drivers can really feel the effect of their inputs.
“Weight transfer is the key for everything,” Caddell noted. “You have to get that weight where you want the car to work. In autocross, it’s very important because you’ve got very short windows to get the car to move around, to get that weight transfer to move.”
After lunch, all of the exercises were linked together, and we filled out the day running the long course and practicing our skills. The in-car instructors stayed with us for every run, and the students continued to build speed and confidence. By the end of the day, any of the students could pitch the car sideways and at least get close to an apex by steering with the pedals.
Students Finding Speed
By total coincidence, this day’s school was also peppered with SCCA competitors looking to find more speed. “I need to go faster,” declared Jan Gerber, who holds multiple SCCA RallyCross National Championships. He was at the school for one-on-one tutoring in the Subaru STI and was certainly the most advanced student of our day at DirtFish.
“The last two SCCA National Championships I’ve come in second,” Gerber admitted, “and it wasn’t due to cones. It was because the other guys were faster. Either I’m slowing down or they’re getting faster – or both. There are some things that I’m probably giving up in some of the corners, so I need to figure out if I can run some corners faster and get on the straights faster.”
Predictably, Gerber’s most valuable lessons were about car control.
“I’m getting to the point where I can get the car to respond on demand,” he said. “I’m planning that I’m going to do something, and I can get the car to snap instead of just seeing what happens and then trying to correct. It’s about being proactive instead of reactive.”
Asked if he recommends taking a DirtFish class, Gerber responded with a laugh, “Yes, as long as you’re not competing in my class.”
Gerber wasn’t the only one looking to discover more speed. SCCA autocross competitor and ProSolo Champion David Spratte traveled to DirtFish from Raleigh, N.C., for the one-day course.
“The last couple years I’ve been in SCCA’s Solo Spec Coupe class, which has been a riot,” he said, “It’s the same cars that we’re driving [in the DirtFish school] – I was excited that they have rear-wheel-drive courses here.
“I think that any kind of motorsport you do improves whatever other motorsports you’re involved in,” Spratte stated. “It’s a different experience, a chance to play with some slip angle and that kind of stuff. I can’t see getting away with this much angle with what we do [on the autocross course] but given the number of wet events we’ve had this season, maybe I will.”
Taking New Skills Home
Most SCCA drivers are self-taught. We learn the rules of racing in a driver’s school or from a ride-along, but comparatively few drivers receive professional instruction in the interplay of hands, feet, and eyes as we pilot a car at speed. The truth is, many of us have practiced our mistakes for years.
“I think when you take a school like Dirtfish and you go out there and you drive on a road course after that, the car might slide a little bit but now you’re a lot more comfortable letting that go and you can carry some more speed,” Caddell revealed. “It’s good car control, and you’re never going to be afraid of the rain again. That’s the number one thing we really focus on, is getting that car control for everybody and getting them comfortable with sliding the car and going as fast as you can with a sideways car.”
This featured appeared in the September 2019 issue of SportsCar magazine.