Friday, March 25, 2011

DirtFish Rally School - A Daily Hoon Review

Life is filled with memorable moments and influential experiences, to name a few: your first words, your first steps, the first time you ride a bike, learning to swim, learning to drive a car, etc. Experiences like these are etched in our memories and subconscious and shape who we are. Learning the basics of rally driving was one of these moments for us at The Daily Hoon.

After being obsessed with cars for our entire lives the opportunity to be introduced how to drive rally cars was presented to us under a unique set of circumstances, chronicled in our previous Countdown To DirtFish Rally posts. On March 16, 2011 we took the plunge in to the 1/2 Day Rally school at DirtFish, located in Snoqualmie, WA. This is our review.

Dirtfish is a new rally school, having just opened in the early fall of 2010 certain things are still fresh. The cars are still in great shape, due in part to the keen eyes and quick hands of the instructors, and a larger part to the skilled mechanics working behind the scenes in the DirtFish garage.
Purpose of the 1/2 Day Rally
There are many lesson plan options for potential Dirtfish students. The 2 hour "Taste of Rally", the 1/2 day "Intro To Rally", the  1 Day "Rally Fundamentals, and the apex course: the 3 Day  "Advanced Rally Techniques". Our opportunity for rally school was the "Intro To Rally". The costs for the classes are:
  • 1/2 Day - $650 (Promo Price $549)
  • 1 Day Rally Fundamentals - $1,150 (Intro Price $895)
  • 3 Day Advanced Rally Techniques - $3,250 (Intro Price $2,795)
This is not some fly by night, seat of their pants operation. The lessons taught in the Intro To Rally session lay the fundamental groundwork, both in ability and mindset, for future participation in the Advanced Rally Techniques.

You will not learn how to drive like S├ębastien Loeb or Petter Solberg in 4 hours of instruction. What you will learn is the basics of rally car control and experience the thrill of executing your own controlled slides, turns, and rally driving. The most important thing you will be left with is a desire for more. More track time, more seat time, more driving. By the end of the day we came to realize that this was the goal of the instruction, the goal of the intro, and ultimately the goal of any good rally school: to breed drivers. Dirtfish does this, and here's how.
The Cars
A driving school would be nothing without it's cars. Subaru is a manufacturer synonymous with Rally; due to rule changes and various corporate decisions, Subaru no longer competes in WRC. They do however still make rally-bred hoon machines that compete in RallyCross and other Rally events around the world. Their production WRX and STi's are available at your local Subaru dealership, and share some of the characteristics of their racing brethren. In fact, the cars you get to drive at DirtFish are a variant of the stock USDM STi.
Group P:
The Group P cars at DirtFish are 2008 Subaru WRX STi's and are extremely capable on the edge as we found out during our 4 hours in the mud. The cars themselves are heavy, big and relatively sloppy, but that's what is great about them. The Group P's provide the perfect set-up for tossing the car and being able to induce the slide, grab a late apex and point it straight. These cars have the same 2.5L 305hp engine fitted to the stock STi, what separates these from the cars you see driving about on your local streets is the racing bits applied to improve ground contact. They have TEIN Group N suspension, FHI 4 pot front and 2 pot rear calipers with Performance Friction race pads to fit under the smaller 15in gravel wheels, and the most important part on the whole set-up are the D-MACK Grippa tires. The transmission and engine are unchanged aside from stronger Group N mounts, which act to stiffen the whole linkage up and provide a more connected feel for the driver. Even though you don't get out of second gear, these cars are fast, and are set up with safety in mind. An AutoPower roll-cage helps add some confidence at the limit. These cars have plenty of power, and it was made very clear when one of us had a heavy foot and slid the car in to a small ditch off of the slalom (check out the video below). Having the opportunity to start our rally experience in cars costing upwards of $50k was incredible and adds to the already top notch nature that the whole DirtFish experience gives you.
Group N:
The Group N cars are saved for the 1-day and 3-day course, and are modern rally marvels. They are pure car porn for enthusiasts like us. These cars range in model years from 2004 up to 2007, and are fully equipped dirt machines. For those engine snobs out there these cars have the EJ207 two liter engine; yeah that's the JDM badboy. Under the hood they are all set up slightly different; each of the Group N cars has it's own racing pedigree. Vermont SportCar built these cars for competition and it's likely that a few saw some podiums. They are completely gutted inside, fitted with full custom roll-cages, Sparco seats, 5 or 6 point cam-lock harnesses and the best transmission outside of a Ferrari, well sort of. They all have 6 speed close ratio dog boxes. A transmission with dog engagement is for racing, and is just lunacy to put in a street car, which is why it is that much better in these monsters. Just a lift and shift, no clutch, no flappy paddles here, just pure awesome. When you sit inside one of these you lose all the creature comforts that the Group P brothers have, you feel more like a part of the car, and any real driver will tell you when the car becomes an extension of you, harmony is achieved and with it, the potential for victory.
Breakdown of the instruction:
After entering DirtFish and filling out the release forms, and purchasing the optional $50 insurance we walk down the hallway to the start of the course: a quick classroom lesson. Our 8AM session was attended by six others. A typical half day class has 8 students, while this is great for DirtFish it is not ideal for students. Although it is mentioned on their website, the reality of "sharing a car" for 1/2 day didn't really set in until we were in the classroom. While we didn't realize it at the time, the driving swaps in the 1/2 day in our eyes is one of the crucial steps in setting the groundwork for you to want to return for the advanced rally techniques school.
  • The Skidpad
    • In the skidpad you learn the basics of control, utilizing the steering, power, and brakes in harmony. The skidpad is the jump off point and is a great way to feel how easy and malleable these cars can be with the correct input. You learn the technique of lifting off the throttle, turning in and allowing the car to slide. You progress with adding the brake to help induce a more controlled slide, and it is followed with power on and using the throttle to maintain the slide. It's much easier said than done, but seat time as always is the best way to learn.
  • The Slalom
    • In the slalom, you get a chance to break any NASCAR tendencies you may have and turn both ways. The idea in the slalom is to learn how to precisely navigate a series of s turns at speed while also learning how your car can effectively turn in on a loose surface. The first go around the course you use the initial Lift, Turn and Wait (LTW) technique which is effective, yet slow and overly sloppy especially if you add speed to the equation. This is quickly followed by the technique of Lift, Turn and Brake (LTB), which provides a more direct and positive connection from driver to surface. At this point you also get to really familiarize yourself with left foot braking. Keeping your left heel planted and teaching that brick on the end of your leg to act like your right foot seems easy, but quickly proves otherwise. You eventually will get it and then you will dance on the pedals and feel like Miko Hirvonen, even though you clearly are not. The Slalom is by far the best place to learn an important lesson that accurate vehicle placement trumps early or aggressive throttle.
  • The Boneyard
    • This is the pinnacle of what one can learn on the half day course. This is their small coned off track consisting of roughly 4 turns of various sizes and severity. This is where you get to put in to play the styles you learned from the skidpad and the slalom in to connecting motions. The first few laps are sloppy and misjudged, and lead to a fair amount of face palming yourself after you exit the course. No matter what, all the driving, good or bad, was a total joy and it's hard to beat some time sliding around. Your mind will fight you before every turn telling you that you're coming in too hot but that is what you want, and the instructors say make sure you drive to you're comfort level... Of course when you put everything you were taught throughout the day together and then add some speed, it becomes ethereal, the car pivots exactly where you want, it holds the slide just long enough for the nose to come around and slip past the late apex, pointing you straight down the the next entrance point. The throttle input goes from a barbaric stabbing motion to smooth rolling on and off of and the car responds with speed, accuracy and confidence. And at the moment it all starts to feel right... 
      • Congratulations for successfully completing the 1/2 day course!
      • The only thing left is to wish you had opted for the 3-day course, and with that feeling of confused joy and disappointment you get to switch back to let the instructor drive and show you how it's actually done.
  • The Instructor Lap
    • While not as informative as the previous 3 exercises, the instructor lap is an absolute rush. All of the instructors have plenty of skill and experience to toss the cars around The Boneyard, through The Link and on to the Slalom and back again, and you get to really feel what the cars are capable of. With some showmanship they pendulum turn the cars in for big sweeping, gravel spraying turns, fast on the wheel and smooth as glass they pummel our insides and touch the outer limits of the handling. On such a small course it feels brain damaging, but that could have been our helmets banging on the roll-cage or our chests being compressed by the harnesses under heavy braking. After just one full lap you  feel the sense that you're sitting with some of the most talented people in this type of driving, and you realize that everything you did today was a total privilege.
The Instructors
Any instructor you're lucky enough to have as your teacher for the day is a fully capable 100% hoon. These guys live and breath rally driving, and their instruction techniques show it. Some of you might recognize their names from their various rally, offroad, and tarmac racing experience:
  • Forest Duplessis - Chief Instructor
  • Don Wooten
  • Nate Tennis
  • Adam Newell
  • Ted Anthony Jr.
  • Aleks Altberg
They were all stoked to have us filming our experience and were eager to lend a hand to start/stop and clean the camera while we were in the drivers' seats. Many thanks guys! Check out the video here for a visual representation:
The Staff
In simple terms, the staff of DirtFish Rally School is world class.  From the moment you walk in the door you're greeted by Jaimee who was both friendly and patient. We can't imagine dealing with a bunch of absent minded Hoons on the regular, she somehow manages to take it in stride. The staff is knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions you may have about the expansive amounts of memorabilia in the building, stemming from a Colin McRae WRC Focus, to the famous racing suits that lined the hallways.As you walk down the hallway and pass by suits worn by racing greats like Jensen Button, Ralf Schumacher, Nico Rosberg, Jacques Villeneuve, and many others, you get the sense that you are in a very serious and racer-minded environment. It's perfect.

The Shop
The shop was a very cool place to be, it's where the real magic happens. Without a shop like this there's no way the cars they have could be ran as hard or as consistently as they are. With three lifts and all the associated wrenching bits and air tools this full service shop has everything DirtFish needs to keep the cars in top shape, and it's centrally located right outside of the Boneyard. Oh, did we mention mechanics Paul and Devin both drive e46 M3's? Hoons.

The school is located about 15-20 minutes off of I-90 in Snoqualmie, WA. A week before our class we were sent a package of information with maps and directions. Without these instructions, it's very easy to get lost. Our Garmin GPS with the most up to date 2011 maps was confused and didn't know which exit to take, and then was recalculating as we approached the location provided in the email package. There are also no signs for DirtFish exiting the Interstate, or on the roads approaching the school. The only way to know we were at the right place is a small square sign at the entrance that is no bigger than a political rally lawn sign that says "Dirt Fish" with an arrow on it. For a school so awesome as this there's no reason to be hiding in the woods with no signage. Once you cruise down the driveway it's obvious in the parking lot that the employees here are serious about cars. 2004 STi, Mk II GTI, e30 M3, etc.

  • Located within an hour of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; anyone in the world can get here.
  • Incredible instructors; willing to work with drivers and push their skills.
  • Top notch facilities and equipment; they are just starting to lose the "new car smell".
  • Optional Crash Insurance.
  • Groupon Promotion
    • We scored the 1/2 day course for $325 thanks to Groupon; the other six students in our 8 AM session did as well. The Course is normally $650.
  • New Subaru STIs.. for beginners? Yeah, big Pro.
    • The "fit & finish" for a place thats been open for 5 months is incredible
    • Swapping cars with other students.
    • Little to no signage directing you to the school; it is very easy to not find the school.
    • Optional Crash Insurance.
    • 1/2 Day Session normally costs $650.
      • Seeing as all 8 students in our class used the Groupon, there is a clear disparity between the full price, and the perceived value of the 4 hour course.
    • Seat time. The 1/2 day intro to rally is just that; an introduction. The amount of seat time is satisfying, but leaves you wanting more.
    If you love cars, DirtFish is the place for you. If you've ever wondered what it's like to drive your car at the edge of control in a safe environment, DirtFish is for you. If you have a passion for motor-sports and want to improve your driving skills, DirtFish is for you. There is a unique distinction between tarmac driving and rally driving that isn't easily understood until you feel it. While the basics of car control are essential for any driver to be successful, rally driving takes you over that edge. In essence, it is controlled chaos. You want the car to get sideways, you need the car to oversteer - this must happen to create straight lines. Rally racing consists of an ever present ideal: manufacturing straights. Tarmac driving on a racetrack is cold and calculated, apex to apex, fast and smooth. Rally driving is organic and controlled, lift off the throttle, turn the wheel and brake to shift the weight forward to induce a turn, generate the apex, straight line and go. Slow and smooth, smooth is fast. These techniques are second nature to the instructors at DirtFish, after a 1/2 day we felt more confident then in the morning. Rallying is intoxicating, the thrill of smoothly driving the car through a gravely, muddy, wet and sloppy turn under complete control is unmatched on tarmac racing.

    For more information on the DirtFish Rally school, visit their website at:

    This has been a review by The Daily Hoon. For request to republish this article please email us at: . Happy hooning.

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