To celebrate my Dad’s 70th birthday, we signed up for a full day AWD rally program at DirtFish rally school. http://www.dirtfish.com/
The DirtFish facility is impressive. Located in Snoqualmie Washington on hundreds of acres of former lumber mill land with multiple off-road courses, it has several buildings including the main office/showroom/classroom with rally inspired artwork, race suits, and a unique car collection in the lobby.
We had a small group of students (6) along with a film crew working on a documentary for an upcoming rally video game. Our lead instructor was Ted Anthony who walked us through the fundamentals in the classroom and drove us to each driving location. Classroom time was brief with the focus on getting experience behind the wheel in the dirt. Each student shares an instructor and a car (Subaru WRX STI for the AWD program). The car I drove was originally from Europe and was prepared with a seam welded chassis and massive roll cage. This car (#23) also had fixed back race seats. Because of the seats and substantial roll cage, I think they reserve this car for the thin and limber students as it isn’t easy to enter and exit. The other STI’s had factory seats and a simple roll cage. Cars used stock 2.5 liter US based STI engines but the interior was stripped, ABS disabled, brakes unassisted, and the suspension and tires were upgraded to handle continuous off-road abuse.
Michelle Miller was my instructor and was fantastic. Her ability to drive full tilt and sideways while verbally explaining every detail was impressive. We started off on a circular gravel skid pad where we learned how to turn it into a series of tight corners and straights by using the brakes to pivot the car and acceleration to straighten it out – a very different strategy compared to RWD on a paved surface. After many continuous laps we moved on to the slalom.
The slalom was a gravel and muddy surface using cones to make the 5 or 6 slalom corners and finished with a 90 degree turn. The technique of slalom again was very different from grip driving and the corner at the end requires pitching the car sideways well before the corner using the throttle to pull the car through and out. We ran multiple laps on the slalom in both directions.
Next up was the Boneyard which is a short gravel course with multiple corners including some tight hairpins and some higher speed sweepers. This is where you put together the slalom and skidpad skills on a full course. A few tight corners had very deep gravel on the outside which severely punished your mid-corner and exit speed if you went in too deep or got wide on exit. After several laps in both directions, we stopped for lunch back in the main building.
After lunch, we met in the classroom to discuss the afternoon activities which began with a trail-braking exercise which felt a little out of order as we were already using this technique on the Boneyard but it was helpful to run the same corner lap after lap to really dial in the technique.
The final course was the Link which connected the Boneyard with the slalom and created a very fun track. Up to this point all driving was done in 2nd gear and using left foot braking. The Link required multiple shifts to 3rd and back to 2nd which resulted in one or two botched attempts when my feet forgot which pedals they were covering. Nothing like ripping out of a corner sideways and going for third while stabbing the brakes instead of the clutch pedal. We ran the Link multiple times in both directions and Michelle had me try some new techniques during some runs so my consistency was poor but I got a lot of experience trying new things. When done right, a rally turn on dirt feels more rewarding than a turn on a paved race course. Maybe it’s because it’s a new skill for me but I think it’s because there are a lot more variables at play and getting it perfect is much harder to do.
After playing on the Link, we met in the classroom for a final review of the day. Everyone was tired but happy. It was a fun group of students and instructors. My Dad was in the other driving group so he was driving while I was watching. It was fun to see his skills progress throughout the day. It’s not easy and for most of us, we have to turn off our instincts developed over many years of high performance driving on paved surfaces. AWD vs RWD also requires different techniques. DirtFish offers prepped Subaru BRZ’s for the RWD class but I have a pretty good feel for controlling a slide in a RWD platform so we chose AWD in order to maximize our education.
Overall I highly recommend DirtFish. Ted and Michelle were great instructors. Everyone at DirtFish was extremely professional, friendly, and helpful. I’ve attended other big name driving schools and DirtFish was by far the best. DirtFish has a higher seat time to classroom time ratio and the overall presentation and professionalism of the facilities and staff was impressive. As we left, they handed us a thumb drive with high quality pictures taken throughout the day – some of which are below (Me #23, Dad #3). It was super fun spending a day with my Dad sharing an experience we both really enjoyed.