A few weeks ago at the Susquehannock Trail Rally around Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, I was offered a ride with Dave Mirra in Subaru Rally Team USA's (SRT USA) #40 WRX STI. Who could refuse?
I don't know why I used the word preparation. Nothing could have prepared me for that ride.
Once wedged and strapped in, Mirra began the short drive to the stage's start. On the way there, we talked via the helmets' microphones to speakers in each other's ears about the Drive Performance magazine and #40.
My arms and hands were free, but the rest of me was held securely in place. The seat had side pieces at helmet height to keep my head from moving too far from side to side. The five-point competition seatbelts had been pulled tight. On the floor, a metal platform angled up from the seat forward to help keep my feet in place.
When we arrived at the practice stage, it was clear for our run. The road ahead was gravel and little more than a lane wide. It cut through part of the Tioga State Forest. I could see that the road disappeared ahead of us, either to the left or right -- or maybe over a crest and straight ahead. Who knew? I hoped Mirra did.
One of the crewmen counted down, and the first part of my being unprepared became clear. We were on gravel, so I expected the tires to lose some traction -- spin a little -- as it ramped up in speed. If we lost any grip in that take-off, I didn't notice it. The sensation was like riding a Ferris wheel or roller coaster at its fastest point, then suddenly rising ... or falling. It's the point at which you're fighting against the g-forces, only to realize that the best way to deal with the discomfort is to relax. That came to me in about two gear changes, so I figured I was OK.
Meanwhile, Dave Mirra was talking about the car and the road -- most of it lost on me as the trees flew by and I had no clue where we were going to turn next. "Oh, and see that tree?" asked Mirra as it blurred past. "We saw a bear there earlier today. I'll bet he's up in the tree now." By the time those words were spoken, we were a quarter-mile away, with me wondering where the next blind turn would take us.
Here's what bothered me most about how violent and unpredictable that ride was to me: I really thought I was prepared. I've been exposed to all sorts of race cars on multiple types of racing surfaces. I've felt acceleration and deceleration as well as side forces in turns. I've even attended rally school, for crying out loud! I knew the specifications of these rally cars driven by Mirra and David Higgins.
Trees and rocks continued to fly by, and I did my best to relax. We cornered, dipped, and dived. Mirra banged through the gears and danced on the pedals. I could see a large divot out of the road in a corner toward the end of the run that must have launched us, because we banged down on the road at an angle that caused my helmet to snap sideways and make full use of the retaining power of the seat's wraparound brace at head height.
Did we really leave the road? I couldn't tell you. How fast did we go? Faster than I would have thought possible, but I wasn't watching the speedometer.
I asked Mirra about the roughness of the ride, and he seemed all smiles about it. He said something like, "Isn't it great? The suspension on this new car makes it ride a lot smoother than the old car." If that was smooth, ...
That ride was one of the most exhilarating, fearsome things I've ever experienced. As Subaru Motorsports Manager James Han had remarked a couple weeks earlier when talking about rally and going for a ride with one of the drivers, you have to be prepared psychologically to face the very real possibility of not returning from something like that.
I had plenty of time to reconsider that comment during my one-hour drive back to my hotel room.
-- Ric Hawthorne