Training programs teach those behind the wheel how to handle dirt and gravel surfaces – and what to do when the inevitable skidding happens
To perform a pendulum turn, also known as the Scandinavian flick, first, turn the car sharply in the opposite direction of where you want to go, loading the suspension up, then snap the steering wheel back and lift off the throttle for a glorious tail-out slide through the corner. Additional helpful tip: Do not do this in front of an RCMP officer. No, not even a Finnish-Canadian one.
Instead, head to DirtFish rally school, a half-hour or so east of Seattle, and indulge in all the legal sideways shenanigans your inner Stig Blomqvist can handle. Sprawled across 315 acres, DirtFish’s gravel campus extends from wide, safe skid pads for early practising to narrow roads threading the needle between the trees.
If Santa’s been good to you this year, you’ll already have a pass for one of their comprehensive courses stuffed in your stocking. There are several levels available, from a half-day thrill ride on dirt to the three-day courses where you actually come away having learned something. Pick from either all-wheel-drive Subaru STIs or rear-drive BRZs and get ready to slide, slide, slide!
Besides being so addictive it makes heroin look like kale, rally school is a great gateway into one of the more accessible motorsports out there. Time-speed-distance rallies are held by numerous clubs across the country and you don’t need a racing machine to run one, as they’re done at legal speeds on dirt roads. There’s also rallycross, which is basically goin‘ out fer a rip in a big gravel lot. And volunteering at a professional-level rally means joining a welcoming community.
Best of all, learning to drive on loose, shifting surfaces at speed is one of the best ways to hone your skills as a winter driver. Yes, we’ll have to tuck the Scandinavian flick back in the toolbox once we leave school for public roads, but understanding rally-style driving will make you safer behind the wheel.
As is harped on at every driving school, look where you want to go and you’ll probably end up there. Human beings are instinctually visual creatures, so our hands follow our eyes.
Learning to keep your eyes up and looking ahead sounds like the most basic advice in the world. However, get in heavy traffic and the herd mentality tends to kick in. Your rally instructor will tell you not to miss the forest for the trees – that is, don’t look straight at a particular tree or you’ll develop target fixation and probably drive right into it.
The same is true on the street. If you’ve got your eyes up and looking ahead, you’ll catch everything from sudden slowdowns in traffic to a drift across the road that might trip you up. Further, if your car does start to slip, looking where you want to end up will have your hands naturally steering into the skid.
One of the hardest lessons to learn in gravel driving is that the steering wheel doesn’t turn the car, the brake pedal does. More so than in high-performance tarmac driving, rally really hammers home the need for smooth, yet decisive, action.
The best way to quickly visualize weight transfer is to grab a half-full bottle of water and lay it on its side. Tilt it forward and you’ll notice how the water sloshes to the front; tilt it back and you’ll see how the balance of weight now goes to the rear.
Go into a gravel corner under throttle, with weight transferring rearward, and your steering wheel will do absolutely nothing (oh, hello Mr. Tree. Ow). DirtFish teaches the mantra of lift, turn, brake for gravel work, but when street conditions are poor, we can shorten this to a simple lift, then turn.
All-wheel-drive is great, but even the torque-vectoring systems aren’t magic. You’ll want to be doing your heavy braking and acceleration in a straight line and making sure there’s a bit of weight on the front wheels when you’re initiating a turn.
Further, you don’t want to be transferring too much weight front or back when you’re already making a turn. Jamming on the brakes when you’re mid-corner is a good way to get all the weight off the rear wheels and then you’re going for a spin. Jump on the throttle too early and you’re going to understeer into that ditch.
You’d never think it to watch hopped-up Subarus fly through the forest, but every pro rally driver knows how to relax behind the wheel. In tarmac driving, inputs need to happen with blazing rapidity; on gravel and other slippery surfaces, you need to give the car a chance to react.
Don’t saw at the steering wheel; instead, gently feed in steering and then wait for the car to come around. If you start correcting and then overcorrecting, you’ll get into a feedback loop, oscillating ever more wildly until ditch-snowbank-tree. Instead, slow down behind the wheel and refer back to where your vision is supposed to be.
On gravel, the newbie’s mistake is to go straight for the throttle early. Ease up and you’ll be both quicker and safer.
To finish first, you must first finish. Several times over the course of a three-day program, each instructor repeated the refrain with near-religious fervour. One instructor put things even more simply.
“It’s like golf,” he said, “You’re not trying to get a hole-in-one every time. If you’re not upside down, on fire and in the trees, then you’re on the fairway.”
On gravel, as in winter driving, traction is an unknown country. You can train yourself to look for the grip, watching for the sheen of ice or the patches of tarmac between the packed snow, but the best thing is to keep a little change in your pocket. Even professional rally drivers know when to back off a little as conditions change throughout the day.
Your morning commute will likely throw completely different surface conditions at you than will the drive home. Enter every corner with a plan – gentle inputs, eyes looking ahead – but with enough of a margin of error to be able to correct for a sudden slip.
Look where you want to go, think about which wheels need to have the most traction, slow inputs down as the conditions get worse and leave a little extra on the table to deal with surprises. Use your rally-driving basics to keep you on the road this winter and it won’t be long before you’re ready to graduate to handbrake turns – on an approved rally course, not in the Tim Hortons drive-through.
Article by Brendan McAleer