DirtFish rally school: Three days in dirt-sliding heaven

Of all the ways of driving fast out there, rallying is among the most addictive -- and the most challenging to learn. Thankfully, there’s a school for that. Join us for three days at DirtFish.

Tim Stevens Former editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
Tim Stevens
6 min read

Rally driving is among the oldest forms of organized motorsport and it is certainly one of the most punishing. It's also the one that I happen to love the most. Put simply, a rally is a race to get from A to B in as little time as possible, typically featuring a production-based car that isn't a million miles away from what you can drive off the showroom floor. Those cars are raced over real roads, not purpose-built racetracks, meaning the penalties for a slight mistake can be severe.

That A-to-B journey is often split into multiple pieces, called stages, and the cars traversing those stages typically receive significant enhancements to make them better suited for the punishment they'll receive. It's a fundamentally alluring mix of real cars on real roads going really, really fast.

Watch this: A blast through the trees at DirtFish's epic rally school

I don't know why, but that mix has always been particularly appealing to me. I've spent far too many hours playing games like Colin McRae Rally, Dirt and Richard Burns Rally, have owned more than my fair share of Subarus and, yes, been lucky to get many of them sideways on the dirt and on the ice.

But I've never had a chance to try my hand at some proper rallying. Earlier this year, that finally changed.

Rally in the Pacific Northwest

Rallying has sadly never found the kind of massive fan base here in the US that it enjoys internationally. So, it's hard to declare any part of the States a true "home" to domestic rally racing efforts in the way that Charlotte is the de facto home of NASCAR and Indianapolis is predictably the home of Indy racing. That said, what support we do have is generally concentrated in the northeast and the northwest. On the right coast, you have companies like Vermont Sportscar (considered by many to be the premiere rally builder in the US) and the Team O'Neil rally school.

The northwest, meanwhile, plays home to some of the biggest American rally events, the Oregon Trail Rally and Olympus Rally. Since 2010, it's also been home to DirtFish, a facility that has quickly become the premier rally school in the US, offering everything from single-day rally experiences to multiday training courses intended for those with a deep-seated need for sideways speed.

People like me, in other words.

Dirtfish Rally School
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Dirtfish Rally School

Oh yeah, I'm stoked.


I've had my eye on attending a rally school like this for years and, when the time finally came to pull the trigger, I opted for DirtFish's three-day, all-wheel-drive school.

For its RWD instruction, DirtFish offers a fleet of Subaru BRZs, while the AWD folks slot into Subaru WRX STIs. All cars are comprehensively rally-prepped, including cages and the sort of custom suspension you need to keep tires in contact with dirt. Car prep is a huge part of rallying and maintenance is absolutely key, and DirtFish clearly didn't cut any corners on the machines it lined up for us on the first day of school.

A mixture of current-gen Subaru WRX STI sedans and previous-gen hatchbacks, all cars had certainly seen some things at the hands of dozens of over-eager instructees, but all were well-prepared and rolling on freshly rebuilt suspension -- Bilstein dampers on the rear, a custom Reiger setup on the front. Before the three days were through we'd even get a fresh set of Hoosier rally tires, but that wouldn't come until later in the course, after we'd all learned what to do with them.

Course structure

If there's one thing you don't want to do after spending thousands of dollars on a driving school, it's spend hours and hours sitting in a classroom. Thankfully, that's not a problem at DirtFish. Yes, each of my three days there began and ended sitting at desks, but never for much more than 30 minutes.

The vast majority of the time is spent out on the 315-acre property. For my three-day class, I started with a gravel skidpad to get a feel for my car. Your typical skidpad at a driving school lets you find the limits of adhesion. Rally driving, however, is all about maintaining control well beyond those limits.

Sideways in the mud at DirtFish Rally School

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At DirtFish, the skidpad was used as a venue to introduce the first fundamental cornering technique of rally: lift-turn-brake. With an abrupt lift off the throttle, the weight of the car transitions to the nose, causing the front tires to bite and the rear to slide when you turn. A touch of brakes, applied after turning, exaggerates that effect. This is an easy way to induce just the right amount of oversteer to get the car to pivot, a technique I quickly put into practice on the slalom.

This technique, of not braking until after turning the wheel -- opposite to what you'd typically do on a race track -- took me a few moments to get my head around. I was just starting to feel comfortable with this technique when my instructor threw another technique into the mix: trailbraking.

This was a little more familiar technique for me, that of braking before the turn but then holding the brakes well into the corner. On the dirt, the instructor encouraged me to hold the brakes right up to the apex to keep that nose doing what I wanted.

This pace continued over the three-day course, instructors moving quickly from one technique to another, just barely giving enough time to learn some new approach at braking, turning or shifting before putting it into practice on one of the many tight and demanding circuits. Despite this, the instructors did a great job of tailoring each exercise to each student, ensuring nobody fell behind. Since there are only two students per instructor, you'll have plenty of time to establish your goals and limitations.

But for everyone it all comes down to one final challenge: The Wedge.

Dirtfish Rally School
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Dirtfish Rally School

Stage fright

Each day of the school presented a challenge on some sort of limited, rallycross-style stage. As the days wore on those stages grew longer, culminating on the final day, a stage DirtFish calls The Wedge.

This is a sort of tour of the DirtFish grounds, starting in the far side of the facility and cutting through the woods before coming out and around some large buildings and switching from gravel to concrete and back again, surface changes that led to some unpredictable handling -- just the sort of thing you're liable to find in a real stage.

Up until now the most dangerous obstacles were cones and the odd tire. The addition of some very real trees to the mix amped the pressure significantly. Adding to the intensity of the moment was one final new rally trick: pace notes.

In most forms of rallying, the driver is accompanied by a second person who, once upon a time, was primarily responsible for fixing whatever broke on the car along the way. These days that person's role has evolved into co-driver, their job to call out the corners before they come into view.

Dirtfish Rally School
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Dirtfish Rally School

This relationship between driver and co-driver is vital, enabling the driver to go flat-out around a blind corner. The pace notes define the language of that relationship, calling out the direction and intensity of upcoming corners along with things like hazards and jumps. A huge amount of repetition is required to truly get the hang of pace notes, but to me it's part of rallying, and something I was thrilled to finally experience at the end of the final day.

And the result? Well, neither David Higgins nor Oliver Solberg, pro Subaru drivers who happened to be on-site that day, are likely to have their contracts threatened by my performance. However, I did make a clean and quick run through the final stage while getting one more chance to practice the more restrained driving style that my instructors had been grilling me on. In rally, sliding sideways is fun, but it isn't necessarily fast.

Over those three days at DirtFish I had a ridiculous amount of fun and learned volumes about the nuanced skills of rallying you can't necessarily spot while watching WRC replays. Suffice to say I am totally hooked, which now of course raises the question of whether I can find the means and the time to go compete for real. At the very least, I can't wait for another chance to get out to Snoqualmie, Washington, for a few more days in rally paradise. 

Dirtfish Rally School
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Dirtfish Rally School