Friday, September 14, 2012

We visit the DirtFish Rally School

I'm back in Chiang Mai and it feels good to be here. Yesterday evening I was sitting on our little balcony looking out as the clouds swirled around in the falling light and thinking about how comfortable I feel in Thailand. Of course, I realize that a lot of that comfort is because of Nut. She is not only a fantastic girlfriend but my interface to this wonderful country.

I guess being here sort of reminds me of how there used to be actual neighborhoods in the U.S. when I was a boy. In my neighborhood there were mom and pop stores on practically every corner. I can count from memory at least a dozen such stores in Sloan, the small Buffalo suburb (1 sq mile) where I went to high school. Sadly, all that has been changed forever with the advent of shopping malls and big box stores. Thailand still has that small neighborhood feel even in a city as big as Chiang Mai.

I got here early this year and the rainy season is still exerting its effects on the weather. Today is bright and sunny but it's been quite cloudy and rainy for the past week. Nut and I rode the bike to a popular viewpoint above Chiang Mai the other day where I snapped this view of the city below.

View of Chiang Mai from Route 1004 lookout

I had wanted to write this entry about the time I spent with Tuli and Harper but didn't get around to it when I was still in the states. Earlier in the summer Tuli found a good deal on a short, introductory course in rally driving and had signed up for it. He asked if I would be interested in coming along to hang with Harper and I said, yes, I love a road trip, so on the 29th of last month he and Harper and I set off for Snoqualmie, Washington where the DirtFish Rally School is located. (N47.53774 W121.81143)

Everyone we talked with at the school is a car enthusiast, as you might expect, and it was a fun experience. The full length courses are pricey and beyond the reach of most normal folks and I learned that maintaining the fleet of Subaru Impreza WRX STi rally cars is very expensive as well. If I recall correctly, Tuli got his one-afternoon short course for about $300 making it a relatively affordable adventure. However a full 3-day course will set you back about three grand. Another student, car-enthusiast we talked with said he thought being close to Microsoft is the reason a school like this one can turn a profit.

Following are some scenes from the school and the course. Some of the cars are rare, one of a kind rally cars — one we looked at is worth upwards of $300 thousand dollars — and are there on loan from their owners.

All Wheel Drive Subarus are justifiably popular on Alaska's icy winter roads but I was surprised to learn just how popular the Impreza is with the rally crowd. Apparently when Subaru introduced the turbocharged AWD Impreza WRX back in the early 90s it took the rally world by storm and revolutionized the sport. These cars start out as stock vehicles but are worked over extensively inside and out before they can be safely and competitively raced. The 2.0 liter engine in this one, WRC99, built for driver John Burns, puts out 300 hp and 480 ft-lb of torque. The interiors are stripped and rebuilt with carbon-fiber panels, roll cages, electronics, fire protection equipment, and more.

Subaru Impreza World Rally Car WRC99
Cockpit of WRC99
Here is a Ford Focus custom built for driver Colin McRae. Its specs are similar to the Impreza above: it sports a turbo-charged 300 hp, 2.0 liter engine and AWD and a ton of customizations.
Ford Focus World Rally Car

The cars at the school, while not as highly modified as these, nevertheless are powerful racing machines putting out 300 hp like the ones above. When I was in high school the Pontiac GTO was a popular muscle car — we used to say GTO stood for Gas Tires and Oil. These cars are like that: they go through motor oil and special soft-tread dirt track tires rather quickly. They use a brand of tire I never heard of, dMack Grippas,  that cost about $150 apiece. The Impreza's turbocharger is oil-cooled which we were told makes frequent oil changes a requirement. Tuli's instructor told us the tires last about 3 days and the oil gets changed at about the same interval. They use multi-viscosity Mobil-1 5W-50 synthetic oil exclusively in all their vehicles. The gravel plays havoc with disk brake rotors as well. There is a full scale auto shop on the premises to handle repairs, modifications and maintenance.
Tuli with the instructor on the "skid pad"
Students start out learning how to handle the cars during a turn on the "skid pad". Driving an AWD car through sliding turns on dirt is very different from what Tuli is used to. He's done some sport driving in his rear-wheel drive 1995 BMW 325i but that was on pavement. The techniques needed to run an AWD automobile at speed through turns on loose gravel are introduced in this first phase of the course. In all cases, an instructor takes the car and student through the course a few times explaining the techniques of left-foot braking and weight transfer, hand brake turns, etc. Then he turns the car over to the student for several runs through the same turns using those skills.

Tuli driving the slalom course
Special dirt track "Grippa" tires
Later they drive on a slalom course and then finally a small race track, the "Boneyard", with quick turns that included a couple of tight hairpins. The idea is to take what you've learned in the early lessons and put it into practice during a simulated racing experience. I think it's fair to say Tuli enjoyed the course immensely. And Harper loved the microphone equipped helmet his dad got to use.

Two handsome boys

We took the opportunity to visit some old friends while we were in Washington. We stopped for a night at Dody's, an old friend from Homer, and at Peggy and Dan's, folks I know from the years I lived in Boston back in the 70s.

By the time we got back to Eugene three days later we had driven over 1,000 miles. Harper had been good as gold on the long trip and we had had our fair share of road trip snacks and Starbucks coffee. The DirtFish school has a website at if you want to check it out. Oh yeah, and you might find it fun to take a look at this YouTube video of a crazy guy named Ken Block putting some of these same driving techniques to practice in San Francisco.