It’s no secret that Subaru makes some of the most exhilarating road cars available today. The pinnacle of Subaru’s performance engineering is unquestionably the WRX STI. Known for turbocharged flat four-cylinders, four-wheel drive, and blue paint with gold wheels and cherry blossom pink logos, the WRX STI is an icon of the street racing and performance scenes.
What many WRX fans might not know is that the design of the WRX STI is very much race inspired. Subaru has a long history of participating in the World Rally Championship and other rally events, a racing style to which the Rex, as it is colloquially known, is perfectly suited.
Four Decades of Rally
Subaru has been a presence in the global Rally scene since 1981, when Subaru Technica International (STI) entered their first cars in the World Rally Championship (WRC) under the leadership of then-boss Noriyuki Koseki. In 1990, the Subaru rally team was taken over by the British company Prodrive. They started to see more success, but the turning point came in 1993 with the introduction of the Impreza 555 (see this excellent list from Road and Track for a full run down of Subaru’s Impreza WRX models).
The genesis of Subaru Impreza racing was so successful that in 1995, Subaru took home both the driver’s and makes’ championships in the WRC. Subaru has been a dominant force in Rally ever since, and especially in the America-based Rally America and Global RallyCross championships.
Rally vs RallyCross
Subaru has been a sponsor of the Rally America and Global RallyCross championships since their inceptions in 2005 and 2009 respectively. Subaru has also dominated the competition in both, only missing out on the Rally America championship once between 2005 and 2013. To understand just how impressive this is, it’s important to understand the difference between rally and RallyCross.
So, what is the difference? It really boils down to a few important details. Rally racing is carried out over long road and dirt stages, with pace notes and many turns to memorize. Drivers race on the track all at the same time, so establishing pole position is paramount. RallyCross, on the other hand, borrows heavily from Motocross, with large jumps, short stages, and drivers tackling the course one at a time.
Meet the Subaru Rally Team USA
Subaru’s rally team, managed by Vermont SportsCar and with its RallyCross component co-sponsored by Puma, races in events both stateside and abroad, such as the World Rally Championship, the Canadian Rally Championship, and both American rally series. Subaru’s Rally Team USA is made up of four superstar drivers: Sverre Isachsen, David Higgins, Bucky Lasek and Travis Pastrana. Head over to Global RallyCross sponsor Redbull’s website for more in depth bios of all the drivers in the series.
Isachsen has been racing since 1989. He became Norwegian RallyCross champion in 1999 and 2000, and was European champion from 2009-2011. He signed on to drive in the GRC for Subaru in 2012, and reached the podium both there and at the X-Games in that year. He’s known here as “The Viking Warrior.”
Higgins is a British Rally driver with a long winning history. He won the Group N British Rally Championship in 1997, 1999, 2002 and 2004, with a break in the middle to win two championships in the States. He then won a number of championships in China before joining the Subaru team in 2011. He has won the Rally America championship every year since.
Lasek made his name as a skateboarder, a staple of the X-Games and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game series. He joined the Subaru RallyCross team in 2012, and reached a best finish of sixth place.
The renaissance man of action sports, Pastrana has won a medal in just about every competition involving a motocross bike. He went on to distinguish himself in rally racing, driving a Subaru since 2003 and officially signed to Rally America in 2006. He won Rally America driver’s titles in 2006-2009, before a short stint in NASCAR starting in 2011.
The Subaru Rallycar
To make a Rallycar, one needs a stock vehicle, preferably with a turbo four cylinder engine and four-wheel drive. The WRX STI is the perfect car to fit the bill. Then, the engineers simply need to change nearly everything about it. Take, for example, Vermont SporsCar’s VT9R, based on the 2010 Subaru WRX STI.
Built to Rally America’s “open” class, nothing is held back in turning the car into a purpose-built racer. At first glance, it’s obvious this vehicle is far from stock. A huge wing provides downforce, working in conjunction with thick rally tires to keep the car pinned to gravely roads through harrowing turns at breakneck speeds. The body panels have been seam-welded for increased aerodynamics. Carbon-fiber housed HID lights add extra range for night stages.
In the interior, all extra weight is stripped out, racing seats are swapped in, and a roll cage adds safety in the case of a roll-over. Carbon fiber is swapped in wherever possible, and a hydraulic handbrake is installed to help carry out difficult rally maneuvers. A rally computer keeps driver and navigator in the know, and seat-belt harnesses keep them from bouncing around the cabin.
The real magic is in the drive-train. The engine and turbo are tuned to make 303 horsepower and 451 pound-feet of torque. Upgraded radiator and intercoolers are installed, as is advanced engine management software. Other components upgraded or entirely replaced to meet the demands of grueling rally courses are the clutch, brakes, suspension, fluids, fuel, fuel tank, exhaust, driveshaft, and steering rack. It’s no wonder top-spec rally cars are not a back-yard mechanic friendly project.
From Rally to Road
So, the next time you get behind the wheel of a Subaru, think about their rally racing pedigree and current successes. That technology, in some form or other, is what makes the WRX STI such an incredible vehicle, on or off the road.