‘Like A Race With Only One Lap’ — A Crash Course In Rally Driving

Writing about cars on the internet is a little like writing about guns or parenting — commenters will rush to correct your smallest miscue, question your credentials, and deliberately misinterpret things you’ve written, all while being as pedantic as possible. “Umm… actually, you can tell that’s a .762 cartridge because of the tapering.”

A few weeks ago I wrote about The Fast And The Furious — a movie that, let’s remember, posits that any old Toyota Supra or Mitsubishi Eclipse is capable of 10-second quarter miles and hitting 140 mph as long as you have a laptop and some NOS. Realism didn’t seem like a priority, yet almost immediately I got told to stay in my lane. “This guy should NEVER have been allowed to write this article! Go write about movies that are about something you are into and leave us car peoples movies alone!”

I’m not asking for pity, I’m just saying it happens. Fittingly, I happened to be on my way to cover a car event when I read it. Toyota had invited a handful of journalists out to promote their rally program, and it seemed I was the token non-car guy. Which isn’t entirely fair, just because I’ve never taken one apart doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate going fast. (In all honesty, not taking autoshop in high school is one of my biggest regrets). Still, it’s fair to say I was out of my element.

“So what’s a rally car, anyway?” a friend asked me, as I was packing for my flight.

“It’s, uh… where they race around in the dirt? I think?”

I had the broad strokes correct, at least. The guests of honor at Toyota’s Rally Rav 4 event were driver Ryan Millen and Christina Fate, Millen’s fiancée and navigator. As Millen described it, a rally race is “like a racetrack where we only do one lap.”

The way it works is, the rally teams get to drive through the course once at “road speed” — generally 25 mph or so, much slower than they’ll be driving it during the actual stage — where they film it and try to memorize the course while the navigator takes pace notes. This reconnaissance lap is called a “recce,” and teams can get penalized for going too fast (as Ryan and Christina had at a recent event in Pennsylvania, where they finished second). Then, during the race, the navigator will call out turns in order of sharpness, on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the sharpest. There are various other scales for doing this, apparently, but 1-7 is generally known as the Aussie/New Zealand system. Ryan’s father grew up in New Zealand and is also a racer, and the Millens are something of a racing dynasty. Christina’s mother, meanwhile, is a risk manager for Wells Fargo. Which seems very close to being the plot of a rom-com where someone learns to loosen up.

Likewise, there are about a million women-be-shoppin’ jokes you could make about having directions screamed at you by your wife while you try to drive as a job (this British Onion-style article about a rally driver having no idea what his navigator is talking about goes around every few years), but in all honesty, I can’t imagine many things that would put as much stress on a relationship as a partnership that involves 1) working together 2) in a competitive, high-stress environment 3) with one person in an entirely advisory capacity. Competitive IKEA furniture building, maybe. Millen compares the navigator’s role to a hockey goalie — “they can’t win the game, but they can lose it.”

Yep, that still sounds terrible.

Unlike other types of racing, rally teams actually have to drive their cars between stages (which are 100 miles each), sometimes as much as 400 miles — meaning the cars have to be street legal — and that the teams are putting in a LOT of car time together. “It’s like going on a road trip for a weekend,” Millen says.

Uh-huh. But, like, a not-for-fun road trip, and every weekend.

One thing that makes that easier in Millen/Fate’s case is that they’re doing their traveling in a car that, at least in its bone stock incarnation, is designed for commuting. On a circuit dominated by small sedans and coupes — Cooper Minis, Ford Fiestas, Honda Civics and FITS — they’re the only team driving a small SUV. With an automatic transmission, no less. And front-wheel drive. And, they claim, a stock power train. And yet Millen and Fate have finished first or second among two-wheel drive cars in their last four races. Even a guy like me who barely knew what rally racing was a few days earlier knows enough about cars to be surprised by this.

Which, of course, is sort of the selling point. People see a small SUV barreling around corners at a rally race and they start asking questions. “Front-wheeled drive? An automatic transmission too? No way.” Toyota builds some mystique, and suddenly (hopefully) people start seeing the RAV 4 in whole different light.

“What’d you think of the RAV 4 before? That it was a soccer mom car?” a Toyota rep asks.

This is more or less true, not that I wouldn’t have been happy to own one regardless. I actually mostly thought of it as the car Theresa Halbach was driving the day she was killed, thanks to Making a Murderer. I don’t say that though. As part of Toyota’s attempt to reinvent the Rav 4’s image, they’d invited us out here to drive some and I wasn’t about to spoil my chance to tear ass around in the dirt for some loose murder talk.

Oh right, the cars. Toyota was letting us drive “lightly modified” rally RAV4s around a dirt rally track built into a horse farm in Temecula, California. Our rally RAVs weren’t too different than the consumer model, just some all-terrain tires, mud flaps, different wheels, and skid plates on the bottom to keep us from knocking out any of the mechanical doohickies when we took it off sweet jumps (I think). They had modified versions of three of their consumer models — the all-wheel drive Limited, the sport-tuned SE (a new line for 2016), and the Hybrid (surprisingly, the most powerful of the three). I haven’t done a lot of new car shopping lately, but in my professional opinion, the mud flaps made it look more badasserer. Honestly, it was surprising to see how much cooler a car could look just because of some mud flaps. Maybe I should get some for my hatchback, I thought.

Like all fun things, the trip to the track was preceded by a safety presentation. A Power Point urged us to use a “late apex” on turns for optimum safety and performance (enter high, finish low), and to be “smooth, flow-y, tidy.”

At this point I should probably mention that I got a staph infection in my knee a few weeks before this event. I had to delay my RSVP to find out if I was even allowed to travel. I’d gone from in slight pain to completely bedridden in about 12 hours and spent two days in the hospital getting antibiotics through an IV. I hadn’t had surgery and didn’t even have any visible cuts or scrapes that I thought normally preceded staph. “How do you think I got it?” I asked the doctor. “Through a jiu-jitsu mat?”

“Probably,” he said. “Hard to say. The thing about staph is that it’s basically all around us and your body is covered in it most of the time.”

A reassuring thought, as you can imagine. A week after I got released from the hospital, still hobbling around on crutches, I didn’t feel entirely comfortable driving (I was also on a lot of painkillers), so I called a Lyft (sometimes their cars are bigger than normal taxis) to get me to a follow up appointment. I still couldn’t bend my left knee at all, so when the car came (a Kia of some kind), I sat in the back sideways, back against the door, with my feet lying across the seat. The driver took a wrong turn and got a little flustered trying to find the hospital, not that I really cared, because, like I said, painkillers. She was looking for a place to make a left turn on a busy street when I glanced down to check a text. Apparently she chose poorly, because a black Mercedes SUV slammed into the front right of the car, sending my phone flying, smashing my face into the back of the head rest, and sending my bum knee clanging, ironically, against the handle of my own crutches.

When the car came to rest, I hobbled out grumbling, dripping blood from my busted lip, which might’ve been worth it for the perplexed looks from bystanders. “How the hell did he get those crutches so fast?”

Honestly, a bloody lip isn’t of particular concern when you can’t walk. I hailed a regular cab while my driver and the Mercedes guy argued over whose fault the accident was and arrived at the hospital only 15 minutes late to my appointment.

I mention all this because more than a few friends wondered if I was tempting fate by doing car stunts while still walking with a cane from a severe staph infection and head-on collision in the space of a week. I’ll admit it did kind of seem like I was asking to get Final Destinationed.

At the same time, you know what’s really gratifying when you haven’t been able to walk right for a few weeks? Driving really f*cking fast. After the safety briefing, I put on a head condom thingy and a helmet and some leather gloves that I didn’t care were totally unnecessary and tried to throw around my RAV as best I could. Which wasn’t so great at first. I tried to use my left foot for braking like race drivers do, but abandoned that three fourths of the way through the first lap. “You have… no sensitivity in your left foot,” my first driving instructor said matter of factly. I thought about mentioning my injury as an excuse, but figured why bother. The hooker doesn’t care how much better at sex you usually are.

Once I stopped trying to use my bum leg, I drove pretty well. Or whatever that means. They didn’t time us, so mostly I judged myself on trying to put my car into the most extended skids possible while still keeping it on the track. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t actually make you go faster unless you’re playing Mario Kart, but it sure is fun. “You are getting very confident now,” a different instructor told me, this one a delightful Frenchman. “Are you sure you never con-see-dare doing thees for leeveeng?”

No one truly believes the hooker when she says you’re good at sex, but it’s fun to pretend.

Granted I didn’t have any other cars to compare it to, but my verdict on the RAV 4? It was pretty fun. I didn’t feel like I was driving an SUV. Do other compact SUVs look as cool with mud flaps or drive as fun in the dirt? Frankly, I won’t know until I do an A/B test. In the meantime, I know the RAV 4 is the only one in which you can slowly turn to your passenger and say “You know, this is the car Theresa Halbach was driving the day she was killed.”

The next event of the day was a ride in the passenger seat of Ryan Millen’s actual rally car. Millen explained that he drives a stock RAV 4 power train, with a relative minimum of modifications. Those include removing most of the dash, the A/C, and any creature comforts from the interior, as well as relocating the battery to the backseat for some such reason. Millen and Fate’s RAV is about 100 pounds lighter than the stock RAV, but still 800 pounds heavier than some of the turbo Ford Fiestas they race against. With that much of a disadvantage, what are the RAV’s advantages? “Reliability and wheel travel,” Millen said.

Of course, the most interesting mod, to me, are their driving suits, which are apparently coated with some kind of cooling substance, to neutralize, at least in some tiny degree, cabin temperatures than can hit 130 degrees. Millen described them as “sort of like menthol underwear.”

Menthol underwear! There should be a separate media event for those.

In any case, with Millen driving, the track was… much different. I wish I could say I was terrified to make it sound more dramatic, but the truth is that when a pro is driving, things that would normally seem insanely dangerous quickly divorce from consequence and you detach a little. Once you drive right through the first giant pothole at 60 mph, you sort of forget that it’s supposed to be dangerous. Just enough that the ride felt more like a simulator or a video game than reality. Millen came into turns at ludicrous speeds and yanked the e-brake to swing the tail around while I asked technical questions which he answered patiently, offering anecdotes about cat back exhausts and Le Mans like we were on a coffee date. It was… fun.

And, in what was clearly the point, I do have a newfound respect for rally drivers. Not getting to practice on the track you’re racing on makes it feel so much more impressive — that they have to improvise and rely on feel and instinct rather than repetition. It feels like a more pure test of getaway driving aptitude. In fact, until I get invited to do a ride along with a Nascar guy, I’d be willing to say that Nascar is bullshit and all Nascar drivers are giant pussies. Hey, one man’s opinion.

Vince Mancini is a writer, comedian, and podcaster. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.