Subaru Motorsports USA Takes Us for an Exhilarating Ride as They Compete in the Oregon Trail Rally
Heart palpitating roars, undulating “braps,” and turbo-induced chirps echoed through Washington’s thick forestland as a flurry of men attended to a pair of almost-identically equipped Subaru rally cars. Each man had a specific duty, tools, and knowledge base to assist these vehicles and their occupants. Both cars were centered on oversized pale gray mats with jacks, jackstands, toolboxes, and other parts carefully laid around them. As one was jacked up, the other one was lowered.
Each rally car took its turn running through the remote forest—screaming down a twisting course, gliding atop its terrain—beautifully positioning themselves against corners both wide and tight, aggressively chomping up gravel beneath them. Enormous plumes of dust enveloped Mother Nature as they charged their way back to their temporary paddock. The drivers discussed tweaks and concerns about their vehicles with mechanics and engineers. Out they went, back they came, for the better part of one day.
What wasn’t expected: thrilling, captivating, and g-force gasping adrenaline rushes that both Travis Pastrana and David Higgins, the two winningest rally drivers in recent U.S. history, created during full-on hot laps with their built-up Subaru WRX STI rally cars. We stared in awe as they seamlessly shifted gears and slid into tight tree-lined corners, while gravel shredded their cars’ bellies—only huge tree trunks were seen. Such fierceness, skill, and determination married to finesse, ease, and control. Even when Higgins blew a tire on a hot lap, the composure and attention paid to his STI was palpable. Subaru Motorsports USA’s team truly showcases a true art: a superior dirt ballet with Mother Earth.
Subaru Motorsports USA
That was pre Oregon Trail Rally prep: this is Subaru Motorsports USA. The team, who was known as Subaru Rally Team USA, rallied in North America since 2001 and has a decorated history in its 18 years as it partnered with Subaru of America and Vermont SportsCar. After winning 12 of the last 13 national rally championships, they expanded into rallycross, hill climbs, stunts, and more. In 2019, the team rebranded as Subaru Motorsports USA in order to reflect their wider focus.
“They seamlessly shifted gears and slid into tight tree-lined corners, while gravel shredded their cars’ bellies—only huge tree trunks were seen. Such fierceness, skill, and determination married to finesse, ease, and control.”
Subaru Motorsports USA invited me along for a behind-the-scenes look as Pastrana and Higgins, along with their respective co-drivers Robbie Durant and Craig Drew, prepared for, rallied through, and conquered the 2019 Oregon Trail Rally.
“David and Travis have both been major ambassadors for Subaru and rally as a sport in America,” says Bill Stokes, motorsports manager of Subaru Motorsports USA. “They’re both incredibly competitive, but there’s a great deal of mutual respect between them. From the perspective of a Subaru, you couldn’t ask for a better pair of teammates. They’re professional, great with fans, and most of all—they’re fast.”
Since 1984, the Oregon Trail Rally, an American Rally Association (ARA) sanctioned stage rally circuit, hosted a multitude of competitors from all over the world. Stage rallies are point-to-point races on any type of terrain that are judged against the fastest time, per each vehicular class. This three-day rally started at Portland International Raceway (PIR), and then hit areas of the scenic Columbia River Gorge—both on the Washington and Oregon side. Terrain included pavement, dirt, water crossings, and air that hosted challenges for driver and co-drivers alike.
As prep finalized for team #199, Pastrana and Durant, and team #1, Higgins and Drew, we transitioned base camp from a secret location in the woods. Next, we’d run recce with their street-going WRXs and our 2019 Subaru Forester Touring model. This happened the day before Oregon Trail Rally started. Recce, a shortened version of reconnaissance, is essentially pre-running trails. Recce allows rally drivers to run/observe the roads before competition, in order to create their pacenotes to help them navigate the terrain. Pacenotes are handwritten directions created to accurately describe specific routes a rally vehicle is to take: jumps, turns, hills, junctions, how a road tightens or widens, caution areas, and so on.
“This three-day rally started at Portland International Raceway, and then hit areas of the scenic Columbia River Gorge—both on the Washington and Oregon side. Terrain included pavement, dirt, water crossings, and air that hosted challenges for driver and co-drivers alike.”
While we didn’t sail over jumps or dive deeply into water crossings during recce, the Forester handled the ruts, dips, broken pavement, and miles of uneven dirt recce with ease. It was stable, comfortable, fun, and safe during our day with it. Built on Subaru’s global platform, along with its symmetrical all-wheel-drive system, this five-passenger adventure SUV tackled unpredictable terrain confidently.
“The all-wheel-drive system is what makes a Subaru a Subaru … it adds to the lifestyle that Subaru’s famous for,” Higgins exclaims. “People can get in their cars and they can go mountain biking or to places where you can’t go with other cars. You can also drive [Subarus] every day. One single platform makes it much easier for a brand to be more diverse on body style and different things, like the Ascent or Forester.” Higgins further states that Subarus share the same technology. Potential Subaru owners don’t have to purchase the biggest and most expensive Subaru in order to get these features or get the best car for their needs.
Once the competitors completed recce, the next stop would be the Oregon Trail Rally. Three days of intense rally competition. Who would take First Place? Would there be any mishaps? Who would DNF?
Oregon Trail Rally Time
Rally legends Pastrana and Higgins have rallied the Oregon Trail Rally before. Higgins, a nine-time winner at Oregon Trail Rally and Pastrana, a five-time winner, both had strong starts at PIR Friday night—especially Pastrana, who won the 2017 Oregon Trail Rally. Pastrana, a motorcross legend, along with his co-driver Durant, had raced a pared-down schedule in 2018, with Oregon Trail Rally being their first rally in nearly nine months. Similarly, it was also their first rally of 2019; it gave them confidence going into the weekend.
During PIR’s competition, Pastrana and Higgins were separated by mere fractions of a second— that was until Higgins’ STI clipped a rock, which resulted in a blown tire and front end damage. Although he and Drew finished their stages, they now lagged behind by a substantial 12.7 seconds.
Saturday and Sunday offered up gravel, dirt, ruts, water crossings, and flight. This included cars hitting the infamous Boyd Jump and me flying in a helicopter shooting photographs as Pastrana and Higgins rallied their way through the stages. Both men flew over Boyd Jump with control, determination, and a seemingly insane amount of hang time—Pastrana took the honors of the weekend’s longest jump—soaring 134 feet over the crest.
Each rally rig strives for lofty air and a safe return down to earth. Most everyone made it over Boyd Jump without issue, but a 2004 Acura RSX Type S from Tanveer Deen and Michael Szewczyk of Team CRT did not. The RSX nose-dived hard and spun its way to detrimental result. The control arm snapped, dislodging the axle. Although they were pulled off the course so others could continue, they weren’t hurt and were in good spirits. People came together to help. They were able to fix their Acura, were back in contention, and finished the rally successfully. That’s rally; that’s rally life.
Subaru Motorsports USA’s David Higgins pushed hard to close that 12.7-second gap from the previous day. He and Drew meticulously shaved off seconds on Saturday to take over the lead, and with a near-flawless performance on Sunday, continued to widen the gap. They kept the pressure on. Pastrana missed a turn and drove back to catch the course, which resulted in a loss of several seconds; and in the end, Higgins claimed his 10th Oregon Trail Rally victory.
“Oregon Trail Rally … what an amazing start for us. We won the first two stages, a couple of guys had some bad luck and it gave us a little bit of a lead,” said Pastrana after Oregon Trail Rally finished. “[We] went absolutely max’d out and just didn’t have the speed that David Higgins had. That guy, he just drove absolutely unbelievable, and pushed his Subaru to the [absolute] brink.”
Pastrana also praised their amazing crew. When interviewed, he jokingly mentioned they broke “pretty much everything” in their Subaru, but the crew always got them back out there. Breaking things wasn’t because of the way he drove, but the way rally treats cars. It’s extremely taxing on them—rough roads, kicked-up debris, parts breaking, and so on. It’s also very demanding on drivers and co-drivers. “We ended up Second overall at the rally. Honestly, coming off of not rallying that much recently, I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Pastrana said.
Bill Stokes said it best, “For Subaru, rallying is in our blood. We love the challenge of the sport, and how we can translate what we learn on the rally stage into cars that our fans can buy. Rally cars aren’t million-dollar prototypes that will never be driven outside of a racetrack—they’re production-based, street-legal cars that have to handle dirt, gravel, and jumps at triple-digit speeds and then be driven on open roads to the next stage to do it all again. To us, it’s the purest test of a performance car.”
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the September/October 2019 print issue of Tread Magazine.