Vermont SportsCar: It’s What Makes a Subaru a Subaru Rally Car
For many racing fans around the world, the sport is split largely into two camps: Formula 1 and Le Mans, and NASCAR. Events that fall into those two categories generate the most headlines, the most revenue, and often serve as the spearhead of conversation when it comes to automotive racing. But growing up in rough and muddy New England, I didn’t generally care for or about either of those. My personal flavor of racing was more homegrown: rallying. Specifically, the World Rally Championship, where the racing venues looked more like my backyard than a $1 billion sports arena.
Rallying has been around for over a century now and, at any one point or another, has been dominated by certain manufacturers. Way back when, it was Lancia, with the Stratos and Delta Integrale; Saab with the 99 Turbo; Renault and its R5 Turbo. Shortly thereafter, Audi broke through with its Quattro all-wheel drive setup and revolutionized the sport. Since then, Audi’s Quattro has become a defining part of what Audi is. But after the brand and its iconic Quattro Sport S1 left the sport, another manufacturer finally got its time at the top. That company was Subaru.
Subaru fields cars for both rally and its more perverted sibling, Global Rally Cross (GRC). What’s more, the official, Subaru-ordained vehicles that are fielded are built right in my backyard — at a small firm called Vermont SportsCar (VSC). And I got to visit to see how these ridiculous machines — based on the Subaru WRX and WRX STI — are put together.
My gracious host for the afternoon was Chris Yandell, VSC’s marketing manager. He led me through the offices where the CAD engineers work on modeling and designing all the custom parts for each vehicle depending on the needs of that specific build. Then, it was into the maze of workshops and studios that make up the VSC campus.
The company makes (at least) two different cars for Subaru’s teams: One is spec’d for rally, and one for GRC. In full rally kit, the car will produce about 320 horsepower — only 15 more than a stock Subaru WRX STI because of the restrictor plate — but that’s countered by well over 480 pound-feet of torque (over the stock 290 pound-feet), which is available near-instantaneously thanks to an anti-turbo lag function. No aspect of the car goes untouched. Everything is strengthened, reinforced, rebuilt, tweaked, and toyed with to put up with the forces of rally racing. The GRC cars, however, race on a circuit that’s partially asphalt and partially dirt, with a hefty jump somewhere in the middle. They’re subject to different regulations and produce in the neighborhood of 580 to 600 horsepower. Astonishingly, the builds use relatively similar engine architecture as the rally cars, the only major difference comes down to the restrictor plate used.
Despite the magnitude and international recognition of its products, VSC doesn’t rely on a network of third-party suppliers and wholesalers. Instead, it opts to create, mold, model, design, 3D print, and assemble everything it can within the confines of its expansive warehouse facility. The engines are rebuilt in-house, the carbon fiber and fiberglass components are cut, molded, and baked there as well.
Many of the parts — those that are not carbon fiber, steel, aluminum, or plastic — are made with a plasticky material called Twintex. Like carbon fiber, it’s a woven fabric that’s baked into the desired shape. But unlike carbon, it doesn’t require being impregnated with epoxies and resins in order to retain its shape. If the part — a bumper, fender flare, or whatever — is damaged, it can simply be re-baked and applied back to the car.
And you wouldn’t mistake VSC’s Subarus for factory sleepers. In fact, there’s really very little in common between the stock car that they get from Subaru and the finished product. Essentially, here’s how the build breaks down:
1. The factory car arrives, and is promptly stripped of everything down to the frame. Everything. VSC literally leaves no component on the vehicle. The build, which will take roughly two to three months with a full crew working on it, starts from near-scratch.
2. The frame is strengthened (and lightened) in key areas (suspension mounts, things like that) and reinforced with a custom-fabricated roll cage.
3. Engines are rebuilt, drivetrains are reinforced, and transmissions are rebuilt in-house — everything is jacked up to accommodate the extra power and unusual forces of gravity that the cars are subjected to.
4. Most parts are fabricated for the specific car. Chris said that the research, development, and engineering behind each custom part is easily the most challenging part of the build.
5. Through much tweaking, twisting, poking, prodding, adjusting, and otherwise finicking, everything — the rebuilt engine, sequential transmission, custom bodywork, reinforced drivetrains, brakes, suspension, even the rear wing — is assembled and the car is rolled out for testing.
“People sometimes say ‘what a waste! You strip the whole car? Why don’t you just start with a bare shell direct from the factory?'” Chris added later, in an emailed statement. “For rally cars in the USA, the car needs to be street legal, which means it’s registered/insured, which means it needs a VIN,” he continued. “Getting a bare shell from Japan would not have VIN. For our GRC cars, which do not need to be street legal we can (and do) use bare shells supplied from Subaru,” he said.
In addition to all that custom body work, new turbos, intercoolers, beefed-up components, new suspensions systems and brakes are pretty standard too. Inside are Recaro racing seats, new steering wheel, pedals — everything, really, since the creature comforts came out when they stripped it down to the frame. No carpets, power windows, glove box, or climate control, let alone a stereo — VSC takes Lotus’s “add lightness” mantra to an extreme. There’s nothing on these cars that doesn’t need to be there.
But wheels and tires do need to be there. At roughly $200 a pop, Chris said that the tires intended for gravel will generally last about 30-40 miles before having to be replaced. That obviously racks up a pretty penny, but the tires are comped by DMACK through a sponsorship agreement, so VSC can burn through as many as it needs to without gouging its bottom line. This isn’t unusual for racing teams, especially OEM-affiliated ones. Chris said that Subaru shoulders most of the costs that VSC runs up, though sponsorships play a role as well.
Keep on walking, and you end up in what is a largely empty room. Along one wall are cases of Red Bull — a nifty perk as a result from one of VSC’s sponsorship agreements. On the other side is a big white box with a large window that’s making some unusual humming noises. This is an industrial-sized 3D printer that Chris tells me is leased from its manufacturer and is a crucial component in creating mockups of various pieces as placeholders while the actual pieces are being made.
Unlike Formula 1, which has stringent codes and regulations for nearly every aspect of the vehicle, rally and GRC can play it a little more fast and loose with the rules. As long as they meet the minimum weight requirements and fall within the parameters of engine tuning and performance, Chris says there’s a fair degree of flexibility in how those regs are interpreted.
What struck me is that VSC seems very siloed — each department works on its components independently, and although there’s communication between them (there has to be), working on the parts together is limited up to the end. The engine guys work on the engines; the fabrication guys work solely in fabrication; the textile guys (the carbon fiber, Twintex) work exclusively on textiles, and so on. Everything culminates at the end when the car is assembled for the first time, with everyone gritting their teeth and counting on the parts to line up correctly.
You’d have to be pretty fortunate and/or talented to get behind the wheel — or even passenger seat of one of these cars, which can easily run past the $500,000-$600,000 mark were VSC to sell these at retail. Fortunately, VSC, Subaru, and other partners created an app (aptly named ‘Subaru Motorsports’) for iOS and Android that takes advantage of some mounted Go-Pros to create a near-first person view in virtual reality. Move your device around, and you can “look” around the cabin, or outside the car as it’s racing a real live race. It’s pretty neat.
If you’re ever in an area where a rally event takes place and you haven’t been, go ahead and check it out. The stuff these drivers do on sub-optimal surfaces for driving is nothing short of incredible. Even if you’re not a total car nut like we are here, we bet you’ll still walk away even a little bit impressed.