It’s the night before the first stage of the 2017 New England Forest Rally in New Hampshire and Maine, and something has gone horribly wrong.
We wouldn’t find out until the next day, of course, but the Toyota RAV4 driven by off-road racing legend Ryan Millen and his accomplished co-driver Rhianon Gelsomino needs a big fix, or it won’t be able to compete for the rest of the weekend. An afternoon of shuttling a dozen wide-eyed journalists back and forth at full speed down a dirt path with rocks the size of basketballs has torn up the underside of the RAV4 and laid waste to the car’s ECU system.
In any normal form of racing – think NASCAR, Formula 1, or IndyCar – a factory team like Toyota’s would have access to a spotless paddock at a race track, and a full team of engineers and mechanics could get to work making sure the car is spic-and-span for its big day, with an entire tractor trailer full of spare parts, enough to build an entirely new car if needed.
But this is rallying, and there are no paddocks or armies of engineers. Just a handful of dirt-covered MacGyvers and some duct tape.
If that sounds like an exaggeration, believe me, it isn’t. In fact, while we were sound asleep, Toyota’s mechanics were up all night pulling the ECU out of one of the press cars provided to us for the jaunt around northern New England and shoe-horning it into the rally car for the race the next day.
And all this to race a bone-stock family crossover against fully-prepped stage rally cars. This ain’t your mom’s RAV4. Or rather,
There’s an old saying in the world of rally that goes something like this (and I’m definitely paraphrasing): if it runs, it can rally.
That may sound like wishful thinking – surely something like a Bentley would be no good hurling down a tight dirt road – but that would be underestimating the insanity of this particular form of racing. Go ahead and look up “Bentley rally” on YouTube. You’re welcome.
Indeed, Toyota was intent on proving this very adage, or at least demonstrating the capability of their vehicles right out of the box, when they decided to enter a bone-stock, front-wheel-drive RAV4 in the 2WD Open class of the American Rally Association championship. As Millen told us before our fateful ride-alongs on a makeshift rally stage, he really did go down to a dealership in California, buy a front-wheel-drive RAV4, and prep it to go racing. No high strung engines or insane body kits to be found here.
Just look at the “Vehicle Info” page on Toyota’s Rally RAV4 website, and you’ll see some familiar figures: 176 horsepower and 172 lb.-ft. of torque from the stock 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine, a 6-speed automatic transmission, and most importantly, a factory ECU.
In fact, the only modifications made are to reduce weight and make sure the crossover meets safety standards for the race, including a roll cage, racing seats, six-point harnesses, and a hydraulic handbrake. Dampers and brakes have been switched out too, along with wheels and tires, but the entire vehicle weighs just 105 pounds less than stock. It even uses the same keyless entry system, though Millen zip-tied the fob to the steering column to make sure he doesn’t lose it and get locked out of the car.
Stage rally requires that cars be driven on public roads at or below the speed limit between stages, so everything on the car is completely road legal – or mostly at least. It’s even registered in the state of California.
Other racing programs have a direct impact on vehicle development and customer perception, but rally may just be the best way to prove what your car is really capable of.
To prove it to us firsthand – other than giving us full access to every stage of the rally all weekend and a ride-along in the car in question – Toyota sent us to Team O’Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire to learn how to drive on dirt ourselves, and in stock RAV4s, no less.
Some knobby BF Goodrich tires, Sparco wheels, and Toyota Racing Development (TRD) mud flaps and skid plates were all it took to get three stock RAV4s ready for rally school. The rest was on us to make sure we didn’t break them. Great, no pressure.
The very first thing they teach you in rally school (which takes place in a generator-powered log cabin in the middle of the woods) is to throw out everything you think you know about driving. As an alumnus of multiple racing schools at race tracks all over the country – not to mention a New England native with many years of snow driving experience – I figured I was as prepared as could be for what I’d be learning over the course of the day.
I immediately learned just how wrong I was, and just how much I had to learn.
After a quick classroom instruction on safety protocol, the difference between understeer and oversteer, and how cars behave on dirt and gravel compared to pavement, and it was time to hit the skid pad to learn about how to steer with the throttle and brake, not the steering wheel.
Sliding behind the wheel of a stock RAV4 Limited – the one with the softest available suspension and leather seats – there was only one thought running through my head: are we sure about this?
Very sure, apparently, as I quickly got up to speed on the circular skid pad, held the steering wheel in a fixed position, and used my right foot to modulate throttle and left foot to gently apply braking pressure, observing how the car pushed wide if I laid into the gas, and rotated back in line when easing on the brake, all while sliding around more than the average RAV4 will do in 5 years.
Next up was a slalom course, on which we learned to steer, brake, and wait until the car straightens up to get back on the throttle.
Yes, you read that right. Steer, brake. What a world.
Perhaps the best nugget of wisdom I learned over the course of the day was that the steering wheel wasn’t for , but . You use the wheel to make sure the car gets pointed in the right direction after a turn, and use the throttle and brake to get it rotated the right way. Yikes.
The final lesson of the day was the infamous “Scandinavian Flick” or pendulum turn. Remember in Disney-Pixar’s when Lightning McQueen is having difficulty making a left turn, and the Hudson Hornet tells him to “turn right to go left?”
It’s not just a quirky movie line, trust me. To execute the fastest possible right angle turn on dirt, you’ve got to turn the you want to go, then use the brake and a quick turn back the other way to get you pointed straight out of the corner. If that sounds confusing, it’s supposed to be.
Basically, quickly shifting weight from one side of the car to the other by turning the opposite direction first helps the car rotate better around the corner and have more grip as you accelerate out. It took several tries to master, and then several more tries because it was just so damn fun.
Before it was time to depart, we had a quick mini stage rally to see who was fastest after a day of learning to rally. Unfortunately, it wasn’t me, but my time was better than I expected, and I left the school feeling like a rally hero, largely thanks to the incredible instructors at Team O’Neil. And the surprising capability of a regular-old family crossover.
If Toyota’s goal was to convince us that the RAV4 is capable of much more than just grocery runs and the average daily commute, well, mission accomplished.
In fact, just by starting the race on the first day, Millen and Gelsomino clinched the 2WD Open Championship for the year, a full race before the last event of the season, and in a RAV4 that still has the infotainment system fitted.
Having experienced firsthand what the RAV4 can do off road, I can say with confidence that the crossover you have at home has plenty of the all-weather driving potential you bought it for, you just have to know how to use it. And as always, common sense prevails. You should still budget for a set of winter tires if you live anywhere that gets snow on a regular basis in the colder months. Your car will be useless without them, even if it’s got all-wheel drive.
And even if you’re not considering a career in rallying, or bombing down dirt roads at 120 mph or more with trees flying by in a compact crossover isn’t quite your cup of tea, if you get the chance to do any sort of rally school or even a local rallycross event, I can’t encourage it enough. Heck, just go on down to an empty parking lot the next time it snows and see how your car slides around when grip is minimal. It’s important to learn your car’s limits as well as your own, and there’s hardly a better way to do that than rallying.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go look for cheap cars I can rally on Craigslist to launch my racing career.