As NASCAR’s high-octane traveling circus takes over New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, one of motorsport’s most dominant drivers will be plying his trade next door in Maine to the exterior of Sunder River Ski Resort.
At the 25th Annual New England Forest Rally July 17-18, Subaru Rally Team USA driver David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew aim to claim their 12th straight Rally America class victory in the past two years, and their fifth in a row overall. National Rally Championship of America.
âI couldn’t win a rally just by being a good driver,â said Higgins, 41, from the Isle of Man in Britain. âI couldn’t win a rally just by being in a good car. You have to have it all together, and it has to be together at the right time. And that’s something the team this year has really, really clicked with. We are all very satisfied with the product we have, the car we have, the partners we have within the team.
Still, Higgins, the defending Forest Rally champion, won’t even be the biggest celebrity of the Forest Rally, held along the western edge of Vacationland. That honor will go to Travis Pastrana, Red Bull poster and star of the Nitro Circus Live world tour. In what is billed as the Battle of the Titans, Subaru Rally Team USA teammates Higgins and Pastrana will face off against Ken Block, who won the Forest Rally in 2013, and Ramana Lagemann, both Americans.
âYou just have to be there to see it,â says John Buffum, Subaru team manager and a Vermont rally legend. âDuring their autograph signing, you’ll see Block autographs and Higgins signing autographs. But the Pastrana line is around the block.
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For Higgins, however, fame isn’t the point. Winning is. Coincidentally, Higgins joined the Subaru team in 2011 replacing Pastrana. Last year the pair clashed on the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire in the famous Climb to the Clouds race, which Higgins and Drew won in record fashion after Pastrana’s car suffered a puncture.
“He’s a hell of a competitor to have on the team,” said Higgins of Pastrana. âHe never gives in. He’s still pushing. He always wants to do more.
Obviously, Higgins too. He has reigned supreme in the rally scene since 2011, winning 20 of the 33 rallies he has taken part in. This year, Higgins is well positioned to complete the first “perfect season” in American rallying since Buffum pulled off the feat in 1987.
âThere is certainly a lot more hype surrounding the [Maine] event, because these guys [Block and Pastrana] are here, âsays Higgins, who won his first rally crown in 1993.â But in my world, I approach every rally in exactly the same way. People say I’m having this perfect season and winning every rally. I literally don’t think about past records, or what I’ve accomplished in the past.
âEvery rally I go to, I go with the exact same intention, and that’s to give my best. I want to win it. I don’t go into any event thinking, ‘These people are going to be here, so it’s going to be different. “It doesn’t change the way I approach things except that there’s more excitement on the outside. For me, internally, it’s exactly the same.
Considering the unique characteristics of rally racing, Higgins’ approach is a good strategy. Unlike head-to-head NASCAR or IndyCar races, which take place on cobblestone ovals or street courses, a rally is a series of time trials. The cars come out at intervals, race against the course and against the clock. The fastest cumulative time of the weekend, which features up to two dozen stages and over 120 miles in total, wins.
âYou run on the road as hard as you can and then you see where you stand against your competition afterwards,â says Higgins. âIn racing you always face your direct competition, and you can see where that competition is gaining time. But in rallying, until we finish the stage, we have no idea what the others have done.
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âThat makes it a very friendly sport in some ways because I can’t go on stage next weekend and have a direct result of what someone like Ken Block or Travis will do. We’re not on the scene. same scene [at the same time] where we can actually knock ourselves out. In the race, you can take out someone, and that person could blame you forever, even if it was a pure mistake. In rallying, we never have to deal with this aspect.
There are also other differences. On the one hand, Higgins has a co-pilot. Second, the races are generally held on “roads” of corrugated earth forest rather than on a smooth asphalt track. This setting makes crucial the role of the co-driver, who provides a constant flow of instructions based on pre-race notes. Higgins and Drew both stress the importance of trust at breakneck speeds.
âDavid doesn’t know the route by heart,â says Drew. âHe doesn’t know which turn will follow; he doesn’t know how fast he should go on the next turn. So I’m basically following his eyes before he gets to the next corner, so he’s driving 100% on what I tell him.
âObviously, the confidence has to be 100%. I trust David 100%. I know he’s a professional. I know he does what he always has done and what he does very well. So I never question his conduct. And he trusts what I’m saying 100%. It’s nice, when you’re in the car, to work in harmony. That confidence is still there. There are never any doubts.
The duo spend countless hours before each race, reviewing on-board videos and race notes from previous events, and creating new race notes to find “that little extra bit of speed,” says Drew.
âThat’s the difference,â he explains, âbetween someone who has almost won 11 rally championships, and someone who To won 11 rally championships. I firmly believe in âIf you don’t prepare, you prepare to failâ.
“Going fast is the fun part, but it’s actually a very small part of the job.”
Ultimately, however, it’s Higgins who has to steer his machine on the road. Buffum, who has witnessed America’s evolution of rallying from âstreet racingâ to back roads, says top drivers can be competitive even with less than great cars.
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âWhen we talk about how fast you are driving on the road, we divide it into 10. If someone is driving 10/10, that means they are right on the limit,â Buffum explains. âIf they are driving. at 9/10 is that he has a bit of reserve. David Higgins rides most of the time at 9/10, but he can go up to 10/10. I think Ken [Block] drives 10 / 10th more of the time. Sometimes he slips through 11/10, in the wrong place at the wrong time, and has an accident.
âDavid can drive so consistently. My team faced him 10 years ago. He didn’t have such a good car 10 years ago, but he won the championship three years in a row. And it is for the same reasons that he can win it now. David knows where to go fast, and when to go fast. It’s a huge compliment and a huge plus.
Higgins doesn’t disagree with Buffum’s assessment.
âAll I want to do is give the best of myself, every time,â he says. âIf I know I’m giving that, then I know I have good speed. I think that’s the confidence you get from knowing you can slow down a bit when the going gets tough, or knowing how to judge your speed when conditions change. This is the experience that I have acquired over the years to know what are all the surfaces and all the types of conditions that are going to be subjected to you.
The secret, Buffum says, is that “to finish first, you have to finish first.” Higgins admitted that his main goal was to get his Subaru across the finish line intact.
âWhen we are driving on a rough gravel road, you have to preserve your car,â he says. âYou can be away for two or three hours, and give the maximum you can give, but make tactical decisions so as not to destroy your car on a particular part of the road.
âI try to drive with a little reserve. But I think my great strength – and I’ve won many championships over the years – is knowing that you don’t have to win every stage to be a champion. You have to be present at the end of the rally. Some people fail to understand this fact.
Another advantage of Higgins, says Buffum, is his car. The Subaru WRX STI is a production platform modified by Vermont Sportscar. On race day, it will weigh 2,900 pounds with beefed up suspension, with a revamped turbocharged power plant harnessing over 300 horsepower and capable of pushing the car to 130 mph. However, the car’s ability to accelerate over narrow, winding, tree-lined terrain is more important than top speed.
âThe key to our sport is that you have to have a lot of confidence in your own abilities, but you only get your own confidence from the people around you. I’m fortunate to have a team that has grown so much over the years, âsaid Higgins. âThey give us the best cars possible. When you know how hard they work to do the best they can, when you know how prepared your car is, it gives you confidence.