My eyes shifted right towards the corner apex. It was an easy curve, and admittedly I hadn’t gained enough momentum yet to be aggressive. No brakes. I reviewed the steps in my head prior to taking action. Just lift your foot, initiate the turn… Now. Hold it. Hold it. Find your exit. Gas! Gas! Gas! Weight shifted to the left of the Turbo R enough to drift the rear around and point the nose at my next target. It yawed as it picked up speed, centering the force just as the car leaned back onto its rear suspension forming the attack position.
The next turn was much faster. I’d had time around the unofficial 4×4 track in the back lot of DirtFish Rally School to gain some confidence and gradually apply more velocity. I felt more in control in a way I hadn’t had in other experiences behind the wheel of a UTV, but things were different. I’d just spent the last three days sliding into the controlled chaos of rallying in a race-spec Subaru WRX STI. This vehicle is a far cry from the family-oriented road trip Outback seen in the commercials. It was bare inside, save for the bucket seats, racing harnesses, roll cage, and a safety net. It was minimalist, yet all you could ever need to drift, slalom, and navigate a tight chicane.
This course was a long time coming. Among several conversations about the state of safety in the powersports community, education was a common response to the ongoing senseless accidents. However, despite extensive web surfing, requesting referrals, and praying to the octane gods, we never found a proper performance-oriented UTV driving school.
Plenty of organizations offer technical skills training. This is the typical off-road school, which involves learning how to navigate uneven terrain, use the utility functions of the vehicle, and generally remain unscathed at a slow pace. But anyone buying one of the many sports side-by-sides available on the market is unlikely to take it easy. Speed is synonymous with the SxS. It’s all about the wind on your face, the air below the chassis, the anticipation through every bend as the springs give in to centrifugal force, compressing tightly towards the ground before the rebound. It’s when the rebound is absent that the trouble begins, when follow-through flips the vessel head-over-tits into whatever terrain awaits on the outside of the curve.
Rollovers, head-on collisions, and other preventable fatalities seem more a consequence of ignorance and carelessness than from raw speed, which is wrongly accused as the culprit for such incidents. Racers prove that it’s not the speed that kills, but the lack of skill and control. It seemed like a dead-end because, again, there isn’t a single accredited academic facility for competition-based driving for a UTV, one of the most popular “toys” in the powersports space.
There is one unorthodox option, however: DirtFish Rally School. It’s an institution inspired by the World Rally Championship, teaching technical skills using a comprehensive curriculum, expert instructors, and an elite race course crafted from the old Weyerhaeuser compound in Snoqualmie, WA. They didn’t address some of the taller dimensions of a side-by-side, but they taught the physics of driving and weight transfer so well that solving the additional complications from long-travel suspension and a tall body makes perfect sense in that context. The more suspension travel, the more weight transfer, but the physics are exactly the same as in a relatively low-slung rally car.
Their curriculum teaches a racing format known not only for challenging barriers of momentum but also control. Piloting an all-wheel-drive rally car, full-send, down narrow logging roads while calculating weight distribution, distance, angles, and velocity is, for lack of a better term, brilliant. But due to the nature of the sport (and the lack of private, secure roads), training to be competitive can be extremely risky, if not fatal. While fatalities are typically quite rare, two competitors have died in American Rally Association events this year.
Driving side-by-sides can come with many of the same challenges, and consequences. Fortunately, the barrier to entry with UTVs is much less significant, just as the availability of less congested networks of trails or two-track to ride is much greater. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily equate to a safer environment. When anyone can buy a pleasure craft like a SxS, a jet ski, an ATV, or a motorcycle, for that matter, then even those who are financially fulfilled but starved for common sense can jump behind the wheel of an amped-up RZR, X3 or YXZ. (Lord, help us.)
I’m one of those people, in fact. (Well, minus the “financially fulfilled” part…) But in reality, there’s no test, no bar to pass, which would prevent me from captaining a Can-Am, Polaris, or any other vessel I can get my grubby hands on. If I’m ballsy enough, there are no real boundaries to where I could take it or how fast. For some time now, I’d relied on the basic 20-plus-year-old skills I learned from obtaining my driver’s license, plus the addition of innumerable experiences traveling off-road on a motorcycle or sailing across the lesser-beaten paths of the desert in a 4×4 to document a race. Is all that “prowess” really sufficient to consider myself competent at the helm of a side-by-side?
That’s why I flew up to Washington state to attend DirtFish’s course at their famous facility, set as the police office in the cult classic TV show Twin Peaks. The morning before my first class was far more calm than the events to follow. Mist floated in the early sunlight as I waited for the valet to bring around my car. If you pay attention, the sound of the Snoqualmie Falls drifts into earshot from behind the Salish Lodge, my accommodations for the week. It was an ethereal environment to set the stage for an exciting clinic ahead. Surreal as it was, a little peace and quiet wouldn’t temper my excitement or quiet my nerves much at all. DirtFish had been on my wishlist for several years since first learning about the WRC-style rally driving school.
Conventional automotive competitions are safer when confined to paved, closed tracks with predictable conditions, memorized routes, and a team on standby in the pits. While they can reach mind-blowing speeds in the right arena, there’s still a level of predictability that I, as a UTV, motorcycle, and now rally enthusiast, find frankly boring. Don’t get me wrong, what the drivers and teams accomplish while competing in these events is nothing short of incredible. It’s just not what I want to do behind the wheel.
The style and controlled chaos that is present in off-road events, even the mixed mediums like with WRC events, are much more attractive, with the same kind of heroic efforts on display as a road course, but in an environment much less civilized. DirtFish Rally School offers the same brave presentations on a closed course so drivers can push their limits with some element of safety before taking their skills into the “real” world. With an added personal interest in the sport, it’s no wonder I wound up here. But it’s not just my love for rally that gave me the bright idea to take this clinic. It is easy to see the crossover between these vehicles and the skills we’d acquire.
I couldn’t wait to take those skills and apply them to side-by-sides. Even with the years I’d had at the helm of a UTV, performance or otherwise, I’d still never found the edge of the car or my skills. Call me whatever you will, but I don’t feel comfortable pushing myself, and usually someone else’s vehicle, in uncontrolled environments. There’s just too much to risk. UTVs already have a bad rap from the inevitable hooliganism that ensues on trails, in the dunes, or just in the open lot of an OHV park.
But once I know what race pace really feels like, once I’ve been checked off by a pro, then I can truly know how far I can lean or jump or slide. There are so many out there who similarly ache for adventure and the extreme, but have too much to lose to experiment. They can’t learn everything the hard way because of too many other things, if not people, are at risk. That’s why a course like what DirtFish offers is absolutely ideal. They teach you the science, demonstrate the exercises, and then let you give it your best. It’s not just about driving safely, but about driving fast and yet still safe enough.
The commonly quoted quip, “If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough,” is attributed to Mario Andretti. While this certainly conjures some aspirational goals for sheer speed, having some level of control is a central part of maintaining safety, be it in a racing environment or otherwise. While pushing the limits of both the vehicle and yourself essentially makes racing what it is, there is still a safety allowance that you have to account for when you are testing those ragged edges of performance.
I repeated my mantra: Lift, turn, wait… Wait until the back of the car swings around. Wait until the nose of the vehicle points directly at your target. If it’s not turning sharply enough, give a little more brake and a little more swing. Okay, you’ve locked eyes on your destination, you’re looking through the exit, time to accelerate! The world blurred in my peripherals. It was one of the longer straightaways, and I was moving faster than would have been comfortable for me had I been in the WRX alone. But I trusted the process. I trusted my guides. I had seen them do this at speeds that well surpassed mine. So, I trusted the physics. Eyes up. Stay on the gas.
The next curve approached quickly. Don’t brake. Not yet. Then I saw it, that invisible line that gave me the cue to smoothly apply the brake, not firm but hard. That rapid deceleration transferred weight from the rear to the front, allowing the front wheels to dig in and the rear wheels to slide, producing the turn. The amount of force affects the precision of the pivot, while the duration of the braking affects the length of the turn itself. Application of the gas straightens the trajectory, and we exited without losing momentum or speed. It was brilliant.
Of course, having these new skills and a newfound level of confidence wasn’t without other changes to my driving. While “faster,” to most people, means more time with your right foot pinned, going faster also means you are braking much sooner than you might be used to scrub that extra speed. With some growing pains in the learning process, learning how to judge a breaking point, as well as how to adjust your inputs based on your earlier driving, yielded dividends on the clock.
Gas. “Go, go, go!” Each of my six different instructors would chant with a level of enthusiasm which, surprisingly, matched mine. Aggression was yet another crucial instinct in my pursuit of speed, and being even a moment faster to get onto the throttle could make or break the corner. Maintaining a level of bravery was beneficial to this, as getting back onto the go pedal before what one might consider “normal” was typical in a fast corner. This was yet another counterintuitive piece of wisdom I’d pick up that week, and it transferred seamlessly to the next discipline: driving a UTV.
Believe it or not, there are many crucial lessons a person can learn from disciplines such as rally racing which involve focus, technique, and consequence. Mannerisms, habits, and attitudes become tools for you to use when navigating the track (or merely going through life). Through rally schools like DirtFish and other trusted driving programs, you don’t just refine your dexterity, develop patience, and take hold of your emotions, but you learn to be mindful, respectful, and grateful.
Developing your speed teaches that. Becoming good at going fast helps develop your ability to take it easy. Not to rush. You wait until the last minute to brake. You want to see if that’s enough. You wait around a turn, until the exact moment, to accelerate. The moment before the light turns green at the start is excruciating for some, and still, you pause, breathe, and let the clock wind down. These junctures are necessary, and therefore you do them. From that, you find peace in the void, the empty space between anticipation and action, incapable and capable. Surprisingly, the faster you go, the slower it seems when you’re in control.
Patience is an important aspect. You don’t become a rockstar after a few turns around the track, but you can develop confidence in yourself, find understanding in the vehicle and terrain, as well as fine-tune skills you already have. This is one of the hardest places for people to dwell, so it’s difficult for us to stay there in limbo until the perfect second. Patience is a virtue because timing is everything. If you know how to be patient then time is on your side. Add a dash of fortitude, and you’ll have the magical potion for your desires.
In the off-road community, it seems that the desire is to have a vast playground for aficionados, friends, and family to roam free, at any velocity, without the fear of catastrophe, most of which are preventable. The community is clamoring for change, from those behind the wheel as well as in the passenger seats. That doesn’t stop with powersports, which is evident in the continual evolution of safety and regulations. Many of these are proposed and enforced by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), a non-government bureau that regulates safety for off-road vehicles that don’t meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards utilized for road-going automobiles if not self-imposed.
Year after year, this industry invests millions into improving not just comfort, style, and performance, but also protective parts. This is considered for every aspect of a vehicle build, from the factory or aftermarket. But when operator error is the key determinant in an accident, no amount of upgrades can eradicate the casualties, try as they might. It’s up to us, as captains of our pleasure cruisers, to take responsibility for ourselves and our passengers.
There’s no shame in learning to be a better driver, to seek help and understanding, to want to be more than average, if only for the sake of safety. It’s in our nature to pursue knowledge and grow from experience. It’s what makes us homo sapiens. One interesting thing that ties all humans together – in fact, it ties all species in the homo genus – is our ability to teach. Even at the smallest level, each of these groups could imagine something that wasn’t there, create or manifest it, and then show someone else how to recreate whatever it was.
One person learned to make fire, and they subsequently taught their descendants to make fire. One person learned to make tools, and subsequently, they taught us all how to make tools. One person figured out how to drift precisely into a turn utilizing speed, braking, and patience to obtain the utmost efficiency through a corner. And now, they are teaching just that, to anyone who is willing to learn.