Saturday, January 28, 2017

RallyX Prep w/ Flatout Suspension

My new rallycross car that I picked up back in August has been a great replacement and encouraging blank sheet to work with as I start to transform it to a podium-hunting dirt-slinging machine.  This bone-stock Impreza 2.5 RS was well cared for and has been a solid car so far.  While still mostly stock, I used it to compete in the remaining NRSCCA Rallycross events for the 2016 season and was able to keep up with the other Prepared AWD class competitors with it.  However, it was obvious there were improvements that it needed to give it an edge to really throw the bones!

During the off-season, I focused on research for a new set of suspension to replace the 152k-mile OEM suspension still on the car.  From KYB AGX adjustable struts to STI Suspension to King Springs, I was trying to find a set that would be aggressive enough to compete with but would also be compliant enough to drive as a daily.  While I read through all my options, Flatout Suspension came up.  The description of their RX46/50 Rallycross Coilovers met exactly what I was looking for, so I focused more research on those.

In my initial searches for more information, I didn't find a lot of encouraging things to read.  A lot of criticism had been surfacing from rally forums about a lack of details provided by the company.  While reading through a lengthy post on DI Rally about them, I was about ready to drop the idea of using Flatout Suspension in the first place.  Finally, after 54 worrying posts about the credibility and quality of these products, Flatout Suspension chimed in to answer questions and end the speculation. A little transparency went a long way in this case, especially with the technical-minded rallyists who are critical to ensure their finances are well spent on good reliable products.

I'm now under the 1-month mark for preparing things with my Rallycross car for competition.  The first event of the 2017 NRSCCA Rallycross season is on February 26th and I've got a laundry list of things to complete.  Once the new rallycross coilovers from Flatout arrive, I'll be installing those along with some stainless steel brake lines and start testing on back roads to dial things in and make adjustments if needed.  There's also a set of winter tires that I'll likely race on for the first couple of events as Nebraska winters tend to last into April.  This set will also relieve my chewed-up IndySport SG rallycross tires for a few events before the weather warms up.  I might even have enough funds to get a new set of rallycross tires to replace these by the time things warm up.

Once that's all wrapped up, I should have a pretty grippy setup for Rallycross on this Impreza.  I still miss my rumbly Unequal Length Headers from my old RS, but that stuff won't make me any quicker.  Those changes will come later in the season hopefully.  I'm excited to see how the new Flatout Suspension Coilovers improve my times this season!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

It looks like a (insert car name here)

The 2015 WRX looks like a Mitsubishi Evo.  The 2016 Legacy looks like a Ford Taurus.  The 2017 Impreza looks like a Mazda 3.  But what if I told you that a Subaru looks like... a SUBARU.

In years past, Subaru struggled to come up with a unifying design theme for their vehicles.  From the square anonymous Legacies in the early 90s to the confused 3-piece grille of a B9 Tribeca, they've not really had a lineup that  really looked consistent from model to model.

As such, it's par for the course to make lookalike claims between Subarus.  Regardless of what comparisons are made for the front, the rear, the silhouette, or whatever mimicry may appear... these cars have recently adopted design cues that finally tie them together and, as a whole, give them well-needed consistency.  Hatchback, Sedan, or Crossover SUV, new Subarus are sharing key elements across the board.

In North America, every Subaru is fitted with a Boxer Engine at it's core.  This similarity is actually mirrored in the design of the headlights and tail lights on each model.  While many modern vehicles have swooping stylish LED lights or "eyes", those are simply aesthetic cues rather than holding meaning with the vehicle.  The shape, and often illuminated portions, of the outward parts of the headlights and tail lights on a Subaru symbolize the horizontal motion of the pistons in the Boxer Engine.  Regardless of the shape or size of the vehicle, you'll find this theme not just repeated in current models, but continuously echoed in concepts for future vehicles from Subaru.

Other design elements in the facia of each Subaru often feature a large hexagonal-shaped grille.  Even the BRZ, which appears to lack a grille, has a large black section on the front of the bumper mirroring that idea.  Many times the grille feature "wings" extending from the Subaru Logo in the middle that harken back to aircraft manufacturing heritage before Fuji Heavy Industries was formed.

As the car shapes and sizes change, these symbolic elements remain to mark each car as a Subaru.  In this era of auto manufacturing, many designs, Subaru included, are moving towards making cars safer, more aerodynamic, and sleeker.  The result can often make car designs looking very similar on the surface, so comparisons can be made,  However, the staple of new Subaru designs incorporates a few consistent elements and cues to their core technology and heritage that make a Subaru look like a Subaru.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

A Tale of Two Championships

For 2017, Subaru Rally Team USA is taking part in the inaugural season of the America Rally Association (ARA) National Championship.  This new sanctioning body that emerged mid-season in 2016 has 6 events planned through the US and Canada.  Things are already looking up for the New Hampshire-based ARA with confirmed support from Subaru and some iconic rally events.  Travis Pastrana and co-driver Robbie Durant will tackle the full 6-race season against their teammates David Higgins and co-driver Craig Drew.  Other competitors are already starting to line up that should make for an exciting inaugural season for the ARA.
For myself, the announcement of the ARA was a bit of a surprise!  I've been following the Rally America series for several years but have admittedly been mostly focused on the events themselves, not the sanctioning bodies behind the scenes.  While I was curious why there seemed to be a lack of information coming through on the Rally-America website, I figured a webmaster was asleep at the wheel while events continued to roll on through.  However, with the emergence of the ARA, it seemed more like a "passing of the torch" situation.  I assumed the ARA would replace Rally America.  Then several weeks later a full schedule from Rally America was released for 2017 with the press release tone seeming as if they were moving steadily onwards and upwards.

The ARA Championship for 2017 is mostly made up of events from the Rally America series.  Oregon Trail, Olympus Rally, Ojibwe Forests Rally, and the New England Forests Rally were all previously national championship events for Rally America.  However, the 2017 schedule for Rally America retains Sno*Drift, Rally in the 100 Acre Wood, and the Lake Superior Performance Rally that have been staples of the series for awhile now.  They've also added Rally Colorado (formerly Colorado Cog), Southern Ohio Forests Rally, Rally Wyoming, Show-Me Rally, and a summer version of Sno*Drift.  This presents two full championships in the United States for competitors to take part in.

In the ARA announcement made back in November, it sounded like this would be a transitional year moving from Rally America to the ARA.  In the ARA press release, Tim O'Neil mentions something that suggests this.

"We appreciate the hard work and dedication put forth by many in the sport of rally over the years to get it where it is today.  ARA specifically appreciates Bill Fogg Sr. and Rally America in their effort to continue rally in the United States the last few years by providing sanction and insurance. We look forward to working with Rally America during the transition period over the next several months as we prepare for the 2017 season."
The Rally America press release, which came out a few weeks later, showed no signs of a transition or even leveling off.  Bill Fogg of RA mentioned this in their 2017 schedule announcement.
“Fans and competitors alike will experience the thrill of rally racing like never before in the US with the combination of the added new and the best historical stage roads. With the enthusiasm of our partners and eagerness of our event organizers, we expect the 2017 Rally America National Championship to reach the pinnacle of rally experience for all.”
To make things a little more complicated, Subaru has made it known that they have a Contingency Program in place for the 2017 ARA National Championship.  There's still no mention from Subaru or from Rally America about a Contingency Program for the 2017 RA events.  In fact, there's no mention of Subaru to be found anywhere on the Rally America website anymore.  Contingency Programs are important to helping make rally financially affordable to teams by awarding payouts to teams using Subarus to compete in these events.  Mix in the fact that the ARA's events are more affordable to register for than Rally America events and the scales easily tip in their favor.

Speaking of Subaru, there's no mention of Subaru Rally Team USA's star-studded team taking part in any Rally America events so far this year.  The Sno*Drift Rally is coming up at the end of January and there's an obvious absence of high profile competitors.  Fetela Rally Team, Agatino Fortunato, Lauchlin O'Sullivan (Lucas Oil), and Ryan Millen, are all absent from any recent entry lists.  However, a quick peek at the Pierce Neige Rally starting off the ARA event calendar, Higgins, Pastrana, L'Estage, Millen, and several other notable drivers are lined up to kick off that series in February.

It will be interesting to watch the first few events unfold for both the ARA and Rally America this season.  Both schedules start out with Snow rallies and then move into the spring with the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood for Rally America and the Oregon Trail Rally for ARA.  After the spring of 2017, it should be pretty clear if both of these series will move alongside eachother or if one will shine more brightly.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Where's Lasek & Isachsen?

Subaru just announced their plans for the 2017 Rally and Rallycross programs coming up this year, but among the details, there's a notable absence that hasn't been addressed: where's Bucky Lasek and Sverre Isachsen?

The announcement from Subaru on January 4th was very detailed outlining their goals, their development, and the roster for Subaru Rally Team USA.  David Higgins and Travis Pastrana will be going head-to-head in the inaugural 2017 American Rally Association Championship in matching Vermont Sportscar-prepared WRX STIs.  Spearheading the rallycross effort in the Red Bull GRC series is WRC veteran Chris Atkinson and Patrik Sandell.  Chris, or "Atko", had been helping SRT USA through a development process with their rallycross cars last season and gave great input to helping develop their car for competition in 2017.  The press release states that "Sandell and Atkinson complete the Subaru Rally Team USA factory driver roster", leaving most of the guesswork out of it:  Lasek and Isachsen aren't in the mix.

While I am personally stoked to see a WRC-Level veteran like Atko return and to have Sandell's excellent record and experience with the GRC program take these Subarus to new heights, it is slightly surprising and disheartening to see Isachsen and Lasek fade away with no mention.  Not too long ago, Sverre Isachsen brought Subaru it's first finish atop the podium in the Red Bull GRC event in Seattle.  Bucky Lasek has not only grown and improved to take podiums himself, but has also been incredibly visible and accessible to fans, connecting with them at dealerships, events, and races across the US.

Both Isachsen and Lasek helped Subaru get their start in Global Rallycross competition alongside the late Dave Mirra back in 2011. In many ways, the quiet departure of Mirra from SRT USA is very similar to this situation.  It was made clear that the 2016 Red Bull GRC schedule would be a redevelopment year for Subaru, following their technical battles the previous year.  Bucky Lasek and Sverre Isachsen made a late entrance to the series.  Further on through the series, Subaru brought in David Higgins and Chris Atkinson to drive and give additional feedback to get a wider scope of information about the developing technology Vermont Sportscar was fielding with their cars.  However, the impression and intent seemed to be purely academic: to get as much feedback as possible from sources outside of the regular team drivers.

When the results from the 2016 redevelopment year cleared, Subaru had found what they were looking for with the cars, but many fans expected the reigns to return to Lasek and Isachsen to tackle the upcoming 2017 season.  However, the experience and talent that Atko and Sandell can offer the team has a better chance at delivering quick success and results for Subaru Rally Team USA.  While it's still a gamble, there's something that Clint Fast mentioned in the very first episode of Subaru's Launch Control series that rings true.
"Within the sport of rallycross, there's an element of Performance and an element of Luck.  The less performance you have, the more luck you need.  The more performance you have the less luck you need."
Most could easily take this as a reference to the cars that Vermont Sportscar builds for Subaru Rally Team USA, but it can easily be applied to driver ability as well.  Atko and Sandell both have an airtight grasp on handling the high-level performance capabilities of these cars.  Subaru's 2016 season of development revealed great potential with Chris Atkinson qualifying 1st in the final GRC round  and saw Patrik Sandell come in 1st with his Ford in Dallas and 5th in the overall GRC Championship standings.

It goes without saying that Sverre Isachsen's veteran abilities helped Subaru get their foot in the door with the rock-em sock-em environment of GRC.  His 5 seasons with SRT USA's budding rallycross program brought 5 podium finishes.  He was within striking distance of the podium at nearly every other event unless there was a technical problem robbing him of victory.  The Viking Warrior certainly earned his horns in GRC with Subaru.

Bucky Lasek's departure is probably the most surprising, given his level of involvement with the team and fans.  He took a trip to Japan to visit the home of Subaru Tecnica International and drove the 24hr Nurburgring Car.  Lasek also competed in two stage rally events in 2016 as well as a handful of GRC events in his WRX STI.

There's no guarantee, but given their years of involvement with the team, I wouldn't count Lasek and Isachsen out just yet.  They may have been left off the roster, but it would be odd to see these two completely drop off the Subaru radar.  Both are fierce competitors and have made their mark on the rallycross program.  In any case, they still deserve our thanks and gratitude for the accomplishments, memories, and milestones achieved with Subaru.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Last Dinosaur: EJ257

In 1989, Subaru introduced the EJ-series engine to succeed the previous Subaru EA engine. The EJ series was the mainstay of Subaru's engine line, with all engines of this series being 16-valve horizontal flat-fours or "Boxer" engines.  Of them, the EJ257 was the flagship for performance.  However, with Subaru switching all engines to direct injection in a few years, the turbocharged 2.5 Liter Boxer in the WRX STI marks the last model hanging on to this older design.  It's the last dinosaur.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2018 WRX STI: Separating the Speculation

While we could easily re-label the "Information Age" that we live in as the misinformation age, there's some recent hype surrounding news of the next generation WRX STI that can be sorted out with information we already have.  It's time to provide a well-needed fact check with a grain silo of salt to take this in with.  Simply follow the pattern and take in the plans that have been in motion for years.

Literally every "hype" article I've read about whatever reports claim to know what the STI has coming for it is lacking significant information regarding how things play into Subaru's "Prominence 2020" plan.  It's been the blueprint for where Subaru is headed for the next few years.  Part of that blueprint clearly highlights development goals through the years as they switch all current engine platforms to Direct Injection.  The iconic 2.5 liter turbocharged Boxer 4 in the WRX STI is a bit of a dinosaur.  It's the last Subaru to hang on to the decades-old EJ series engine (everything else has moved on to the FA or FB platform) which is still port injected.  Nearly all of Subarus other engines have either switched or will switch to direct injection on the newer engines.  Aside from Fuel Efficiency standards that would threaten the EJ dinosaur, there's been a longstanding demand from a growing number of enthusiasts to move on.  It's a reasonable request, considering that the US Market has had nearly the same powerplant in the WRX STI since 2004.

When sources note that the "New WRX is at least four years away", it actually falls right in line with the current 5-year cycle that Subaru typically follows, although they've cleverly made use of some timeline skewing.  The Four Years claim starts with the fact that most of those articles were written at the end of 2016.  However, in the realm of "model years", meaning that a 2020 model would likely be released in the year 2019, we can  easily make this look like a four-year gap between now and when we'd get the new WRX.  How shocking!

It's now 2017, so we can shave an entire year off that claim.  And since a 2020 model would be released in the previous year, we shave another year off that claim.  Suddenly we've only got two years to wait for the new WRX and WRX STI to make their way to their next big design change, which falls right in line with the current trend Subaru has been following.

Sources note that the 2018 WRX STI will still be based on the current platform, which follows their 5-year cycle.  The Forester, Impreza, Legacy, and Outback lineups have been following this to a "T" for several years.  When a new generation is released, like the 2012 Impreza starting off the 4th Gen, a "refresh" is released after 3 years that tweaks some aesthetic and infotainment features.  It's exactly the formula the 4th Generation WRX is following.  2015-2017 models are nearly the same.  2018 and 2019 models will have a redesigned front end and some tweaked bits for the interior.  WRX and WRX STI will have completed their scheduled end and move to the Subaru Global Platform as a 2020 model, once again coinciding with the plan I mentioned before.

The way this recent flurry of articles are written, they appear surprised that the WRX isn't already taking a swing at the new platform that the 2017 Impreza just debuted.  That doesn't stop photoshop artists from taking a swing at WRX-ifying the new 5th Generation 2017 Impreza to look the part of Subaru's iconic hoonigan.  It happened for years after the 4th Generation 2012 Impreza was released.

Yes, it's true that the 2017 Impreza is built upon the new Subaru Global Platform (SGP) and that it will ultimately be found under nearly every Subaru car.  It's simply not the turn of the WRX to switch to it yet.  The next car slated to take on the SGP is the new 2018 Crosstrek, which should be released later in 2017.  The Forester will hang on to the previous design for 2018 and make the switch to the SGP the following year.  After that, the Outback, Legacy, and WRX would be slated to complete their 5-year Cycles and take on the new platform as 2020 models, likely to be released in 2019.  No crystal ball needed.  No made-up facts.  No speculation based on rumors misheard from a representative in passing.  With a methodical company like Subaru, figuring this stuff out is pretty easy to do.