A short guide to getting started in rally

You’ve always been interested in motorsports and rally. You have done a season or two of rallycross and you think you are ready to make the next step to stage rally. This post is for you. I suggest everyone go and do at least a few rallycrosses before diving in to stage rally. I’d also suggest volunteering at a rally. There are a ton of ways to do that, crew for a team, volunteer for the rally as a marshall, timing, etc. Now you will probably be chomping at the bit to make that next step to becoming a driver.
The first thing you may have to change is your mindset. The most common thing people that want to rally but don’t say is, “I can’t afford it.” The mindset of those that successfully go rallying is, “what can I do to afford it.” Sometimes this might mean a second job or overtime, often it simply means budgeting and lifestyle changes. For example, one friend started rallycrossing in his new WRX. He wanted to make the next step so he sold the WRX, bought a cheap mid-90s Subaru with cash for daily driver and built a VW Golf for rallying. The car change alone likely saved him a few hundred a month, money that he could put towards rally. Real motorsport is expensive in both time and money. Unless you can afford to pay a competent shop like Rally.Build to do everything for you, you can plan on spending probably at least 100 hours working on the car to get it ready. It doesn’t matter what car you choose to build, you will probably spend in the 6-10k range over the purchase price of the car getting the car prepped. An event weekend costs 2-3 days of vacation time and $3-6k on entry, fuel, lodging, and tires. If you can’t envision making this happen, you might consider sticking with rallycross and autocross for now.
So, you are ready to make that next step. The primary advice I give to everyone at this point is this.
Get on stage as quickly as possible.
Let that be your main motivation and it will help guide you in everything from car choice to engine swaps. The next big piece of advice I can give is this:
The car you already have is potentially not the car you should build.
You might be saying, “but I KNOW everything about my car already!” Or “I have a garage full of spare parts” but none of that matters. If you know everything about your car you are smart enough to learn about any other car. There are reasons why certain cars dominate fields and it is because there are cars that are better than others. The lamest excuse for losing is that your car sucks and breaks or is never going to be competitive in the class it fits in. An emotional attachment to a car is a very quick way to placing dead last or never even starting. Do some research and decide where you want and can afford to begin. That’s not the point of this post so I’ll breeze over a few considerations.
If you must rally AWD, you should start with an Open Light Subaru Impreza. A 2.2L or 2.5L naturally aspirated is plenty of car and a decent place to learn. If you must have a turbo, you will not be competing in Rally America and must stick with NASA Rallysport events for at least a handful of events. There are only two cars to consider, Evo or WRX/STI. Plan on the $5-10k per event range for competing in turbo AWD. You “might” be able to do it for less, but likely you won’t be competing for podiums.
My preference for all entry level drivers and for 2WD is the E36 BMW. The cars have enough power stock, there are easy powerplant upgrades, decent rally specific support, and a running car can be had for $1-2k. Some other decent options that could be considered, Ford Fiesta, Chevy Sonic, Volvo 240, Mazda 3, Honda Civic, Acura Integra, Foxbody Mustang, Merkur XR4ti and the almighty Mk2 VW Golf though regional considerations as to rust and ability to find cars should be taken into account.
Now, you’ve got your car figured out, now it’s time to get on stage as quickly as possible. Seriously, GET ON STAGE AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. Life will never stop throwing curve balls at you. Having a halfway built rally car in the garage that you have never raced creates a weird form of depression that will have negative impacts on your life. Trust me, I’ve been there, given up relationships, friendships, and jobs during that phase. If you have driven a rally, or even a few rallies, that effect is very dulled or even non-existent and your long term outlook is better than if you have a pipe dream money pit.
So how do you get your car on stage quickly? Budget, planning, and goals. Be realistic. If you think you need to swap engines and are going to do the roll cage yourself you will not be at the rally in three months. Maybe that rally next year. The first thing you should do is save $3-5k to pay the cage builder. Yes, you might be able to do it yourself, you might have a friend who is a good welder and has built roll cages before. But the money you spend on the cage builder will be smartly spent. If shops charged fair wages, roll cages would be in the $5-8k range. Ones that track their hours closely charge that. Those that don’t are essentially subsidizing the difference for you. And this is hours of experienced builders doing work for you. It will take you longer and that is time that you can either be earning money or earning goodwill. If you’re saying, well I’m single and have a ton of spare time. I say go get a second job. If you’re saying, I’m married and the time in the garage is my break. I say, you don’t have time to build your own cage and be a good spouse, especially if you want to rally this year. This is even more multiplied if you have children. Spending every night in the garage while you spouse does all the work then plops down in front of Netflix binge watching series after series is not a healthy relationship, even if they say it’s okay. Now if they are in the garage with you, that’s a different story, but also fairly rare.
Now for the list of things you need.
Seats
Harnesses
Skid Plates
First Aid Kit
Spill Kit
Fire Extinguishers X 2
Rally Tires (and the correct size wheels, 14″ or 15″ work. Used rally tires can be okay for first few events. Avoid retreads for stage use.)
Good brake pads
Good brake fluid
Oil changes all around (engine, diff, gearbox)
If you’ve picked the correct car, that is really all you need. You should consider any maintenance that may be needed or overdue such as a timing belt service, water pump, thermostat, suspension bushings, etc.
If you can swing it, rally suspension is a must. However, I think it is better to go rally on stock suspension or cheap replacements such as the KYB GR2 struts until you can save for a proper set of rally suspension. Do NOT settle for cheap options such as Hotbits or K-Sport or similar. There are eight or nine different options out there for affordable gravel suspension, most of them being unsuitable for real rallying. There are a few companies using the Bilstein 50mm universal strut for gravel applications. These are in the $3-4k range and are a decent starter setup. If you are rallying an obscure applications, there are companies that will build to suit with this strut though it will cost more and often requires additional fabrication ($$$) to finish fitting to the car. We sell DMS Rally Suspension out of Australia. We have been rallying on these struts successfully for over a decade. They are a strong and proven adjustable rally strut and start in the $4k range.

You’ll notice I said NOTHING about building that cool engine, gearbox, etc. Leave the car NEARLY stock for your first few events and just get out there and drive! You’ll also learn from others what is a smart thing to do and what you should not do. Internet wisdom from car forums is so often biased towards street cars and dyno queens and completely unapplicable in rallying. I typically will free up exhaust a little bit and do a high flowing drop in air filter to start with. In a RWD car, a LSD with lowest final drive (higher numerical) you can find is a must but not required (I’m still racing on a 3.15 LSD and trying to find time to build my 4.10 LSD). If you have an AWD car, you might try to source a rear LSD but don’t worry too much about it otherwise. FWD you likely have few affordable options and it requires removing gearbox and labor that is beyond the goals of GO RALLY AS SOON AS POSSIBLE. It also quickly can lead to project creep like different gear ratios, lightweight flywheels, and fancy clutches. Save all that until after your first rally.

I hope you have found this post useful. Rally.Build was formed by three regular rally guys trying to make it easier and more affordable to rally and to grow the sport within our local market. We have helped so many new drivers get on stage quickly and with success. We have also watched our friends and customers come and go from the sport. Some are gone forever, others are gone temporarily. Here are just a few examples of what leads to people not rallying. Opened a business that takes all time and money, got married and had children (does not always mean quitting rallying, but sometimes does), decided to go to grad school, started racing cross country mountain bikes, was injured in an accident, spent all their money (one was an inheritance, another was rallying on second mortgages and spent over $100k that they’ll be paying off for 10-20 years), and lastly did not feel comfortable with the risk/reward ratio of rallying. Life happens, any of this could happen to you at any time. Thus, if you want to rally, get out there as quick as you can! Build it fast, race it soon.
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Grant