David Higgins: Subaru Rally Team USA’s ace pilot and his top insight on racing success

David HigginsWe were deep in the Maine woods, my friend and I. Normally there would be no reason to be halfheartedly mingling with dozens of people so far from civilization.

But that day was different. The trees were echoing the sound of finely tuned engines as unseen chaos unwound several hundred yards away, rapidly making its way toward us.

Out came the phones as people stopped chatting and started recording. Suddenly, over a small crest that momentarily lifted his Subaru off the ground, appeared rally legend David Higgins. Rally America. Mexico, Maine.

As luck would have it I just happened to be standing a few steps away from where Higgins was about to park the Subaru. As his door opened I boldly handed him a permanent marker and asked if he would sign my shirt.

Even after a grueling stage of the New England Forest Rally, he graciously complied without hesitation.

Six years have gone by and I’m so fortunate to have recently interviewed the stage rally master.

As the winner of 7 kart racing championships, 4 rally titles in the UK, 2 in China, and 8 Rally America championships (the last 6 being consecutive) you can be sure that David Higgins is the definitive leader in stage rally knowledge.

Get your notepads out. The 21 time champion is about to speak.

There’s also an accompanying audio file of the entire interview. Enjoy!

-Matt


David Higgins is the lead driver for Subaru Rally Team USA. He’s proudly partnered with DirtFish, PIAA, DMACK, Vermont Sports Car, and Subaru Tecnica International. You can follow David on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


Tarmac To Dirt

Racers HQ: Let’s start back at the beginning. Before you started your stage rally career you were an avid kart racer. What was the transition like from tarmac to dirt?

David: Years ago, it was very different. When I used to go from the rallying to the karts I was always a bit too sideways.

But the rallying style and technique has changed a lot over the last five to six years. So the more you can drive like on the asphalt, like the tarmac, the clean lines, then the better you will be on the gravel.

So the days of going into corners and really sending them in fully sideways and big pendulum turns, that’s not the most efficient way to drive anymore.

And so the karting is a really big help for me. To come back into the smoothness and the shorter line around the corners is something I work on a lot and it’s not as difficult to transition as before.

So the main difference of the rallying and the racing is that with racing you do the same corner sixty times and rallying you do that same corner once or twice.

So you’re driving in a slightly different way because of the no-preconceived notion of what you’re going to have to do on that bend as you approach it. That’s the main difference, really.

Racers HQ: So you must have an advantage at a rallycross event with all that experience going from tarmac to dirt.

David Higgins: Yeah. Rallycrosses are obviously very difficult. It’s a mix of both. When you’re on the gravel and dirt you’re actually on a slick tire with a car that’s unbelievably powerful.

And then when you get that same car onto the tarmac, asphalt section of the race track the tires are very soft compounds. So you’re trying to sort of baby the tires to not overheat them.

So you sort of hold back a little bit on the tarmac side to preserve the tires. When you get on the gravel, you will probably go quicker than what the grip is capable of because you’re on a slick racing tire.

So you’re always in the wrong – you’re never on perfect tires. Now, you always want to do a balancing act.

We’ve seen the way Scott Speed drives, which is unbelievably fast. But it’s very, very efficient and quite boring to watch. But it’s the way to get there. You know the big sliding round? It just feels good. It looks good.

But unfortunately it’s not the fastest way.

© Ben Haulenbeek, subaru.com/rally 2017

Common Mistakes

Racers HQ: So you have decades of experience and success in the bank, and I’ve been waiting to ask you this. What are some of the common mistakes you’ve seen people make in their careers?

David Higgins: They get really into the sport and try and do too much too soon.

What I mean by that is there are some good examples of people just trying to cram in so many rallies for the first year or whatever. They almost run out of money, put so much into it in such a short time and they don’t really have a chance to develop and get the benefit.

When I started rallying, I had my brother who’s also a professional. We started with a series. It was maybe only six events in a year.

So it’s easy to try and do too much and you’re better off to do less events but do them properly – rather than just going out for the sake of being out.

The biggest mistake that catches people out is they generally brake a little bit too early, which then causes a secondary problem.

They get on the power too early. So they have the feeling that the corner is closing on them on the exit and they run out of road or end up in a ditch or off the road.

Their thought was, “I was too fast around the corner,” when nine times out of ten they were actually too slow into it and then tried to recover it by getting on the power too hard too soon.

So the weight is in the wrong part of the car. The weight transfer has gone from the front, where you need it on the steering wheels, to the rear.

So you then get the dreaded understeer. The key is just to drive by what you can see a little bit more rather than what you think it’s going to be. In rallying in particular it’s all about getting the experience.

Being the fastest car for the first mile and then binning the car and not getting to do the next 130 miles? It doesn’t teach you anything.

To finish first, first you have to finish and that is so important in rallying.

Your First Racecar

Racers HQ: So for someone who wants to pace themselves and learn properly, what kind of advice would you give them about getting their first car?

David Higgins: Yeah. The biggest advice is get something where parts are easily available. When I started I made sure I was in a car where you could go in and get your body panels from the local breakers.

You have the parts that are cheap to replace. So it won’t cost you a fortune if you bump the car or have a mistake.

So in the US the Subaru is very, very popular because everybody is using them.

So if you go to an event and you need a part, if you haven’t got it, then there’s a good chance that somebody next to you in the service area is going to have it. So going with something that nobody else has used before or trying to reinvent the wheel is just not the way to go.

You know, use your time to concentrate on the discipline of the sport you’re doing, not trying to re-engineer the car.

Go for a proven package, something that’s easy and learn from other people’s mistakes rather than making them yourself because they cost you a lot of money and worse, a lot of time.

© Ben Haulenbeek, subaru.com/rally 2017

“Ah ha!” Moments

Racers HQ: Can you think of a specific time where it all clicked for you? An “Ah ha!” moment that really changed the way you raced?

David Higgins: You know, my first real one I guess was when I first started teaching, when we took over the rally school years and years ago in 1993.

I started doing driver coaching and I was sitting with people that had never driven before and could not understand why they couldn’t do it.

So when I actually started teaching, I suddenly became much more aware of my own technique. So then when I became more aware of what I do and telling other people to do I was then more critical of myself.

But you know last year I changed my style totally different again and found a lot of peace from doing so. I’ve been working a lot over the winter since last year on some different things.

So those regulations change. Those car setups change. The technology changes.

You have to move with the times.

And how I used to drive a few years ago that I thought was great, I would be pretty horrified if I was driving like that now.

So you’ve got to move with the times and move with the engineering. And engineers are always going to make the car as fast as they can.

But you’ve got to then drive that car the way they need it to be driven to get the best out of it. Things change. Techniques change.

(Related: Racers HQ Podcast Episode 24: Team O’Neil Rally School founder teaches you how to start your rally career.)

Staying Ahead, David Higgins Style

Racers HQ: What’s your process for anticipating these changes and staying ahead of everyone else?

David: A lot of people just sort of turn up in the car and try to drive as fast as they can go. I analyze a lot. I watch a lot of good car videos.

You know, my next rally is not until probably six to eight weeks ahead. But I’ve already spent maybe 40 to 60 hours reviewing videos from previous years and looking at different things. How can I change it?

Then today as well I’ve just come back from a place called iZone, which is in Silverstone in the UK. It’s a simulator-based company where you can look at different techniques, try different things, but with a full data analysis.

It’s the same place where a lot of Formula 1 drivers go and train. Not just for the driving but for the vision and strength and all different things.

So although you’re getting older and you get a lot of experience, you just never stop learning.

Racing Simulators

Racers HQ: Yeah I’ve chatted with a lot of professional drivers lately who are using simulators. Can you elaborate on why you feel it’s an effective training strategy?

David Higgins: Well, the real big benefit is that obviously simulators have gotten a lot better. In the start, you get a lot more feel. The one thing you don’t get from a simulator is danger.

So it’s much easier to drive at the limit or go beyond the limit, to find the absolute maximum speed you can do something. But in real life the risk of pushing past that? You may have an accident. You could destroy a $500,000 car.

David: So you obviously can’t do that very often before you get sacked over and in a lot of trouble. So simulators are brilliant for that push.

You can do it in a repetitive way. So you can try something on a corner, go back and try it again and do different things. There’s so much data available to look at different things like braking traces and subtle traces and yes, it’s not exact.

But it’s the same.

It costs a lot of money to prep your car, buy new tires, buy fuel, transport to a track, wear and tear of the car and all these different things.

When you go to these simulator-based things you’re not paying for all that. So you can put much more time into actual driving rather than worrying about how much it’s costing.

There are not really good simulators yet for rally driving, but there’s so much you can do in circuit driving.

Like we said before, the technique is not different, really.

The two sports really cross over a lot more than you think. It’s all discipline and driving with muscle memory, so you’re doing the same things at the right time and getting your timing right – when you get onto the brake, when you come off the brake and how you apply the steering.

Even more importantly, when you decrease the steering. All those things you can do on a race track just like you can on a rally stage.

© Lars Gange, subaru.com/rally 2017

Funding Your Career

Racers HQ: So from everything I’ve gathered it sounds like you were self funded at the beginning of your career. Can you share some insight about funding a race team and getting sponsors?

David Higgins: Yeah, it was difficult. I was in a good position. I was doing go-kart racing and doing very well to the point where I was offered a fully supported drive in the following season.

But my brother had already stepped up to start doing rallying and he was starting to get noticed and just stepped into his first factory drive. So some of the offers of other teams became available. I went straight into that.

I suppose it plays on getting the funding. I’ve always found it’s not necessarily what you know. It’s more who you know and it’s making the contacts and being in the right place at the right time.

You’re going to get millions and millions of people saying no to you: “I’m not going to help. I can’t help.”

But you’ve got to just keep persevering.

I found very, very few people in the early days were interested in actually sponsoring you or helping you just to have their name all over the car for exposure. It’s more the personal connection.

So they do something for you. You do something for them. So we were in a very fortunate position when we took over the rally school in our early days.

We could do corporate days where people could come and drive rally cars. We could teach other people, teach other drivers and in exchange for that, they would help us a little bit with those things.

It’s more business connections and different things. So the more you can network and things like that, the better it is.

Unfortunately there’s no secret way of going out there and doing it. It’s just a lot of knocks and like I’ve always said, “if you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen.”

Too many people in motorsport have run away at the first hurdle. The first hurdle could be an accident.

It could be lack of funding.

But if you want something bad enough, you will always find a way. And that’s often making a lot of sacrifices and going without a lot of other things. But if you want it bad enough, you will find a way.

When I was in the early days of rallying – there are often several days or two days – European rallies have something called a parc fermé where you finish the day’s rally.

You put your car into a car park. You can’t switch it until the next morning and I’ve done a few events where we really didn’t have enough money to go to the events.

So I had special permission from the organizers to go to sleep in my rally car overnight because I couldn’t afford a hotel.

But I wanted to do the event. It was the only way I could do it. So it’s all about just pushing.

People look at me in the best car, in the best team in rallying. But it certainly wasn’t always like that and you don’t just suddenly get plucked out, send a CV, and then find yourself in a factory car. You have to earn it and once you’ve earned that seat, you don’t want to let it go.

So it’s a tough business.

Racers HQ; How many years did you go through all the sacrifice before you were in a factory ride, in a rally car?

David Higgins: It sounds pretty bad, but it was one year. When I went into rallying I had the offer of staying in kart racing at a professional level but I chose to go to rallying.

I chose the championship where if you won that series you got a factory drive from the manufacturer at the end of the year.

So there was something in the UK called the Peugeot Challenge and it was 50 to 60 drivers in identical cars with prize money for each event.

If you can finish in the top three, you could virtually pay for your driving. So we got a loan to get a car and I finished in the top three and then I won the championship.

For winning the championship, the following year, I was in a factory Peugeot for the British Championship and then I won that championship. Then obviously the sponsors and things then started to come with that.

There were years where that sounded really easy that I got that. But then there were years when I had an accident and it knocked me right back.

You’re back to square one again.

So you have your ups and your downs. But I wasn’t trying for years and years to break into it.

Even though those drives were factory drives, I had to still cover my own expense to get to events on my own. So I didn’t get fully professional until probably ten years into my rallying.

Racers HQ: Yeah. I mean, I think we can both agree that you probably wouldn’t have ended up winning the Peugeot Challenge without all that karting experience beforehand.

David: Yeah. No, exactly. That was the thing. Karting is such a great sport. You’ve got to be super aggressive yet very smooth and they’re the same things that carry forward.

Most of the top Formula 1 drivers still go out on karts for training now and a lot of motorsport disciplines do. So it’s a good way of getting into motorsport. But it’s also a good way of staying sharp once you’re in it.

Parting Words of Wisdom

Racers HQ: What’s your best piece of advice for an aspiring racer who wants to reach the top?

David Higgins: Yeah. Yeah, for sure. I think it’s the determination to want to succeed.

From when I very first started driving I didn’t set out to drive because I wanted to become a professional racing driver.

I started racing because I loved racing. I love driving. I think one of the mistakes these younger people make now is they almost have this dream. They want to be a pro racer before they even start.

Well, you’ve always got to start. See if you’re any good and then decide whether you think you can make the profession work.

I think too many people now have too many expectations when they’ve not gotten enough experience. We’ve got people around here in karting championships who are eight years old, whose plan is 100 percent to be a World Formula 1 champion.

Well, the reality is that you’ve got a lot of work to do between being at that point to actually doing it. But very, very few get to do it. So you’ve got to enjoy it and absolutely 100 percent want to race for the love of racing or rallying, whatever it is.

It could be a good job, but it isn’t like that. If we put the same passion and same enthusiasm into a real job then we would be multi-millionaires with the dedication you put into racing. But if the passion is not there, it’s not going to happen.


David Higgins is the lead driver for Subaru Rally Team USA. He’s proudly partnered with DirtFish, PIAA, DMACK, Vermont Sports Car, and Subaru Tecnica International. You can follow David on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.


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