Welcome to Travis Pastrana's School of Drifting
Just a normal driving lesson in a sensible family wagon. Here’s what happened when Jethro Bovingdon met Travis Pastrana
I have an illness. It’s one shared with many and particularly with the sort of people who pick up motoring magazines. Perhaps you have it, too. Let’s call it Icoulddothat-itus. Luckily, I get regular treatment for the condition. In this job, you’re often treated to passenger rides with exceptional driving talents. Just recently at a Ferrari event I got to sit beside Carlos Sainz Jr in a 296 GTB. Roughly seven seconds after exiting the pitlane I knew deep in my bones that I would never be able to drive like him. The aggression, confidence and control were mind scrambling, elating and soul destroying in equal measure. I’ve had similar experiences over the years with WRC drivers, former DTM champions and ex-F1 drivers. There is no doubt in my mind that high level racers work in a different realm. Out of reach.
It’s a different story with professional drifters and all that Gymkhana nonsense, though. This is the area where my strain of the disease is focused. While those of sound body and mind boggle that Insert Rad Dude name here can drift a flame snorting 1,000bhp monster with grace and accuracy, I wonder why anyone is surprised. These cars are designed solely for that very thing. They are stiff, relatively light, have the balance between power and grip swung radically in favour of the former and they have a hydraulic handbrake. A three-year-old could get them sideways and hold big angles with ease. Assuming they could reach the pedals. I accept and celebrate the entertainment aspect of this art form but the ‘skill’ is low level at best.
So, when editor Rix asked if I wanted Travis Pastrana to teach me how to drive Gymkhana style in his gloriously mad Subaru Family Huckster... well, I resisted the temptation to say “Teach? TEACH? Come on mate, I could do this stuff with my eyes closed", and just said that it sounded like fun and yes I was free and thank you for thinking of me. Stuff like that. But inside I was indignant. And, I have to admit, extremely excited. The Family Huckster is about the coolest thing on four wheels and, well, it has 862bhp and a hydraulic handbrake. Anticipation ramped up to fever pitch when Subaru said it would be bringing at least 36 tyres. Finally! The stage and the resources to prove that I could do that.
Words: Jethro Bovingdon / Photography: Rowan Horncastle
My homework would be to watch and absorb the video that made the Family Huckster famous, the brilliantly titled Travis Pastrana’s Gymkhana 2022 Vacation Shred. I’m pretty sure I’d seen it before, but I wanted to watch the man at the wheel, know a few of the set pieces in case Travis asked my favourite bit of the video and just suck up as much info about the car in question as possible. So, I sat down with a coffee, leant back and prepared to be entertained and mildly impressed. The first scene is Travis jumping from a hotel balcony, his parachute fails to fully deploy and he crumples to the floor, suffering multiple hip fractures and broken vertebrae. It’s a shocking start and says much for Pastrana’s commitment to the cause. Incredibly, the film only gets more unbelievable from here on in.
Oh. My. God. The man is unhinged and the Huckster is possessed. To be honest, the intricacies of this highly evolved Subaru estate are somewhat lost in a shockwave of noise, tyre smoke, body roll, disorienting active aero and a kind of loose, unrehearsed feel that makes it impossible to blink even as a spectator. The danger is palpable and the free flowing style is so unlike other videos of this genre. Of course, each set piece is exactly that – a preconceived stunt – but there’s improvisation and artistry. It’s incredible. Bloody hell. Maybe I can’t quite do that.
Pastrana is the first to arrive at Summit Point Motorsports Park, a sprawling facility with several race circuits, rally courses and, of course, firearms ranges set in leafy West Virginia. The location of my ‘lesson’. He doesn’t need to be. The Huckster has to be unloaded, warmed through, checked over. Yet Pastrana doesn’t care. “Are you kidding me?” he says with a huge grin. “You can never be too early to drive this thing. It’s not an exaggeration to say this is my favourite car of all the cars I’ve ever driven. It’s perfect. Truly. The perfect car.”
So what exactly is this perfect Family Huckster? The short answer is a custom built, overpowered but stunningly executed WRC monster hiding within the boxy confines of a shape inspired by the US-market 1984 Subaru GL Wagon. Specifically, the US Ski Team special edition. It features a WRC-spec full chassis and roll cage, bespoke carbon-fibre bodywork, a 2.3-litre flat-four with a billet block and one huge Garrett turbocharger to produce 862bhp and 664lb ft. The engine drives through a Sadev 6spd sequential gearbox and a four-wheel-drive system split 50:50 front to rear, with a Sadev limited-slip differential in the rear and a bespoke front diff to help create all that smoke, too.
There’s a complex active aero system powered hydraulically (for the fender flaps) and pneumatically (the roof mounted wing), which benefits braking but isn’t really intended to create huge amounts of downforce. Instead, its purpose is to trim the car’s angle while in flight. A good example of why Pastrana loves this car so much.
It’s absolutely fit for the purpose of doing very extreme things and stretching the envelope of what’s possible. “The previous Gymkhana car I had – the Air Slayer (based on a WRX STi rallycross car) – well, that had too much aero and it made it tricky as the car started to slide. You were kind of fighting its whole purpose,” explains Travis. “This car is so progressive. Plus, that boxiness is great for proximity driving. I can see and feel every corner of the car. It’s just awesome.” The Huckster was conceived, designed and developed by Vermont SportsCar, Subaru’s semi-works rallycross team in the US.
It’s easy to miss all the lovingly rendered details – the carbon-fibre dash that mimics the shape of the standard car and even has a blue tinge to evoke the original hue of the GL Wagon’s interior, the 3D-printed original Subaru badges, the cassette deck. Even the roof-rack is shaped to channel air to the rear-mounted radiator. Everywhere you turn has brutal functionality delivered with a wry nod to that simple, utilitarian inspiration. However, ‘Family’ is a stretch. Vermont SportsCar has fitted a hard-shelled passenger race seat for the shoot but folding myself through the cage and cramming my frame into its tiny embrace is deeply undignified. I’m sat low, legs folded against the front bulkhead and a rising claustrophobia sets in. “Let’s start with launch control,” grins Travis.
We’re on a course that could have been made for a beginner’s introduction to Gymkhana. Essentially three parallel straights connected by two large grassy roundabouts at each end. Within this basic layout are smaller circular patches of grass that create figure of eight obstacles and ample opportunity to try to master all of the tricks in Pastrana’s stunning video, albeit on a much smaller scale and without the terrifying jumps.
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Travis lights up the Huckster and all 862bhp thumps to the ragged tarmac. With a shorter gearset fitted than in the Gymkhana video the Huckster probably tops out at 130mph or so (as opposed to 165mph) and we’re pretty much banging the limiter in top by the time we reach the furthest roundabout. It is uncomfortably accelerative, the noise is dominated by turbo shriek and a great ignition crack on upshifts, and the whole experience is physical and frantic. Travis is economical and precise, though. The Huckster dives disconcertingly under braking but that lightens the load on the rear tyres. A little flick of steering lock and sharp tug on the carbon-fibre lever operating the handbrake sends the Huckster backwards into the turn.
This is a car for big gestures and Travis is perfectly in tune with it. He pins the throttle wide open and the tyres melt into smoke as we’re dragged onto the next straight, throwing gears at the maniacal flat-four as fast as his arm can tug the lever for upshifts. The next two minutes or so are simply fantastic as Travis feels out the course, one mighty drift slamming into the next, the 3D-printed exhaust belching flames, anti-lag shredding the cool air. Then the tyres are done. That’s four down. In two minutes. And we’re only warming up. Now it’s my turn.
Launch control is simple to activate. Tug the gearlever back for first (from here on it’s back for upshifts, forward for downshifts, no clutch required in either direction), now pull the handbrake back firmly while holding the small button at the top of the lever with your thumb, pin the throttle and wait for the boost to build as the angry little engine hammers against a limiter set around 4,500rpm. The whole car tingles and shudders and quakes under the forces being momentarily contained. Pop the clutch and release the handbrake simultaneously and the Huckster is freed. All four wheels spin for a moment but you still need to be ready immediately on the shifter to grab second, then third and fourth, then brake hard, slam the lever forward for a downshift, snag the handbrake for a moment or two, feel the car rotate, let the angle build until it feels like a spin and then give the car full throttle...
Now there’s lots of wheelspin but enough traction to drag the car sideways and hold it there. Don’t be tempted to add opposite lock to correct the angle. “More gas. The answer is always more gas,” shouts Travis. He’s right. The engine is phenomenal. Despite a specific output of 375bhp per litre it’s so tractable and the throttle response is weirdly accurate. Not that Travis would know. He uses it as a switch and I can hear my own old habits holding me back.
I feather the accelerator to build and maintain the angle. It works, but there’s less smoke, less of that spectacular YouTube-breaking shock and awe. Travis will later decimate a set of tyres in 45 seconds, whereas my more conservative approach sees them withstand up to four whole minutes. What a world! Feeling embarrassed that I’m eking my tyre life out to four minutes.
The Family Huckster is a dream. Intimidation lasts one complete lap of one of those big linking roundabouts with smoke billowing and great licks of flame emerging from the screamer pipe. Then it’s pure entertainment. Even Travis, who admits to being a terrible passenger, is enjoying himself. “Look at you go, man,” he says, as I nail a transition. “This is awesome!” My brain somehow morphs that sentence into “You are awesome”. It’s that illness emerging again. I do feel vaguely vindicated. I don’t spin the Family Huckster. I waste several sets of tyres. Gloriously. I manage to link slides over and over again and after some coaching even get the reverse entry thing down pretty well (go into a turn backwards and sliding in one direction, emerge sliding in the other. It’s hard to visualise and I didn’t even quite know what was happening from the driver’s seat). I can do this. In fact, it’s easier than, say, sliding a Porsche GT3 around a corner for a cameraman on a closed road.
But I can’t do it like Travis Pastrana. With such commitment, with that added danger of proximity to walls/Armco/the edge of a lake/a monster truck driving on its front two wheels, with such carefree abandon or such a swashbuckling style. In fact, nobody can. Travis Pastrana is unique. Meeting him was a treat. Driving his favourite car in the world was unforgettable.