In the gathering dusk, Patrick (Rocket) Richard removes his close-fitting dark sunglasses, and palms a handful of pills. “I’ve got to take my daily bread,” he jokes. It takes a few moments for one of Canada’s greatest rally drivers to swallow the bitter mass down.
All around us, dust stirred up by Richard’s latest creation settles back over the empty log-sorting yard. The pavement is scored with lines still visible in the light filtering over the mountains. A heron calls as it looks for the evening roost, heading west over Howe Sound. The quiet beauty of the place seems amplified by the snarling ballet we’ve just witnessed.
Richard is a legend, with more than a dozen rally championships over 15 years of racing. In battle, he was unrelenting – there is video of him putting his Subaru STI onto its side and leaping from the car, then flipping it back onto its wheels – with his co-driver still inside. He has displayed superhuman ability behind the wheel – surfing his car along narrow gravel roads through the forest; landing huge jumps on three wheels; finishing races with half the bodywork crumpled or missing entirely. He has the right to be aloof.
But in person, he’s just … Pat. The shades are no affectation: A serious neurological condition caused by head injuries forced Richard to retire from driving two years ago, and he has a sensitivity to light. When you meet him, he immediately apologizes for not taking his sunglasses off. In a way, he’s sacrificed his health to his love of this sport.
But while Richard no longer drives competitively, he and the company he founded 17 years ago are still giving their all to rally. This secretive after-hours shakedown is putting the finishing touches on an idea to draw in new competitors and keep the sport alive. It’s a fully race-prepped Crosstrek, roll-caged, armoured and fitted with a long-travel suspension, racing brakes, a sequential six-speed transmission and some engine improvements. Is that a turbocharger under the hood? Mum’s the word.
At a cost of $80,000, Rocket Rally’s built-to-order racer doesn’t seem cheap. However, it’s one-quarter as expensive as the rally-prepped STI fielded by Subaru Canada. Rocket Rally builds that car as well, and its Crosstrek may be thought of as a spec-racer answer for drivers who want to show up at a rally and be competitive.
One such driver is David Nickel. An executive in the finance field, Nickel has shucked his business suit today for shorts, T-shirt, racing gloves and a carbon-fibre helmet. He’s covered in sweat and grinning like an idiot. If you’d been hucking the fierce little Crosstrek sideways through stacks of timber, you’d be grinning, too.
Nickel’s been competing in rally events for a couple of years now in an STI, with a few podium finishes last year. “It feels great,” he says of the prototype Crosstrek. “But those tires are done.”
While Nickel and some of the Rocket Rally team talk suspension tweaks to soften up the front end for better bite, Warwick Patterson plots out a course on a clipboard. A photographer and videographer who’s been covering rally for nearly two decades, he’s behind Launch Control, a show that covers all Subaru’s motorsport efforts, from rallying in China to Mark Higgins’s record-setting runs on the Isle of Man. Officially partnered with Subaru of America, it’s broadcast online worldwide, but made right here in small-town British Columbia.
“It feels good to be home,” Patterson says, watching a sailboat make its way up the channel. “I haven’t been home for more than 72 hours in a row all year.”
Situated between Whistler and Vancouver, Squamish is neither a glitzy winter playground for the rich nor a city struggling with heavy traffic and out-of-control real estate prices. It has a busy port – a lot of timber is moved through where we’re standing – but mostly it’s a place where people come to escape.
On an evening when the Rocket Rally Crosstrek was spinning around in the gravel like a cornered wolverine, paragliders leaped off the massive granite dome of the Stawamus Chief and sailed overhead. Rock climbers hauled themselves up fissures in the rock. Mountain bikers were probably out there on the back trails, too – Rocket is currently building a car for professional rider Brandon Semenuk.
It’s a place where people come to work, play and live outdoors. Little wonder that it’s become the de facto home for Canadian rally, a sport that pits man and machine against the forest and the stopwatch.
Fitting, too, that Squamish has a neighbourhood feel you don’t get in a bigger city. Perhaps no other form of motorsport is as welcoming and open to those who want to volunteer or spectate at a rally. You don’t buy tickets to an event, you just hike out together into the woods and find a good spot to watch the cars fly. It builds a sense of camaraderie and community.
Before loading up the Crosstrek, Richard and Patterson chat about the idea of setting up a rally-cross course here. “Sounds good,” Richard says. “Just a small event.”
Patterson nods. “Maybe 10 cars or so.”
“Just people we know,” Richard says, “Members of our rally family.”