There are many firsts in life, and the lucky are able to make them count. I had never ventured into the English countryside to Lord March's estate to experience the Goodwood Festival of Speed where vehicles of every age, size, and description see who can get up the Lord's driveway the fastest or with the most panache.
This year I not only witnessed the famous Hill Climb, but I also got to drive it behind the wheel of a 2016 Subaru Impreza WRX STI. Despite being a bit bleary-eyed coming right from Heathrow airport after a long flight, it was an adventure to remember.
Like everything at Goodwood, there are scheduled times for batches of vehicles to make the climb. They are often changed or delayed, but they bring about some semblance of order at an event that celebrates the automobile in all its forms by inviting them to a giant car show where they can be admired in motion.
Our chance to make the climb is part of the Moving Motor Show on the first day, an event devoted to small fleets of vehicles from high-end automakers all staged in a pavilion awaiting the chance to snake up a 1.16-mile driveway.
The Subaru fleet was there to support British rally champion and stunt driver Mark Higgins who competed in the timed event. Higgins was up against vehicles worth multiples of the WRX, but the distinctive HyperBlue car held its own because he posted among the best times over four days of practice runs, qualifying and then taking the third spot on the podium after the final shootout.
The Subaru group was unique in that the British saw us as sitting on the wrong side of our left-hand-drive cars with Illinois plates and U.S.A. stickers on the back. "Here come the Americans," the commentators cried as the first Subie followed Infinitis, Porsches, Audis, and others to the starting line.
We partnered up, and I started as a passenger to get the lay of the land, having no experience on the narrow course lined with hay bales, except for the part where one side is a flint stone wall. Throw in jet lag and the threat of rain, and we were primed.
The first adventure came early, on the main straightaway in front of the grandstands, where hay bales lie across the course. Is it a straw chicane—there is an opening on the left—or are we supposed to go around them and keep going? We brake and debate. None of the smiling road marshals provided any hand gestures or hints, so we went around the obstacle and kept going. We later learned that was the correct answer. A Ford RS200 rally car had crashed earlier, carrying too much speed for the conditions, so the hay was added to slow the cars down. From there, it was a slower but all too quick climb to the top.
Time to head back down and do a driver change.
That's easier than it sounds when you don't know where you are going. We followed the road until it came to a T with cones in every direction. After awkward indecision, a volunteer pointed to the left and off we went, forgetting we were in the U.K. until the oncoming grille of another car reminded us we were on the wrong side of the road. We quickly snuck between cones to the other side and tried to plot the rest of the course.
We found ourselves in the thick of pedestrian traffic headed to the supercar paddock. An obliging Land Rover Defender even moved out of the way to let us continue, rather than point out our folly. The crowds got thicker, and our conviction we were in the wrong place deepened. Slowly we turned in the middle of the crowd. The obliging Defender moved to let us out again, and we made it back to the proper pavilion for the driver swap.
We barely noticed the faint smell of smoke as I got behind the wheel for my turn.
The mist had become rain, enough to require wipers, as we awaited our turn. Launch, accelerate, navigate the hay bale, brake for the turn—oooh the course is pretty greasy now. Scrub some speed, proceed more cautiously to the top past the Flint wall, and avoid all contact with stone or hay. Success. And the knowledge we would not make the same mistakes navigating the way down.
The smoke smell has definitely intensified. A course marshal comes running at us with a fire extinguisher. He fears it is the brakes. We don't think so. He warns us to get to the bottom immediately. We tell him that is the plan and continue on until the next marshal stops us. "‘Do we know our car is smoking?" Yes, we are on our way back to the pavilion. The pattern continues with successive volunteers. We are almost there when another helpful soul tells us the radio is cackling about a hot Subaru. "That would be us," I say, assuring him we just need to go around the bend and to the pavilion.
We are flagged down and told to park outside the structure where a gaggle of extinguisher-wielding volunteers are waiting. Mustn't jeopardize the building by going inside—but apparently journalists are expendable because we're told to stay inside the vehicle. We are eventually allowed out, and nothing has burst into flames.
The Subaru people are not concerned. The cars we are driving have been support vehicles for rallies including the Isle of Man TT where the STI had a record lap. They have done hard miles and were pretty beat up. They figure the smoke is from sloshing fluids.
Fortunately Higgins, a stunt driver for a number of movies including two Bond films, had no such issues with his 600-hp STI modified by Prodrive for a speedy run. Ever the perfectionist, he lamented his perceived errors on each run while posting some of the best times each day. But he knew he was up against some big guns. In the end, the top podium spot went to the Jaguar XJR-12D endurance race car driven by Justin Law who did the climb in 46.13 seconds. He bested Jeremy Smith in a Chevy Penske PC22 Indy car. Higgins, in his modest Subaru, beat the Polish Arrinera Hussarya supercar and the Mahindra M4Electro Formula E racecar driven by Nick Heidfeld in a hodgepodge category that included prewar Bugattis. "They know they're not going to win because they're really old cars," the straight-faced commentators noted.
That is the beauty of the annual Festival of Speed. It celebrates the evolution of speed, from early days to the electric supercars flying by soundlessly. Being the 70th anniversary for Ferrari, the Italian brand pulled together 70 cars from the 1947 Ferrari 125 S to the LaFerrari Aperta and everything in between. They did the hill climb in a sea of largely Ferrari red to great cheers. Driving them were some of the greats: Jackie Stewart, Derek Bell, Dario Franchitti, and Marc Gene. Also on hand: Emerson Fittipaldi.
The rolling stage included runs up the hill by the rally cars and drifters who put on a show for the crowd with smoking tires, burnouts, drifts, and donuts for fans of all ages. A Nissan 370, Miata, and Mustang GT spun like a pinwheel with their three noses in the center as they performed a synchronized drift in the tight course. A Land Rover made it almost to the end of the drive on two wheels as the crowd cheered, gasped, and groaned as the SUV righted itself just before crossing the finish line. Motorcycles popped wheelies and performed tricks.
A few vehicles hit the hay, some creating a spectacular burst of straw upon impact. A Ferrari 458 GT2 ended its run in the straw. And a NASCAR Chevy SS really had a taste for it: crashing into the side on the second turn on the first of the final day runs. The final run was even worse. Ed Berrier went straight into the wall, hard, on the first turn and had to be towed away, prompting jokes about what happens when a NASCAR tries to turn.
There were crowd favorites such as the white Ford Galaxy with its magnificent booming engine, the Beast of Turin, which is a 300-hp Fiat S76 with a massive 28.5-liter four-cylinder engine that raced in 1911. Only two were built, and the one being timed on its way up the hill uses the body from one and the engine from the other. Between the roar of the engine and the flames shooting out, it was a crowd favorite. There were plenty of Rolls-Royces, a Polish supercar, the Subaru 555 rally car, a Lotus-Renault 971 in John Player Special black and gold, thunder saloons, the Jaguar XE SV Project 8, and an Alfa Romeo Tipo B from the 1930s—in other words, something for everyone.