Far Beyond Driven

4/7/2017

Version 14.1

Subaru Rally Team USA star Craig Drew on what it takes to be a world-class co-driver.

There’s a good reason fans are in awe of rally drivers. Each race demands unbelievable precision to thread through dense forests and up narrow roads – and we struggle to understand how pros can blast through at full throttle while mud, dust, gravel and snow block all but a sliver of the windshield. Sometimes, though, we forget that rally is a team sport and that co-drivers are absolutely integral to victory. Co-drivers have to communicate turns, severity of angles, obstacles and speeds – all in real time – so drivers know how to place their cars along each section. 

Successful driving duos abound, but few can rival Subaru Rally Team USA’s (SRTUSA) David Higgins and Craig Drew. With Higgins at the helm and Drew on the intercom, SRTUSA has won every Rally America National Championship since 2011. To help us understand what it takes to be a co-driver on this elite team, we went behind the scenes with one of the best.

Craig Drew co-piloting #75 Subaru WRX STI rally car at Olympus rally.
Craig Drew co-piloting #75 Subaru WRX STI rally car at Olympus rally. Photo: © Ben Haulenbeek

Subaru Drive Performance: Can you tell us what day-to-day life as a co-driver is like?

Craig Drew: A co-driver’s role is to ensure the competition car follows the correct event route during competitive sections, or stages, and liaison sections, or transits, all while adhering to the official schedule. 

During transits, a co-driver navigates to each stage on public roads. During the competitive stages, [a co-driver] reads detailed pace notes to get from start to finish as quickly and safely as possible. Many people liken a co-driver’s role to that of a secretary, but at speed! In some teams, a co-driver is also responsible for fuel calculations, service scheduling and event logistics.

SDP: Who writes the notes, and how do you learn the rally language?  

Drew:The pace notes are the driver’s notes, not the co-driver’s. Our job is to read these notes to the driver at the appropriate moment on a stage. Effectively, we are the driver’s eyes before they get to a corner, and the information we provide enables the driver to know what’s coming so they can prepare accordingly.

The pace note system is specific to each driver and can vary drastically. There’s no right or wrong way, just the one that makes the most sense to the driver. David and I use a number system where 6 is fastest – i.e., a flat-out, slight bend – and goes down to 2, which is like a 90-degree turn. We then have “plus” and “minus” on each number for extra detail – as well as hairpins, crests and distances between corners. At the elite end of the sport, the notes can become very specific and complicated. The more experienced a driver is, the more information they can retain at speed and the more detailed the notes.

Craig Drew’s stage notes.
Craig Drew’s stage notes. Photo: © Ben Haulenbeek

SDP: How far in advance is each step communicated?

Drew:It’s driver-dependent. David is very good at listening and retains information well, enabling me to read up to three corners ahead, which is crucial on high-speed sections. A beginner driver, however, may need every note just before they do the corner because they really have to concentrate on what’s being said. 

Having notes in advance is particularly important when on a high-speed road, especially when there are a series of fast corners into a slow corner. The driver needs to know to reduce speed plenty in advance.

SDP: How do you prep for a race?

Drew: I usually put in 40 hours of event prep. This starts about eight weeks before a rally and continues up until the event itself. Prep includes reviewing previous-years’ onboard footage, comparing maps to previous years to know if we can reuse notes rather than starting from scratch, briefing the team on the main points of the event, and even booking the team hotel.

During an event, the co-driver must keep current on any schedule or rule changes and make sure that we are where we need to be at the correct time. As we always say – a co-driver’s job is never done.

SDP: Just for fun: If you were to switch places with David Higgins for a stage, how do you think the two of you would get on?

Drew: (laughs) I’m not sure who would struggle more – me in David’s seat or David in mine! I love driving and have a big passion for cars, but I’m also well aware of how I’m most effective, and that’s in the co-driver’s seat. I have huge respect for what drivers do, and after sitting next to some amazing talents, I recognize how difficult it is to drive at the highest level.

SDP: It must require a lot of trust in your driving partner to sit shotgun for rally’s crazy ride. Did it take some time to adjust, or did David’s skill inspire confidence immediately?

Drew: I’ve followed David’s career in the British Championship for years and was teammates with him in China before we joined forces. I’ve always known he was an incredible driver. Once I rode with him on our first test, my expectations were confirmed. I was relaxed straightaway, which isn’t always the case when you sit with a driver for the first time.

SDP: If you weren’t a professional co-driver, would there be another job in motorsports you’d like to try?

Drew: I’m very organized and a bit of a control freak – I like to have everything planned out in advance – so a logistical role within a team has always appealed to me. That may be something I can experience once I’ve retired from co-driving, but I’m not planning on doing that anytime soon.

 All smiles: Drew and Higgins are six-time national champions.
All smiles: Drew and Higgins are six-time national champion. Photo: © Lars Gange