Midlife Crisis: Forget Exotics, A Subaru Can Scratch That Itch

By Robert Bowen
Jun 20, 2018 | Subaru | Posted in Features | From the Nov. 2010 issue | Never miss an article

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Story By Robert Bowen • Photos As Credited

Plenty of car stories start out with a middle-aged enthusiast who buys something fancy—maybe a brand-new Porsche or a Corvette—in order to cruise around town and seek attention. With two kids recently out of college and 23 years of a successful dry cleaning business under his belt, Robert Goodwin certainly could have taken that path. Instead, he celebrated his success by building up a Subaru Impreza for rallycross and track days.

Why would a guy like Robert start competing in a modified Subaru as a hobby? Well, it helps to know what he’s done with the rest of his time. Owning his own business gave Robert a lot of flexibility, allowing him to be a big presence in his kids’ lives. He took full advantage of this opportunity and put some of his own hobbies on hold.

“Over the years, I was one of the parents that showed up for all the school events,” he explains. “My son is 24 and daughter is 22. I always supported them in sports.”

After years of being a dedicated father, Robert was on his own. That meant he could finally do something just for himself—something that involved cars. “I have a good friend who works in a race prep shop who mentioned rallycross as a good, inexpensive sport to try,” he says. “So my son and I went to an event, and we liked what we saw.”

The event was organized by the Tarheel Sports Car Club, and Robert saw it as something that would scratch his motorsports itch yet still involve his kids if they ever tagged along.

Robert’s car of choice—a Subaru Impreza 2.5 RS—shouldn’t surprise anyone even remotely familiar with rallycross. It’s light, handles well, makes passable power, and has all-wheel drive.

Not only is a normally aspirated Subaru the hot ticket for the tight, loose surfaces found in rallycross, but it also makes a great all-around car for track events and the street. Preparation for that first season of rallycross included adding a cold-air intake, a pair of race seats, adjustable shock absorbers and a four-point roll bar.

“We weren’t sure what we would be doing with the car after the rallycross, so it seemed like a good idea to get something flexible,” Robert explains. “We got the car and competed in rallycross for a while, mostly stock. It was a lot of fun but it left me wanting more.”

That desire to do something “more” was quenched thanks to an open track event at Virginia International Raceway. It was hosted by the same club that ran their rallycrosses, the Tarheel Sports Car Club. Robert signed up and drove the still nearly stock Subaru at the event.

“I went and had a fabulous time,” he reports. “The car did really well even though it was mostly stock. We just tightened up the adjustable shocks and that’s it.” The track surface was wet thanks to an overnight shower, but that made it all the better for the all-wheel-drive Subaru and off-road-ready driver. Of course, Robert didn’t realize this at first. “I was scared,” he admits of his first track encounter. “Everyone else there seemed like they knew what they were doing, and I felt totally out of my element. I barely made it through the drivers meeting, I was so nervous.”

Fortunately, he was paired with a great instructor who put him at ease. The Subaru shined during the early wet sessions, and the rallycross experience helped Robert stay within the limited traction available.

“As it turned out, I had a great experience that was more athletic than I had expected,” he reports. “I’ve played golf, basketball, but this was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen. It was something I wanted to learn to do.”

Kick It Up A Notch

Mating the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine from a 2005 Subaru Impreza WRX STI took nearly a year, but every snag was an opportunity for improvement, The result is a reliable 330 horsepower.

Mating the turbocharged 2.5-liter engine from a 2005 Subaru Impreza WRX STI took nearly a year, but every snag was an opportunity for improvement, The result is a reliable 330 horsepower.

Robert was soon hooked, and he honed his developing skills every chance he got. He attended the Skip Barber Driving School at Road Atlanta thanks to a 50th birthday gift from his understanding wife.

His next on-track experience took place at Carolina Motorsports Park with instructor Michael Skeen—a NASA national champion who recently scored an SCCA World Challenge win in his first attempt. Robert was on his way to increased track driving proficiency when the long-suffering and still mostly stock Subaru finally packed it in.

“I went out on track, and after just seven laps a rod bearing went,” he reports. “It wasn’t a surprise, really. The car had 130,000 miles on it and a sketchy background. The track racing just overstressed it.”

The blown engine led to an opportunity to make some upgrades. Out came the normally aspirated 2.5-liter SOHC boxer; in its place went a variable-timing, twin-cam turbocharged engine from a WRX STI. Why not just build a stronger stock engine? At the time, the turbo swap seemed like the simplest, most direct route to more reliable horsepower.

Robert’s preferred shop—TurboTime—was also quite familiar with the turbo Subaru powerplant. “I talked to the Subaru people I knew about motor swaps and everyone suggested an STI engine,” he reports. “So I bought a wrecked 2005 STI to make the swap easier. TurboTime had not done this particular swap into a 2.5 RS before, but they were ready to try.”

Unfortunately, the swap didn’t go quite as smoothly as planned, and the transplant took much longer than anticipated.

First, the engine yanked from of the wrecked 2005 Impreza STI was not in the best shape. The car was in a rollover, and the accident cracked the intake manifold, allowing water into the engine. As a result, the cylinder walls were rusty. A local circle track engine builder, conveniently located next to Robert’s business, overbored the cylinders and squared off the deck surfaces.

“We found that we would have to go with oversized pistons, so while it was apart we decided to go with forged rods, an upgraded turbo, and the rest of the parts on our build list,” Robert explains. “It took a little over a year to rebuild the motor and get it into the 2.5 RS, with part of that time spent figuring out what direction to go in.”

Meanwhile, TurboTime attacked the drivetrain. The STI also donated its six-speed transmission, large Brembo brakes, robust oversized wheel hubs and driver-controlled center differential.

The biggest challenge? Making the 2.5 RS wiring harness and STI drivetrain play nicely together. “We sent both harnesses off to have them merged,” Robert reports. “We ended up using the STI dash cluster in the 2.5 RS dash to make it all work.”

The finished engine was tuned on a local four-wheel chassis dyno. The goal was for it to feature a wide, flat powerband without using excessive boost or unreliable engine speeds. The stock ECU was modified by a Cobb Accessport loaded with new tunes.

“I had them program a couple of different maps, all of them pretty conservative,” Robert says. “I am more interested in reliability than outright power. I wanted to just hop in and concentrate on my driving, not sit out another year waiting for a rebuild.”

Reliable Racer

The finished car has been reliable, but not completely without teething troubles. Fortunately, the issues have been minor.

At a NASA CircuitCross event at VIR, the ABS system failed. This allowed the right-rear wheel to lock up at the end of the fastest straight, sending the car off the track. The culprit was an incorrectly routed ABS line.

“We fixed it, then we went to a NASA event at VIR and some other track days in 2009,” Robert reports. “It ran flawlessly the whole time after that.”

The Subaru’s reliability was exactly what Robert needed. It allowed him to concentrate on practicing the craft of driving instead of worrying about the reliability of his ride. The new drivetrain gave his Impreza the grip and power needed to hang with most of the faster cars. “The car really claws out of the corners but lacks the straight-line speed of the Z06s, which is okay,” he says.

Much of Robert’s enjoyment, he explains, has come from sharing the track with some capable drivers—and their neat to run with some VW Jetta TDI Cup cars. “It was a real experience for me to follow a sorted car with a great driver around the track,” he explains. “It was a good learning experience and a lot of fun. I could see where I could improve by watching the other driver.”

At a Carolina Motorsports Park HPDE event, Ford brought a new Mustang GT500 to shake down. “It was a blast trying to run that thing down,” Robert recalls. “Plus, I got to see the new Ford before most folks. You never know who or what will show up at these kind of events."

Robert isn’t against running some competitive track events in the future, and he hopes to make an appearance at a Redline Time Attack or the Pirelli Ultimate Track Car Challenge presented by Grassroots Motorsports.

“I have some sponsors that helped me—TurboTime, for example—and another was K&S Brakes,” Robert says. “It’s kind of funny to have an HPDE car with sponsors, but they liked the idea and it makes business sense as the car attracts a lot of attention.”

Wheel-to-wheel racing is not really in the plans for the Subaru, though, because it was not built with a particular competition class in mind. Despite the car’s sponsorship, it is strictly a street-legal weekend track car for the time being.

“Sometimes I’ll just pull the car out of the garage and drive it around to get rid of stress,” Robert says. “Most of the time, when I get out of the car or pull up beside someone at a stoplight, people are expecting a much younger driver. The car is so unique. People come up to me and talk about it, with the most common question being, ‘What is that?’” If Robert does move on to wheel-to-wheel competition, the Subaru won’t be forgotten. It will simply go to the person who helped start it all: his son. For now, Robert is still impressed with what this car has to offer.

“I would encourage anyone having a mid-life crisis like me to take up high-performance driver education and club events,” he says. “It seems intimidating at first, but you meet really great people who are supportive and fun to be around. There’s a lot worse ways to spend a weekend.”

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rogerbvonceg Reader
6/20/18 3:32 p.m.

No midlife crisis described here. More of the empty nester finally has time for ___ .

Not sure midlife crisis is officially in the dictionary of psychological disorders, but if it were, it would be described as someone reaching a certain age and being uncertain of their identity, or dissatisfied with their station in life, or grasping at something they feel they had somehow missed and desperately want a piece of. 

Robert Goodwin displays none of those symptoms, at least not in this article.

Scargod New Reader
6/20/18 10:50 p.m.

Just like mentioned in the article, people can and do overstress tired Subaru's. They get a bad rap from those that push them too hard and don't pay attention to their minor weak points that can be fixed. 
My 2008 STi had 17K on it when I rebuilt it after ring-land failure that was my fault. Since then I have not had a failed engine in five tears and have 30 track hours on my latest 470 WHP engine. I love it! 1.3-1.5 G's. Pulls out of tight corners harder with less drama than RWD cars and eats everything in the rain. For videos see Glyn Churchman, "Track Days" on YouTube.
So much bang for the buck, if done right.

StuntmanMike New Reader
6/25/18 11:08 a.m.

This definitely not a midlife crisis. A midlife crisis is the guy that goes out and gets a 911 or Z06 because magazines and friends say they are the best and then putts around town thinking he is king of the hill until someone convinces him to go to a track day or autox. Naturally he gets his ego bruised by these types of cars/drivers and slinks back to the car show scene where he can feel like the king again, never to return to any sort of performance event.

This is a guy that simply picked up a hobby, an awesome hobby with an awesome car. But maybe I'm a little biased... 

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