Finding zen behind the wheel of a Subaru Impreza rally car

By Staff Writer
Jan 31, 2023 | Subaru, rally, Impreza | Posted in Features | From the April 2021 issue | Never miss an article

Photograph Credit: Wendy Snyder

Story by Tara Hurlin

Just picture it: You’re sitting with your co-driver at the start line. Your helmets are on, HANS Devices secure, belts sucking you tightly into your seats. Your gloved hands tighten around the steering wheel as you anticipate launching your car over several miles of road while translating your teammate’s cues to navigate the terrain’s sharp turns and roller-coaster dips at top speed. 

Adrenaline rushes through you as the clock counts down from 30 seconds. Your co-driver starts the final countdown: 5…4…3…2…1… 

On “Go,” you spring into action, kicking the car into gear and shifting into full throttle. Your partner’s melodic pace notes dance through your eardrums as the tires kick up gravel like a rapid-fire machine gun. You feel the pulse of the road flowing through your steering wheel, past your gloves, and into your hands. You are focused, determined, and yet at peace. When everything is working in synchrony, there is no other experience like it. That is why Amanda Skelly loves rally.

Amanda’s need for speed dates back as far as she can remember. “Every winter, my family and I went on amazing snowmobile trips, and by 12 years old I thought it would be awesome to be a female racer,” she recalls. She worked at a motocross track on the weekends during high school, but in January 2006, everything changed: She spectated at a stage rally competition for the first time at the Sno*Drift Rally in Atlanta, Michigan, and discovered the Detroit Region SCCA RallyCross later that year. She caught the rally bug, and her itch to race escalated quickly. 

That same year, in December, Amanda bought her first Subaru, a 1998 Impreza 2.5RS coupe she lovingly named Sassy and adorned with a license plate that read “RalyGrl.” She was competing in local rallycrosses by 2007. 

In 2009, she participated in SCCA TSD RoadRally events. All the while, she spectated at the Sno*Drift Rally yearly until she made her debut as a driver in 2012—behind the wheel of the Impreza RS that started it all. By the beginning of 2020—more on that season later—she had logged 53 stage rallies spanning the United States, from Maine to Washington, with eight starts as a co-driver and 45 as a driver.

Experiment 626

Today, she races Stitch, her 1997 Subaru Impreza L named after the Disney character, in the Naturally Aspirated 4WD and AWD Light racing classes with her team, Noble Star Rally. Her most recent podium wins include first in NA4WD Class in the 2019 ARA Eastern Regional Championship, first in the 2019 New England Forest Rally NA4WD class, and second in class in the 2019 Lake Superior Performance Rally.

Stitch is where Amanda feels the most at home. “It’s a space of my own designed around my vision and goal for a car,” she shares. “It is my work area, but also a place where I find my freedom and experience some of the purest moments of joy and peace in my life. It brings a flood of emotions both on the stages and off, and it truly has been life-changing. 

Amanda made her stage rally debut in 2012 and now has more than 50 events to her credit. Most were spent behind the wheel of Stitch, her 1997 Subaru Impreza named after the Disney extraterrestrial.  Photography Credit: David Cosseboom

“My car brought so many amazing people together, and we created something more than just a team. We are a family, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Stitch opened so many doors of opportunity and experiences in life that it brings me joy beyond explanation.”

It took a large team to make the build happen. Ryan Davis, owner of TurboTime and crew chief of Noble Star Rally, led Amanda and her crew to make Stitch into the trail-chomping machine it is today. The engine is an EJ253 from a 2007 Impreza 2.5i. Due to rally sanction limitations, the team kept it primarily stock but added K1 forged H-beam connecting rods for strength.

Amanda helped with wiring, paint, bodywork and design, including the livery. Using the car as a template, she painted the stripes on the hood and roof, chose green for the ground effects, and submitted her vision to Link Engine Management. The team there brought it to life, recreating the livery for 5 Star Design of Raleigh, North Carolina, to print and apply. 

“I think rally racing is one of the most challenging forms of motorsport because you rarely see that same corner twice, and just getting to the finish is often the biggest challenge of all,” Amanda explains. “There’s always room for improvement, and I constantly push myself to become a better driver, teammate and person.” 

The last few years have been more challenging than usual, she explains. A skateboarding accident took the life of their crew chief’s son in 2018, and they lost their old crew chief, Gino Malinoski, just four days before the 2019 running of the Lake Superior Performance Rally.  “Gino is the reason I have many of the crew I do today,” Amanda says. “Both podiums in 2019 at NEFR and LSPR had a deep meaning and are dedicated to those two.”

Amanda confesses that her health has been her biggest hurdle recently. In the spring of 2017, she was diagnosed with lupus, an autoimmune disease that results in a lot of inflammation, chronic pain, and a whole slew of other symptoms and issues. 

Photograph Courtesy Noble Star Rally

Photography Credit: mjsmotophotos Mary Rinell

Stage rally is a team sport. Amanda (above on right) has worked with several co-drivers, including Villa Cseh. “It’s cheesy,” Amanda says, “but one of my favorite things is usually, when I get in the car to go testing, there’s always some kind of little flower or a bit of nature that is stuck somewhere in my car—usually the cup holder—from my crew chief.” Photograph Courtesy Noble Star Rally.

“I am still always on the go and am learning balance,” she says. “The main thing that I struggle with is ensuring I get enough rest between work, grad school, travel and racing. It’s an ever-evolving process, but I firmly believe that having a positive attitude plays an important role in overcoming any challenge.” 

Her rally family also motivates her to keep pressing on regardless. “I love the community, the atmosphere, the people, the roads, the cars,” she continues. “The entire experience of rally is unlike that of any other kind of racing, and that sets it apart from other disciplines. There is a sense of camaraderie in rally that makes it feel more like a family. More like home.

“In those perfect moments when you are on stage and your co-driver is right on cue, everything makes sense,” she adds. “For those seconds or minutes when everything is right, there are no other worries in the world. The stress of your personal life, the anxieties, problems and concerns, none of that matters. For just a few moments in time, you are completely and utterly free. There is no other feeling like that for me in the world, and it’s what I love the most.”

Driver 853

According to the American Rally Association, the series recently saw a 62% increase in participation by women, as both drivers and co-drivers, which is a massive jump. “It’s been amazing to be a part of a sport where women are becoming more and more involved, and to break away from being the minority,” Amanda says, adding that she hopes to see that number grow each year. 

During 2019, she traveled to 26 states, competed in eight different rallies, and was the only female driver to hold an overall podium within that year’s American Rally Association Championship. She also started working for Subie Events, helping to organize the States’ largest Subaru enthusiast gathering. She attended the OZ Rally Pro team training, where she learned how to write and interpret her own stage notes. 

After several busy seasons, 2020 was cut short—standard operating procedure for many efforts. Amanda plans to get back out there this year, though. Photography Credits: mjsmotophotos Mary Rinell.

And then things got complicated—as they did for pretty much everyone else involved in motorsports. “2020 was honestly surreal with everything going on around the world and in the States,” she explains. “I started the season off by competing at the 2020 Sandblast Rally, where I was rejoined by co-driver Elizabeth Cordara. Liz and I have done a few rallies together over the years and she is amazing to work with.”

They took their first podium together, landing third in the Open Light class. “It was a closely fought battle and we were running with a brand-new Samsonas rally suspension,” Amanda recalls. “It was also the first time we played around with tire choices. We started off with a soft winter tire but later opted to run a medium-compound MRF gravel tire from Tire Streets, which certainly paid off and presented far more traction and control.

“After that, the COVID-19 crisis came, and as a team we made the decision to sit the rest of the season out, as we have many high-risk team members, including myself, and it was not worth jeopardizing anyone’s health and safety.”

So, plans for 2021? She’s playing it by ear right now, she says, but hopes to run with NASA in the spring: “I have not sat in my rally car since March 2020 and I am more than anxious to get back behind the wheel and be reunited with both my team and car.”

Photography Credit: Tara Hurlin.

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