Posted by Brian Wong | July 22, 2016
A Toyota RAV4 wouldn’t be our first choice for taking on a rally track (or our top 50 picks to be blunt), but Toyota wants to prove its family-focused compact SUV’s ability and change perceptions. So, after a day of driving, that’s how I found myself strapped into Ryan Millen’s modified RAV4, jostled through the dirt at speeds I didn’t know were possible in a RAV4 with an engine and drivetrain. origin.
If Millen’s name sounds familiar to you, it’s understandable: he comes from a family of runners. He is the son of Rod Millen, who held the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb record for many years and was himself a legendary rally driver. His brother, Rhys, competes in the Global Rallycross series for Hyundai and set an electric vehicle record at Pikes Peak this year.
Ryan Millen himself is no slouch either – he won the 2014 Baja 1000 full stock class with a Toyota Tundra TRD Pro. This year, he and his co-driver Christina Fate (who is also his fiancÃ©e) are tied for first place in the two-wheel drive division of Rally America after five of eight races this season.
We got to sit down with Millen and hear his thoughts on pickup trucks, rally racing and why he chose to use a RAV4 (of all things) for competition. At the end of our conversation he said that “deep down I love trucks” which makes him a man after our hearts. Here is what he had to say.
PickupTrucks.com: So, have you driven both Toyota TRD Pro pickup trucks?
RM: Andy Bell [with whom Millen won the Baja 1000] and I went to Chile in the TRD Pro Tundra and Alaska in the TRD Pro Tacoma last November. We climbed a bunch of volcanoes in Chile which was awesome and in Alaska we went to Deadhorse which is the northernmost point. And we went in November and it was minus-40 and crazy.
PUTC: Do you prefer one over the other?
RM: They are so different trucks. I need the towing capacity, which is why I bought the Tundra. The Tacoma is such a perfect size for me, living in Southern California. It’s a bit hard; I like having 380 horsepower and I like having this V-8. But I would like to have smaller too.
PUTC: I think I agree with you. The Tundra’s V-8 is the much better engine, but the Tacoma has a bit more technology that makes it accessible.
RM: That’s what I love about Tacoma; I love select multitrain and love diff-lockers. And I really like the crawl control.
PUTC: Yesou started with the races in the desert. What made you want to go from the desert to the rally?
RM: My father is known for rallying; my brother rallied around for many years. And that was kind of one of those opportunities that I grabbed and grabbed. And it was such a fun experience, really.
PUTC: Was it the second year in a row with the RAV4?
RM: Last year has been a bit like a year of discovery. Like everyone here [in the Rally America series] has apprehensions about the RAV4. Even Toyota was like, “Really, you wanna do this?” And I said: âNo, seriously, we could do that, it’s going to be competitive! “
(Editor’s Note: This season is Millen and Fate’s second season with the RAV4. The duo raced several West Coast rallies on a trial basis in 2015. This is RAV4’s first full year at Rally America.)
So we just had a few gatherings on the west coast here, six or seven. I just had an idea, made sure it was all right. Then it was like “OK, let’s do the national championship” and we’ve always had apprehensions from some of the leaders because Toyota doesn’t compete in order not to be competitive – they come in to win. And to do that with a production car … we look at the power / weight ratios, the other cars are much lighter and [have] more power. The writing on the wall says you can’t win. The others are six-speed turbocharged sequential gearboxes, where we technically have a six-speed automatic, but two of those gears are designed to save fuel – so we don’t use those gears.
But that’s what’s so cool about rallying – you can do it. You can raise a car; there are so many other elements. The power-to-weight ratio doesn’t matter when the road gets bumpy. This car has the wheel travel, suspension, and reliability, you can’t measure that.
PUTC: Is that why you also leave certain things in stock? Not just to say “these are stocks” but for reliability?
RM: Yes, the season does not allow us to test a lot. We are allowed to test but the delay does not allow it. We’re based in Southern California, which is about as far away as possible – our closest event is in Washington. So it’s been about a week back, a week before, we have two weeks to prepare the car and we don’t have quite the time to test. The season starts in January and ends in October, and there isn’t much development time. So sometimes you don’t want to compromise that reliability.
I see guys making performance changes that they think will make them go faster, but that emphasizes something else. They build a great engine, don’t change the drivetrain, and start breaking axles or driveline parts. There is so much to do. And that’s what I stress about my guys too – the engineering was done on this car, don’t mess it up, you know?
PUTC: And Toyota’s research and development budget is much larger than that of your team, than any team.
RM: Okay, Toyota does some very strict testing on it, you know, like basic stuff. They have rules when they design things. I’ve talked to some of the chief engineers and they talk about some things like with Tundra. I remember Mike Sweers, a good friend of mine who was a chief engineer, and he was like “I don’t know why we have this rule that some things are heat treated and I can’t make them change that. We have to. do whatever happens. I know it’s way too strong, but it’s the Toyota way. “The most important thing when I’m looking for a vehicle is reliability. I don’t really care about style or performance. I don’t want to work on my tug after working on my race car.
Manufacturer images and Cars.com photos by Brian Wong