Anyone who has ever driven on a road course will tell you that after the experience, playing the same track on a video game like Gran Turismo or Forza becomes a tiresome bore. Compared to the thrill of elevation changes, off-camber turns and heel-toe downshifts, pressing buttons on a game controller is totally underwhelming.
|1. Team O’Neil Rally School is located in Dalton, NH, about 3 hours north of Boston.
2. Tim O’Neil, the school’s founder, is a two-time SCCA Rally champion, and former factory driver for Volkswagen and Mitsubishi
3. Prices range from $1,897 for the two-day course to $5,750 for the five-day course.
4. Left-foot braking is the main technique taught at the school – while it’s used in many forms of motorsport, it constitutes the core of O’Neil’s rally driving curriculum.
On the other hand, if you fire up Gran Turismo 5 and select one of the rally stages, then you’re in for a treat. All the jumps, flying branches, blind corners and powerslides that you see in the game are exactly what we experienced at the Team O’Neil Rally School, a one day crash course in rally car driving held at the school’s New Hampshire facility.
While certain foreign born motorsports have had success in the United States (namely drifting), rally has always lingered in obscurity, with a minuscule but highly dedicated fan base. If enthusiasm and loyalty could generate profits, then it’s likely we would have had a solid WRC event in America. Instead, we have watered down Gymkhana and X Games rally events, designed to cater to the 99.9% of the population where Ken Block has more name recognition than Sebastian Loeb. While these events may brand themselves as “rally” racing, they have as much in common with the rallying we know and love as the WWE has with Greco-Roman wrestling.
At the forefront of the American rally scene is Tim O’Neil, owner and namesake of the aforementioned school. A former factory driver for Mitsubishi and Volkswagen, O’Neil’s career, spanning nearly three decades, includes two SCCA Pro Rally championships. Chances are, if you’ve picked up any kind of car magazine in the last decade, you’ve read about O’Neil’s school. The classroom of his New Hampshire facility is decked out with framed copies of various magazine articles, all showing 1980s era Volkswagen Jettas and Audi 4000s engaged in lurid powerslides through the dirt and gravel roads that line the school’s grounds. Our time at the school was under the auspicious of Ford, which now supplies Fiestas to the school as training vehicles as part of a sponsorship deal, and our instruction would take place over an afternoon, rather than the multi-day courses available to regular customers.
A mandatory classroom session kicks off our day, but the instructors avoid any opaque speech filled with driving dynamics jargon. Instead, the rules were simple: 1)Stay on the road. 2) Don’t break the car. 3) Know your limits. 4) Know your equipment. 5) Drive without emotion.
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To a group of jaded journalists, these seem pretty elementary, but several times we were cautioned that the instruction being provided was “just enough to get into a lot of trouble”. Our visions of flying through the New England forests in turbocharged, all-wheel drive rally cars were dashed upon hearing that the Audis and Imprezas sitting at the school were off limits. Instead, we were piloting nearly bone-stock, front-drive Fiestas, anathema to our grandiose visions of rally greatness.
The Fiestas actually turned out to be excellent training tools, and while the Team O’Neil instructors stressed the relatively unmodified nature of the cars (in the sense that only an exhaust, heavy duty shocks and skid-plates were added), the Fiestas were stripped down, with complex tweaks made to disable the ABS, airbags and electronic driving nannies.
Team O’Neil places a strong emphasis on the technique of left-foot braking, which is exactly what it sounds like. Instructors claimed that it takes about 40 percent less time to use the left foot rather than shift the right foot over from the clutch and that it reduces wear on the various CV joints and drivetrain parts (by allowing the car to rotate rather than using steering inputs). O’Neil has a long list of reasons for left foot braking, and it’s startlingly effective. It’s astonishing how only a small tap of the brakes, and minimal steering input (90 degrees or less) can get a front-wheel drive car to slide like a rear or all-wheel drive car. My initial attempts were a little rusty, mostly due to not believing that such small steering inputs – and then immediately centering the wheel – would be sufficient, but O’Neil and his instructors (who ranged from a mid-20’s rally driver to a retired New Hampshire law enforcement officer) have their technique down to a science.
Once we had all mastered the basic skills on both the skidpad and a slalom course (where we learned how to modulate the steering, throttle and brakes to link the turns together), we moved on to pendulum turns (perhaps the most famous rally technique, where the car is rotated in the opposite direction before entering the corner) and trail braking (an advanced technique that allows the driver to enter a corner much faster than normal and gradually ease off the brakes).
After nearly a day of learning the basics and practicing them on both a skidpad and a slalom course, we were ready for a rallycross, where students would have the chance to practice various types of turns one at a time on a coned course. While most rallycross events are in the same vein of an autocross (read: low speed, rather tame) this one featured elevation changes, decreasing radius turns and was set entirely on a dirt course that had just been given a bath courtesy of a water truck.
Upon being given the “Go” signal, I charged up the narrow hill, dabbed the brakes with my left foot and settled into a controlled slide down the hill. From there it was through the slalom, where I deftly linked a series of pendulum turns before attacking a long, sweeping decreasing radius turn that led us to the “stop box”. Exhilarated and grinning, I lined the Fiesta up for another run. “This time,” said our instructor, I want you to go faster. That was good, but too slow. I had to pull the handbrake around the first corner because there wasn’t enough momentum.”
Normally this would be discouraging news, but the course was simply too much fun, and taking another stab at it was an easy sell. Feeling confident after a series of progressively smoother and faster runs, we were ushered off for a ride with Chris Duplessis, who pilots a Ford Fiesta R2 rally car, complete with a sequential gearbox, stripped out interior and a whole host of goodies available as part of a turn-key package available from M-Sport (http://www.autoguide.com/auto-news/2010/11/ford-to-sell-r2-rally-kit-for-fiesta-creating-a-turnkey-rally-racer.html).
Riding with Duplessis was both thrilling and soul crushing at the same time, managing to shatter any illusions of competency on my part, making me grin ear to ear as the sequential gearbox whined incessantly, while tree branches and gravel sprayed at the Fiesta’s windshield as we slid through the New Hampshire forest at speeds approaching 100 mph.
Having collectively driven everything from $400 ice racing cars to open-wheel Formula cars, rallying was the last frontier for the AutoGuide team’s motorsports resume, and so far it’s proved to be the most exhilarating. Furthermore, the instructors at Team O’Neil distinguish themselves with their courtesy, professionalism and individual teaching styles that all vary – we were encouraged to rotate through the various instructors throughout the day and find one that meshed with our learning style.
O’Neil is on record stressing the importance of front-drive vehicles as both an effective tool for learning the techniques and as potent machines in their own right. According to him, mastering front-drive rally cars is a prerequisite for being competitive with an all-wheel drive rally machine, and despite the negative rap that front-drivers get from some gearheads, we had absolutely no complaints. The Fiesta proved itself a capable training vehicle, and feeling just as solid and peppy as the street version does, but with the added benefit of a few choice modifications to make the car more appropriate for the task - the four point belts in particular proved to be a great help, keeping us held in tight during the constant lateral motions, but I can safely say that after having to back into a parking spot in one of the Fiestas, we could do without them in everyday driving.
Having had a blast behind the wheel of the Fiestas, I emerged from the school with a newfound enthusiasm for the sport of rallying as a whole. While rallying is catching on thanks to personalities like Ken Block, Travis Pastrana and Tanner Foust, their X Games-style rallying requires the kind of purpose-built high dollar cars that only a factory works program can provide.
Immediately following the conclusion of the program I began researching local rallycross events. While the rally school, which ranges in price from $1,897 to $5,750 depending on length, is a bit steep, the $50 entry fee for a local rallycross is a paltry sum considering how much fun can be had.
If just a small percentage of car fans had the chance to do the Team O’Neil Rally School, you can bet that the sport would grow from its cult following and find its rightful place in the mainstream.