Let's face it: High-performance driving on an asphalt track is a blast, as therapeutic as a candle-lit Swedish massage. But if you're like me, you'll also have an explicable, unfulfilled fantasy beyond the closed circuit.
It takes place in the wild, on an open and narrow dirt road, flying over crests and into the indefinite, with faith, luck and an imprudent passenger clinging to your side. The perpetual skidding and sliding required to go fast on these loose surfaces—and not just to look fancy—is what gives this fantasy (rally driving) its high thrill factor. But it also makes it imminently more dangerous than any track you'll frequent if you aren't equipped with the necessary tools for survival.
Team O'Neil is one of the few places in the country you can acquire the know-how to undertake rallying, in an environment that's as safe, controlled and realistic as it gets. I certainly learned a thing or two, which proved invaluable in preparation for our recent rally-style comparison between the Mitsubishi Evo and Subaru STI. The best part of all; you'll be learning the ropes in someone else's cars, not one that's listed under your personal insurance policy.
As of last year, the Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center has partnered with FoMoCo on a number of fronts. The O'Neil team is the official builder of the upcoming (North American) Fiesta Sport Trophy Championship R2 rally cars, a new class to appear in the 2011 RallyCar Series. Also, a fleet of Fiestas has been lent to O'Neil to whet the driving appetites for all participants of his rally school program from now through 2020.
Students start their 1- to 5-day rally program behind the wheel of a , supplanting the older, well-weathered VW front-drivers. While it's easy to assume O'Neil's endorsement of the Fiesta is PR obligation, I was impressed by how well they worked in this environment and how little was needed to prep them for their hard life. A set of steel wheels fitted with Hankook snow tires (used for both mud and snow schools), 4-point belts, a roll-hoop, a skid plate and permanently defeated stability and ABS systems are what separate this incredibly effective learning aid from the A-to-B transportation I drove months ago.
As a relatively seasoned trackkie, I'm a little surprised that I'll be starting close to scratch, if not a bit behind, at this school due to my preexisting road-driving habits. A lot of the techniques taught at O'Neil's house of rally, especially to road racers, feel counterintuitive, akin to learning new skills with your non-dominant limbs. Add to this a need to execute those actions at exactly the right time (which will feel too early), and sometimes simultaneously (which will feel unnatural) and you'll find you have some unlearning to do. Veteran trackkies need to bury the ego, or they may find themselves being out-pendulum-turned by the I.T. desk jockey from Texas who, 20 minutes ago, couldn't tell you what an apex was.
Before each hands-on exercise, a classroom tutorial takes place in a small, minimally appointed cabin overlooking the Southern Training Area. The instructors are straight-to-the-point fellows, most actively involved in competition or needing to say involved with rallying in some form or another to survive. Their dedication to the sport is readily apparent, and their approach to teaching it is very well crafted.
Your journey into the wonderful world of rally driving starts on the dirt skidpad. It's here that you'll come to grips with how important and versatile your left foot is. The drill is simple but unnatural. Accelerate around the skidpad, and as you progressively push wider and closer to straight, press the brake with your left foot without lifting your right foot off the throttle. Eureka! You're turning! Two things are happening here; one, you're transferring weight to the front tires, which allows them to dig in and grip better, and two, you're slowing the non-powered rear tires (in a front drive car), which helps urge the rear end toward its direction of travel. It's here you'll also learn to expect a brake pedal that gets progressively firmer (a loss of boost) due to the loss of manifold vacuum, because you're always on the throttle (or at least supposed to be). When I asked one of the instructors why they didn't simply do away with the power brakes, he said that it provides a good exercise for students to learn to adapt to how a car is responding, and make the necessary adjustments to their inputs (It's also an easy way for them to tell if you've come off the throttle when you aren't supposed to).
From here you'll progress to various slaloms, which adds the function of car stabilization to left-foot braking, as well as providing the next eye-opening level off-road car dynamics. You'll find that the key is to start early, but not rush the actions needed to complete the turn. "Throttle, brake, steer, unwind, off the brake" is the mantra the instructors impress upon you, repeated enough times to become habitual. Then just as your brain starts to catch on, they'll introduce the Pendulum Turn, and with it an entirely new set of fuse-blowing commands—"Lift, steer, brake, countersteer, blip, countersteer, unwind, throttle, off the brake..." It seems like an arbitrary jumbled mess at first, but unlike the series finale of LOST it all makes perfect sense in the end.
For every new skill, an appropriate amount of practice time is allotted. Students also rotate through different instructors—each one with a unique style of teaching—which helps gain new perspective and input on what you're doing right, as well as what may have caused you to spin, crash or mow down every standing cone on your previous run.
At the end of the day, I guarantee you'll not have flung your fill of mud despite the generous seat time the school offers. Each day builds on the skill and experience you've acquired previously, ending with you eventually driving on a tree-lined road course (day 3)—and even down roads you've never seen—at speed, based on pace notes being read to you by a brave/crazy instructor/co-driver (day 5).
Granted, not everyone will have $5750 to spend on a 5-day rally school (though it's well worth the cash), but the beauty of O'Neil's program is the ability to pick up where you left off. This means if you completed up to the 3-day school (like I did) you could come back for a prorated 4th and 5th day (something I intend to do).
So should you decide to add rally driving to your bucket list, be sure to pay the Team O'Neil school a visit. It'll ensure it's not the last thing you check off before you check out. For more information, visit .