Welcome to the brand new Top Dead Center series, “Chasing Racing Dreams.” This series is about the epic adventures that make racing of all kinds so exciting, and it explores the world beneath the driver’s helmet. You’ll read about what it’s like to be a part of a racing team, the experiences of driving a car in anger on an open stretch of tarmac, the people who standout in their sport, and about the different racing schools that make New Hampshire special. TDC has chosen the Dalton, NH based Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center to be featured in the inaugural edition of Chasing Racing Dreams. Be sure to visit the school’s website Here to learn all about their classes and programs. Enjoy!
Dusk is moving in as I jump into a well worn white Ford pickup truck with Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center’s Director of Training, Chuck Long. We’re headed out on the school’s six or so miles of roads across their 550-plus acres of land. Long’s baritone voice fills the cab as he asks me if I’m ready to go. The rally school’s students have left for the day and I can’t wait to check out Team O’Neil’s famed roads. I slam the door shut and say, “Hell yeah.”
For years people have been telling me about Team O’Neil and for whatever reason, I didn’t do anything about it. Perhaps it was because rally racing never really excited me that much. I was content to follow Formula1, catch the occasional MotoGP race, or get hypnotized by NASCAR until I got bored watching them go around in a circle. All that changed, however, with a trip to the New England Forest Rally this past June. Watching guys in turbocharged monsters tear through the woods over broken roads, then flick them around hairpin corners as billows of dust rose like boiling silky waves behind them hooked me immediately. When the opportunity arose to visit Team O’Neil and learn what the school and rally racing was all about, I jumped at the chance.
Located in Dalton, New Hampshire, Team O’Neil is near-as-makes-no-difference two hours from my house. It’s still dark as I climb into my car and head north. The curling white steam from my coffee cup makes a small foggy cloud on the inside of my windshield. Somewhere near Concord, the sky cracks open and the sun reveals cloudless pale blue above, and blurs of red, orange, yellow, and brown along the highway. It’s going to be a beautiful day in northern New Hampshire.
Once off the highway, country roads lead me to the unassuming dirt road that doubles as the driveway to one of the most comprehensive driving schools in the country. The crisp, snappy morning has me pull on my hoodie as I get out of my car and although I need more coffee, I’m already tingling with excitement. Inside the school’s main building, Chuck Long is the first guy I meet and he shows me to the classroom where we’ll begin the day. Moments later, a small convoy of cars pull into the school’s parking lot and the six guys taking this week’s session jump out. Judging by the look in their eyes, they’re just as fired up as me to be here.
“In 1992, the economy was bad and I was worn out as a mechanic and I decided I needed a break,” said Tim O’Neil, the “O’Neil” in the school’s name. After getting out of the Air Force, where he was an airplane mechanic, O’Neil was convinced by a few of his stock car racing buddies to lend his mechanical skills to their racing effort. Eventually, “helping out” turned into driving, and O’Neil started racing stock cars. It’s funny how sometimes the simple things can have the biggest impact. O’Neil’s career path took a major change when he read a copy of Road & Track magazine that featured a rally car on the cover. “I picked up a Road & Track and there was a rally car on it, and I had an epiphany… I sold my stock car and got into rally. Rally was the only type of motorsport where you can be a ‘poor guy’ and still succeed.”
O’Neil’s success on the rally circuit formed the foundation for the Team O’Neil Rally School, and he went fulltime in building the school in the late 1990’s. “I went to England and travelled around a bit and worked as an instructor for Ford of England. I really got a buzz out of teaching and I taught a lot of people… [Eventually] I wanted to go back and start my own driving school.”
The walls inside the classroom where the students, Long and myself are gathered for the morning instructional session looks like a teenager’s bedroom: magazine articles on the school cover the walls, neatly organized plaques proclaim victory achieved at dozens of rallies, there’s an autographed Ken Block photo, and a framed Travis Pastrana jersey with the superstar’s signature and sarcastic quip, “Tim, You’re insane!”
“You come here with your own skill set as far as driving goes and everybody’s a little bit different, we’re just going to add another tool into the tool box,” said Long. “If you’re at the school for two days, you’re not going to walk away a rally champion. You will, however, learn skills and techniques that you likely didn’t know existed and you will definitely be a better driver for it.”
All six of the students here this week came with different goals: some want to learn how to control their car better in bad weather, some are looking to become a rally driver, and some simply want to add rallying skills their already accomplished road racing skills. The school has classes that run from two to five days, and no matter your reason or your length of stay, Team O’Neil teaches the same fundamental driving principles across the board.
One of those fundamental principles is car control. Knowing how to make your car perform the way you want, whether you’re on a slippery winter road or on a rally special stage, is essential to becoming a better driver. “[The school’s] program revolves around left foot braking and about 12 other maneuvers,” said O’Neil. “I collected all the stuff that I had the hard way [from racing]… I based the program on those mistakes and from listening to other drivers from around the world… I took everything I had gained and put together a curriculum for the school.”
After the morning classroom session, we head out to the skidpad. The skidpad is a large dirt circle that is used to get students familiar with how a car handles on low-grip surfaces and what over- and understeer feel like. The small lime green Ford Fiestas the school uses look like toy slot cars as they circle the skidpad. After a few laps, the students jump out and switch drivers. Between each switch off, there are big smiles and high fives.
Each of the students rides with an instructor and another student in the backseat. One of those instructors is Alan Moody. Like all the other instructors at the school, he is an accomplished rally racer, having come in 3rd place in his class at this year’s New England Forest Rally, and winning the 2010 Eastern Regional Championship in his division. He sits in an old Jeep Grand Cherokee, one arm resting on the door, telling me what it’s like to teach here.
“I attribute a lot of what I’ve done in rallying to what I do and have learned at the school,” said Moody. “What we’re doing with [the students] is teaching them muscle memory which is developed through repetition, repetition, repetition.” When asked how he keeps his focus inside the car when blasting down a rally stage he said, “You have to clear your mind of everything else. The world just falls away.” Most times in a rally car, the driver is accompanied by a co-driver who is responsible for reading course notes and telling the driver about the road ahead. “It allows you to drive what you can’t even see.”
After the skidpad exercise, the students move into the slalom. The slalom is designed to teach them one of the most important things they’ll learn today: target fixation. Roughly translated, target fixation means wherever you are looking, your car will follow. The Fiestas set off weaving around the slalom’s bright orange cones. The first couple of runs get a little hairy as the limits of driver, car, and the course are discovered. A few cars spin out, some get sideways, and a couple of cones are flattened and dragged unceremoniously under the car. The students run the slalom dozens of times throughout the course of the day and each time they get faster, smoother, and more confident.
Long’s words from the morning classroom session are beginning to make more sense out here on the course. “We’re going to teach you the technique, then you’re going to do it ad nauseum,” said Long. “It’s our job as instructors to put you in a ‘controlled’ uncontrolled environment to see what your natural instincts are. If they’re incorrect, we have to tell you and show you the proper way to do it. Half the battle of becoming a better driver is learning your instincts… If we’re going increase your limits, we have to find out where they are to begin with.”
I ride in the backseat of several different cars throughout the day, helmet strapped on tight and an ear-to-ear grin on my face. Moody gives rapid fire instructions to one of the students, pointing to the next target and motioning with his hands when to turn the wheel.
“Okay, second gear, bring it up to 4,000 rpms. Now, look at the outside cone, now TURN, add the brake, don’t lift on the throttle. Straighten it out and look for the next cone. Now BRAKE, and TURN, keep it smooth. Don’t lift on the throttle!” In the backseat, the other student and I are tossed side to side as the car zings around the slalom. With the correct amount of steering, throttle, and braking input, the normally uneven and challenging slalom course transforms into a smooth ribbon of controlled chaos.
Following the slalom is an accident avoidance course with Mike Doucette, the school’s Assistant Director of Training. Students are presented with “accident” scenarios that incorporate the skills and techniques they’ve learned. After a short debriefing, the mud splattered Fiestas are driven back to the garage and await inspection and cleaning, and Moody holds a “mechanical empathy” class in the garage. We stand underneath one of the school’s older Volkswagen rally cars that’s been put up on a lift. Moody points out specific parts and sections of the car that have been upgraded for rally duty: students crane their necks to look at protected gas and brake lines, beefy front control arms, skid plates and stiff rally tires.
Long and I bump along in the Ford pickup on the school’s gravel roads that snake through the woods. These roads will be used later in the week for the student’s to practice their new skills: blind crests, long uphill sweepers, off-camber corners, and a range of other terrain awaits in the hills surrounding the school. We climb one of the hills and reach the newly opened northern section that has a skidpad and a large open area that will be used for the slalom and other exercises. As the big Ford descends one particularly steep stretch of road that leads into a sharp left hander, I find my palms sweating as I think about slinging one of the school’s Fiestas around it: I cannot wait to come back here and take the school as a student.
As I climb back into my car and head home, my biggest take away from the day is the amazing level of passion everyone here has for what they do. Not only are they all accomplished racers, they also love teaching and helping people understand all that’s involved in what they teach. O’Neil talked at length about how one of the school’s primary goals is to increase the awareness level of each student and to give them the necessary knowledge and skills they’ll need to be successful, whether it’s to enter a rally, or simply to know how to handle their car in an emergency situation.
“When you have more knowledge on how a car works, that knowledge builds people’s confidence. It’s pretty powerful stuff,” said O’Neil. “We need to get through to the person who doesn’t think of themselves as a racer. They want to be one, but they’ve never had the chance. People want to see that confidence in themselves.”
– Many thanks to Team O’Neil and the school’s dedicated and talented staff for assisting me with this article and allowing me to tag along. Special thanks to Tim O’Neil, Richard Dale-Mesaros, Alan Moody, Mike Doucette, Wyatt, Komar, and Chuck Long.