Tag Archives: Travis Pastrana

Kicking The Bucket List: Yuppie Rally 2012 and driving the Tail of the Dragon

If you’ve spent any time around me at all for the past few months, you’ve heard me talk (with great vigor) about the Yuppie Rally. Put together by the great team over at Yuppie Racing, the 2012 Yuppie Rally ran from the Aston Martin of New England dealership in Waltham, Massachusetts, down to The Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee, up to Atlantic City and back, all the while raising money to support Guardian Angel Motorsports and the Franciscan Hospital for Children in Brighton, MA. Be sure to check out Yuppie Racing’s website HERE, and the TDC Facebook page for more photos and video from the Rally.

You think your trunk is small?

Day 1 – So It Begins: Sometimes in life you’re presented with moments and opportunities that cause you to stop abruptly, take a wide-eyed look around, and say to yourself, “How the heck did I end up here?” I had one of those moments earlier this month as I slid into the passenger seat of a new cherry red Audi R8 V10, getting ready to embark on the five day, 2500 mile Yuppie Rally. As I closed the bank vault-like door and listened to the R8’s Lamborghini-derived V10 engine snarled to life, I still couldn’t  figure out what divine intervention landed me here. Those thoughts, along with the rest of my brain, were reduced to the consistency of scrambled eggs as I experienced the full fury of the R8 for the first time. It was going to be a good week.

I met Pete Ladas and Chris Benvie, the masterminds behind Yuppie Racing, through Steve Oldford and Guardian Angel Motorsports. After several months of figuring out sponsorship parameters, what I could bring to the table, and finalizing the details, I found myself the recipient of a seat on the Yuppie Rally with only food and gas bills ahead of me. For what felt like years I had imagined being on the Rally and carving up smooth Southern roads behind the wheel of some exotic machine, partying in Atlantic City, and spending a week with card carrying gearheads. Scott Marberblatt, the owner of the R8, was gracious enough to offer me his passenger seat and for that I am eternally grateful. A huge shout out to the Team O’Neil Rally School for donating a multi-day Rally School to the Rally—they were primary reason I was able to attend this year! Be sure to visit their website HERE, and read the ‘Chasing Racing Dreams’ feature I previously wrote on the school HERE.

Just after five pm, all 18 cars rolled out of Aston Martin with our first destination being a hotel right outside Philadelphia, PA. The two hours before we departed were spent mingling, swapping stories about previous rallies, and getting the pre-rally briefing from Chris and Pete on the days that lay ahead. To the untrained eye, a Rally may appear to simply be an excuse for people to get together and drive like lunatics. Watching videos on YouTube of the infamous Gumball or Bullrun rallies can create a skewed perception of what an event like this is. To some degree, yes, it is about having a blast on the road with your buddies, but it’s also about raising money for a great cause and being a brand ambassador for what the Yuppie Rally is all about. And having epic adventures.

This is the way other cars look in an R8.

The trip from Mass to our hotel in Philly was relatively uneventful (if you can call an exotic car rally uneventful) and we somehow managed to squeak across the George Washington Bridge outside New York City with essentially no traffic. We arrived at the first hotel around 10pm. My original plan was to put a post up on TDC each day of the Rally, but as soon as I caught sight of the hotel bed’s deep pillows and crisp sheets, I knew that idea was a goner. Day 1 Highlight: Hitting the first of many tunnels we would see in the R8 (Did I mention it had a Tubi aftermarket exhaust? It sounded like… God). A car like the R8 turns average driving experiences into sheer bliss.

Day 2 – Perceptions Redefined: Day two dawned bright and gorgeous. Walking around back of the hotel and seeing all our cars lined up in private parking spots, gently sprinkled with morning mist, was an excellent way to start the day. So was seeing the looks of disbelief on all the faces of the hotel staff. (Sidenote: two of my favorite parts about hotels are 1.) Not having to clean anything, and 2.) Free continental breakfast. Pretty sure endless free breakfast is actually heaven).

We headed out of the hotel and pointed our caravan south towards Virginia, the location of our next checkpoint. After several exciting hours, we pulled into a rest area for the requisite stretch/bathroom break/gas fill up. As we got ready to hit the road again, Scott asked me if I wanted to drive and handed me the keys. I’m pretty sure that had I looked up, I would have seen a soft celestial light caressing my brow.

Climbing into the driver’s seat of the R8 for the first time was strangely serene—I had expected to feel overwhelming excitement, verging on delirium, at the prospect of driving the car, but that wasn’t what I felt at all. Pulling the door closed with a satisfying thunk, sliding the key into the ignition and starting the breathlessly rampant V10 behind me simply felt natural, correct. Instead of a blinding excitement, I felt a sense of calm definiteness that this was where I needed to be.

When people ask me what driving the R8 was like I tell them this—it’s exactly as good as you think it is. Comfortable, spacious, and a bit like driving a 520 horsepower slab of granite. Regardless of the speed you’re traveling at, the R8 tracks exactly where you point it and is easy enough to drive at speed as your mom’s Corolla. Fortunately, Scott ordered his car with the gated manual transmission which only added to the drama and excitement of the experience. Direct, communicative steering, confidence inspiring brakes, and enough power to whip your head back and exploit positively any gap in traffic with ease. The Tubi exhaust elevated the R8’s soundtrack from Heavenly Exhaust Note to Shattering Sonic Eargasm. And just below the surface of the R8’s crisp Germanic perfection, is a frantic sense of barely contained rage. The car felt gritty and raw, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the joy you would receive from caning it around a track. Check out this video I recorded from the R8 while we stormed through a tunnel on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge HERE. Bottom line: I love this car.

Several hours later we made it to Virginia, one of my favorite places in the world. Beautiful farmlands, incredible weather, rich history, “southern” enough to be interesting, and “northern” enough to not make one start whistling the theme from “Deliverance”. We cruised through lush rolling hills, past dozens of Civil War monuments, surrounded by the sweet late spring air on our way to Blenheim Vineyards, a gorgeous vineyard owned by THE Dave Mathews. As it turned out, the roads around Blenheim were absolutely incredible and we, ahem, enjoyed them to the fullest. We arrived at Blenheim and were treated to a wine tasting and a short tour of the winery. Afterwards, we were anxious to get back on the road and onto the night’s hotel located in Knoxville, TN, so we jumped back in and headed out. Day 2 Highlight: Driving the R8. Duh.

Day 3 – Dragon Slayer: For me, one of the best parts of the Rally was seeing the looks on people’s faces when our entire convoy would roll through their neighborhood—a hilarious concoction of disbelief, followed by awe, topped off with either confusion or uncontrollable excitement, generally depending on the person’s age. It was also hugely entertaining to talk to the people who approached us whenever we stopped. Walking down to hotel parking garage on Wednesday morning, we met the manager who secured all the private parking spaces we were occupying. This normally reserved older woman babbled excitedly about how much she loved Chris’s Shelby GT500, the fun we must all be having and how great it was we were raising money for charity. I thought she was going to keel over when all the cars started up and revved their engines. As we rolled out of the garage into the morning sun, we were all thinking about only one thing: The Tail of the Dragon.

If you’re into cars or motorcycles, you’re bound to hear about the infamous Tail of the Dragon sooner or later. If you haven’t, allow me to be the first to welcome you to Higher Knowledge. The Dragon is a slithering ribbon of tarmac that boasts 318 curves in 11 miles—technically called US Route 129—that crosses the Tennessee/North Carolina border on the southern edge of the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. The drive to the Dragon is pretty tame and unassuming, but the excitement in our group was absolutely palpable as we closed in on what’s generally regarded as the best driving road in the country. It was mid-morning when we arrived at the start of the Dragon on the Tennessee side and we pulled over for a quick photo shoot against the backdrop of beautiful Chilhowee Lake.

From the Tennessee side, the Dragon begins as flowing and graceful as it follow Chilhowee Lake and  weaves around the bottoms of thickly wooded hills. When the road departs from the lake and deep banks of trees fill the edges of the windshield, the Dragon surges uphill and begins its savagely winding path. There was an ear-to-ear grin permanently plastered on my face as Scott and I enjoyed what was very likely the best road either of us had been on. (Accelerate, hard on the brakes, navigate the hairpin, feel the banking of the turn push you down into the seat, back on the power, hard on the brakes, around the next hairpin, on the power again). Sitting in the passenger seat of the R8, it felt like I should be wearing a helmet and reading course notes to Travis Pastrana.

The Tree of Shame at Deal’s Gap, NC

The main thing that struck me about the Dragon is that nothing can really prepare you for how technical it is. Pull up videos on YouTube or listen to someone try and explain how the off camber banked corners come at you mile after mile, and you’ll still have your mind blown the first time you drive it. You just can’t believe how severe the turns are and how demanding it is to drive it quickly. In the words of the eternal Jeremy Clarkson, “You need to be awake to drive this fast!” It was undoubtedly one of the best driving experiences I’ve ever had.

The day we were there, several car clubs and hordes of motorcycles were running on the Dragon. The Dragon is perhaps more a motorcycling mecca than anything else. It’s ideally suited for hard riding on a motorcycle, though having so many bikes on the road makes driving with caution and awareness even more important. If you’re going to make the pilgrimage to the Dragon, read up on it as much as possible first and treat it with the respect it deserves.

After we had our faces melted off on the Dragon, we headed to the Cherohola Skyway, another incredible piece of mountain road and the sister road to the Dragon. A driving mecca in-and-of itself, the Skyway’s sweeping turns and scenic vistas were the perfect way to wrap up what had been an incredible day. Our convoy lined up and headed Northeast towards the night’s hotel in Johnson City, TN. Day 3 Highlight: Taming the Dragon and running the gorgeous Cherohola Skyway.

Day 4 – Disturbing The Peace: A convoy of 18 exotic sports cars charging through sleepy rural Appalachian towns gives new meaning to the phrase disturbing the peace. It’s likely that not one of the people we passed on our way out of Johnson City or the other tiny towns we drove through had ever seen anything quite like it. I have a snapshot memory of a young boy standing on a dilapidated porch holding a dirty comforter (why?), eyes wide and mouth open as we passed by. Probably what I would look like if I was 10 and saw us, though hopefully minus the comforter. We left that part of the South seeing things quite unlike we’d seen before as well. Example—in the outskirts of some small town near Johnson City, we passed a low concrete block building that featured French maid outfits and fishnet stockings in their front window under a sign that read “The Fuzzy Hole stripclub”. While Drake and Lil’ Wayne have indeed given us the moto (YOLO!), that’s one experience I’m totally okay with never having.

Our journey was not without peril, however. Both Porsche 911 Turbos on the trip had their share of mechanical troubles—the “Team Bath Salts” Porsche driven by Sam Laurie and Alex Jarvie experienced major steering pump issues and had to be driven to a shop for repairs, and Fedele Cacia and his wife Ivana in the yellow Porsche had such severe transmission problems, the car ended up on a U-Haul trailer for the final leg of the trip. Considering we drove a combined 45,000 miles over the course of six days, it’s amazing there wasn’t more mechanical fallout. Both Porsche’s ended far behind the rest of the group and made it to the hotel well after the rest of us had dug into our delicious buffet dinner.

Our next hotel was in the historic and beautiful Williamsburg, VA. The drive there flowed by in a blur of sunshine, beef jerky, prodigious horsepower, and hilarious two-way radio banter (each of the cars was given a two-way at the start of the trip). I was especially excited to be staying in Williamsburg. As a kid, my sister and I would spend several weeks in the summer visiting grandparents who live in Newport News. We often went to Williamsburg and the neighboring Busch Gardens theme park, so it definitely holds a special place in my heart. As the sun began to set behind the hotel and bathe our bug splattered convoy in soft evening light, the only sound was the soft tickticktick of gently cooling Porsches. Day 4 Highlight: Blowing minds in rural Tennessee with our awesomeness.
Day 5 – YR Invades AC: Saturday morning followed the tradition of the previous mornings on our trip by dawning sunny and glorious. Fortunately, we were able to cash in on some extra sleep as we were leaving out a little later than usual. Several of the guys used the extra time to make use of a nearby car wash. I jumped in the Lotus of “Team Elise” with its owner, Mat, and we were followed there by Tom in the electric blue Lotus Exige 240 S. Mat and I pulled up at the car wash and were immediately greeted by what may have been the most stereotypical redneck ever. He leaned way down (keep in mind a Lotus Elise is really small—we’re sitting about six inches off the ground), stuck his head in the window, and asked us if the doors on the car went up like on a Lamborghini. Mat looked up from his vantage point about eye level with the guy’s sagging pant line, in a car that weighs as much as a shoe, and said, “No. They don’t go up.”

Back at the hotel, we tuned our navigation systems for Atlantic City, NJ and headed out. I jumped back into the R8 with Scott for the run to Atlantic City (did I mention how much I love this car?) Our first checkpoint was a restaurant just over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in Virginia. If you’ve never been across this bridge, find some excuse to get down there and drive it because it is awesome. Seemingly endless stretches of bridge spear through unbroken miles of shimmering water. The bridge is interrupted by tunnels that dive beneath the Bay, while off in the distance, aircraft carriers and warships dock at a nearby naval base. The restaurant we stopped at was right on the beach and we ate and chilled under a perfect late spring day and watched the waves roll in.

Aside from our entire convoy uncorking their respective throttles in the tunnels and reveling in the full glory of performance exhaust notes in an enclosed space, it was a long and relatively boring drive from Virginia to Atlantic City. At least we had the anticipation of partying it up on the Jersey Shore like Snooki to console the boredom. Arriving at the hotel, however, threw those plans for a bit of a loop. We were supposed to get to the hotel and park our cars right in the valet lot, simple and easy. However, a misunderstanding somewhere in hotel management resulted in all the cars being stuck out front of the hotel for hours and several of the guys having to stay with them until the problem was solved. Not a great way to kick off the final night of the Rally, but the suitably epic amount of mayhem that took place that evening was enough to make up for it. Day 5 Highlight: Pinning the throttle in the R8… under water.

Day 6 – Homeward Bound: Part of me was sad to see the last day of the Rally. The previous five days had convinced me that I could very likely drive the Audi R8 everyday for the rest of time. The other part of me, however, was definitely looking forward to getting back home. For the final leg of the trip, I jumped in “Team Re-Pete’s” Audi S4 with Pete Ladas and Pete Gochis (yes, two Pete’s in the same car). Several of the guys had already headed out so the remaining cars made for the highway together and headed north. At a fuel stop somewhere (forgive me for not remembering where we were, all the fuel stops started to blend together), we spotted a wildly modified Suzuki GSX-R 1000 with potentially the longest swingarm in history and an enormous bottle of nitrous strapped to the back. The owner, who had to be more no more than 23, said even without the nitrous he could lift the front wheel of the bike off the ground, and that he hadn’t fully used the nitrous because he was afraid to. Good times.

We landed at the Blue Colony Diner in Newtown, CT for one final load of carbs, salt and sugar (thank you french fries, fried chicken and milkshakes) before we split up and headed our separate ways. One by one, the cars peeled off and headed for home, but not before throwing a  final fist pump out the window, or making promises to connect up again for the next Yuppie Racing event. The Petes and I pulled into Aston Martin of New England tired, but excited to be so close to home. While I was happy to be back and sincerely looking forward to not driving and/or moving for as long as possible, even now it’s still hard to forget the unearthly howl of the Audi R8, the chilling supercharger whine from the Lotus Exige, and remembering that the only thing I needed to do each day was love every moment of driving. I can’t wait for my next rally.

Many thanks and much respect to all the guys on this year’s Yuppie Rally. Special thanks to Chris Benvie and Pete Ladas from Yuppie Racing, Matt Nolan and Steve Oldford at Aston Martin of New England, the Team O’Neil Rally School for their incredibly generous donation, and to Scott Marberblatt for letting me drive his spectacular car.

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Year One: 2011 in review

Thank you everyone for a spectacular year! The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for TDC and I wanted to share it with you. Check it out, and here’s to an even better 2012!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 7,000 times in 2011. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 6 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Seeing 2011 out, welcoming 2012 in

Like a brilliant and complex sunset, 2011 is slipping under the horizon. The end of another year provides time for reflection, for speculation on what the future may hold, and a re-commitment to not put off all those important things for another year. 2011 was kind of a crazy year what with all the local and global turmoil, the deposing of dictators, the ending of old wars and the starting of new ones.

2011 was a significant year for the automobile as well. It saw the untimely death of several beloved racing drivers, the birth of the new all-conquering BMW M5 and Lamborghini Aventador, one of the most exciting Formula1 seasons in recent memory, the rise of the American car companies as legitimate contenders, and the emergence of EVs as a legitimate path for the future of the car, to name just a few. 2011 was also a big year for Top Dead Center. Starting with a humble Genesis in February, the past few months running TDC has allowed me to do some great things like interview Travis Pastrana and lap Monticello Motor Club, meet fantastic new people and ride in my first Ferrari, develop my writing talents and have a perfectly legitimate excuse to be a card-carrying gearhead.

I wanted to take this time to not only pay tribute to the greatness that was 2011, but to take a look at all the exciting things coming down the road in 2012. Next month alone TDC will showcase an interview with a dirtbiking child prodigy, a feature on an amazing racing team with a focus on children’s charities, a photo extravaganza from the New England International Auto Show, and where in New Hampshire to crack the throttle wide open on your snowmobile. 2012 will also see TDC host an epic car show in conjunction with Guardian Angel Motorsports and New England Blast, and exciting new content from guest contributors.

For me personally, creating TDC has been a tremendously rewarding and challenging experience. Finding the personal discipline to write consistent content that is (hopefully) interesting and fun to read has been far more difficult than I originally thought, but seeing the consistent rise of visits to the site inspires me to dust off the keypad each week and put thoughts into words. It’s also surprisingly more meaningful than I had hoped to have people read your work, comment and post on it, and share it with others. It’s been an incredible experience and I want to say a sincere thank you to everyone who has helped me, whether it was providing story ideas, helping edit pieces, or smacking me upside the head when I made a mistake (which I need. Often.) Although it’s far from perfect and has a lot of growing to do, I am proud of what this site is, and is becoming. I certainly hope you’ll continue to visit here and not only support local journalism, but continue to fuel the dreams that propel you to your optimum combustion.

Here’s to another fantastic year!

– The D

Chasing Racing Dreams: Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center

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.

The Torque Tube: Travis Pastrana and the Mt. Washington Auto Road

Travis Pastrana is one of those guys who really doesn’t need an introduction with words, his deeds are what precede him: X Games Champion in supercross, motocross, freestyle motocross, and rally racing, NASCAR driver, multiple Rally America Driver’s Title winner, and action sports superstar. Pastrana has managed to squeeze in several lifetimes worth of epic adventures into his 27 years, but this interview isn’t about his exploits on the motocross track or behind the wheel of a stock car. Pastrana was gracious enough to spend some time with TDC talking about his September 8, 2010 run up the legendary Mt. Washington Auto Road.

For the uninitiated, the Mt. Washington Auto Road is a twisting, undulating ribbon of tarmac and gravel that ascends the mighty Mt. Washington. Man has been climbing this road for over a century: 2011 actually marks the 150th anniversary of the Auto Road. Motorsports is also deeply ingrained here; the Road played host to the Mt. Washington Hillclimb for many years. The previous record up the 7.6 mile road was set during 1998 Hillclimb by Frank Sprongl in his 1982 Audi Quattro S2 at a blistering pace of six minutes and 41.99 seconds. A few years later in 2001, the Auto Road began a decade long hiatus from hillclimbs as sponsorship malfunctions kept the race from being run. All that changed when a joint effort between the Auto Road and Vermont SportCar created the ‘Climb to the Clouds’ hillclimb that occurred this past June. Pastrana’s run in September didn’t qualify as an official “record run” (it wasn’t held during competition), but it did annihilate Sprongl’s record by more than 20 seconds: Pastrana blitzed the Road in six minutes and 20.47 seconds. In the process, his coming to the road and setting such a quick time helped stimulate substantial attention for the Auto Road and its rich motorsports history and helped kick off its big 1-5-0 birthday celebration.  Check out two great videos of Pastrana’s run up Mt. Washington here, and here.

What’s it like to drive the Auto Road?

“It was the coolest thing; it’s truly a road that is a great rally road. Honestly, it is so good it could be fun with a horse and buggy! (laughs) When we drove it, the weather was absolutely ridiculous. It was sunny at the bottom, a little rainy in the middle, and by the end, you couldn’t even see road right in front of the car.” When asked how he was able to see when visibility is so poor Pastrana said, “As long as I have a solid ten feet in front where I can see, I’m okay. Having a co-driver is really important as well. With good weather up there, it’s definitely possible to break six minutes.”

What was the thought process behind coming to Mt.Washington to make a run up the Auto Road?

“It was always something I knew about, the Auto Road has always been famous, I grew up looking at that road. When they said they were going to reopen the road… Some of the top guys at Red Bull and Vermont SportsCar were super enthusiastic and said, ‘We have this guy who wants to run up the road.’ I just wanted to get up there and drive the road.” 

“So many people were way pumped, there was good hype around it and everyone felt like they were part of something cool… Everyone was so passionate about it, that’s what made it so great… One other cool thing that happened on the road is that I almost hit a bear! We’ve accidentally hit a deer before, but never a bear… A little black bear ran across the road during one of the runs.”

During the ‘Climb to the Clouds’ hillclimb in June, Subaru Rally Team USA driver David Higgins, who hails from the Isle of Man, set a truly staggering time up the Auto Road of six minutes and 11.54 seconds, setting a “true” record time and seriously raising the bar for future drivers hoping to conquer the Road. In the process, Higgins bested Pastrana’s time by a lengthy margin. It makes for an interesting situation for Pastrana:  Higgins beat his time up the Auto Road and essentially replaced him at Subaru when he left to pursue other motorized passions, like NASCAR. (You think Pastrana might be a little competitive?) There is little doubt Pastrana will be back on the Auto Road for another shot at the record.

How do you feel about David beating your time?

“I knew that David was going to be at least as quick as me… It was exciting to get beaten by David, I was just hoping the weather would move in on him! (laughs) It meant a lot for David to get such a good time, and I’m sure he wants to get back up there and break the six minute mark. It meant a lot to race my mentor up there, but it would be great to get that record back on American soil.”

Will you be back for another attempt on the Auto Road?

“I’d like another shot. There’s an ongoing battle for that record right now and with good conditions, breaking six minutes is definitely feasible. Who knows if the conditions will be right though in a place with the worst weather in the world!”

Pastrana has excelled in a wide range of motorsports and has performed at a tremendously high level in all of them. In one final parting question he was asked, if he had to choose, would he pick one form of racing over another?

“The beauty of it is I haven’t had to choose! From age four to 18, all I thought about was motorcycles. From 18 to 24, it was all about rally… What I like is changing my focus and now trying to figure out the new elements of pavement and racing in NASCAR. NASCAR is all about precision. You can drive a stock car really fast for about eight laps or so, and then you start to slow down because you took it too fast… Rally is all about aggression, calculated risks. Motocross is all about will. I am always looking for the new challenge.”

Welcome, Travis Pastrana, to The Torque Tube.

Much respect and many thanks to Travis Pastrana for his time and energy for this interview. Thanks also to Vermont SportsCar for providing the photos, and for Lars Gange for taking them. Serious thanks also goes to my good friend Meg Skidmore for without her help, this interview would not have been possible.