In the pursuit of his go-fast education, Tim O’Neil has destroyed hundreds of cars. But you don't have to. In the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where a teenage O’Neil first taught himself to dodge cops and drive like a moonshine runner, the five-time U.S. and North American rally champion can turn boring drivers into back-road demons—without having to dig your incisors out of the nearest oak tree. It’s called Team O’Neil Rally School, a 560-acre private playground carved from a reclaimed gravel pit. There, under the expert eye of O’Neil and his band of rally disciples, students learn how to go banshee in gravel, mud, ice, or snow. The school is the dream of every kid who ever pulled a donut in the Kmart parking lot—or witnessed extreme-sports star Travis Pastrana pull sick stunts in a Subaru.
Given new exposure via video games and the X Games, the old sport of rally racing has found overlap with an inked and pierced audience who favor pastimes that screw tradition and embrace insanity. Yet to the typical SportsCenter-loving American male, rally racing is to NASCAR as cricket is to the Super Bowl: a sport so obscure it’s not even worth making fun of. Serious car enthusiasts know better. Rally racers are among the most talented drivers on the planet, and certainly the most fearless. Sure, Jimmie Johnson can fly down the straight at Daytona and turn left. Let’s see him drive balls-out on the edge of a 1,000-foot cliff in a tsunami of dirt and dust, with a codriver and his course notes the only clue as to what’s over the next blind crest. Or, as instructor Chuck Long puts it, “Regular racing is 10 turns you see 100 times. Rally racing is 1,000 turns you see once.”
As our first training day begins, even repeated viewings of turns don’t make them easier, especially when we slalom down a brutal sea of black ice. Our group includes a pair of military contractors who teach antiterrorist evasive driving; a 15-year-old who hasn’t yet earned his driver’s license; a married couple; and a young man from Salt Lake City with a pierced lip, a Ken Block/Monster World Rally Team jacket, and a dream of campaigning his own Subaru WRX.
I quickly surmise that it’s best to forget what I know about driving on asphalt. And it’s not just about getting your brain around the idea that skidding is a good thing. To become a rally convert, grasshopper, you must accept the full Book of O’Neil. Brake with your left foot, not your right. Turn right when you want to go left. That last one is called a pendulum turn or, more colorfully, a Scandinavian flick. The choreography is worthy of Dancing With the Stars—and roughly as humiliating for amateurs—and on an all-wheel-drive car goes like this: turn, brake, skid, release brake, countersteer, blip throttle, countersteer, accelerate. Still right side up? Congratulations: You just completed one turn. The pendulum turns are one of several mysteries that can seem bass-ackward even to people with extensive racetrack experience.
“The human body doesn’t like to do some of these things,” O’Neil says in mid-drift, though the smile on his still-boyish 50-year-old face suggests his body likes it just fine. Contrary to the training montage in a Rocky flick, getting fast and coordinated takes more than 60 seconds and an inspirational soundtrack. (Classes run from one-day safety courses to intensive four-day sessions.) There’s certainly no flying high now in our first skid-pad and slalom exercises, unless you count flying into snowbanks.
There’s even less inspiration in the school’s beginner cars, a collection of half-gutted
’90s Volkswagen Jettas. But there’s a method to the hooptie madness: O’Neil means to humble cocky types—to break them down and then build them back up.
O’Neil figures he’s got 43 “runners” on the property, which resembles an Eastern bloc used-car lot—ancient Audi 4000 Quattros, crapulent BMW 325s, the Jettas, and assorted SUVs. Those cars embody O’Neil’s lifelong scrappy streak, a tortoise vs. hare philosophy that saw him win major rallies in V-dubyas and other lightly powered, low-budget rides. “To finish first, you must first finish” is one of those “well, duh” racing clichés. But it’s never truer than in rallying. Driver screwups, unspeakable mechanical abuse, and unforeseen obstacles, from fallen trees to wild animals—mimicked by the “random cow” barrel instructors hide around blind turns on the advanced course—can winnow away half or more of the field. Instructors drum into us the prime directive: Stay on the road, don’t break the car, and drive without emotion.
We learn basics such as steering with the brake—squeezing and releasing the brake while simultaneously applying gas to pivot our Jettas around a handling course. Using your vision correctly proves one familiar constant between racetrack and rallying: It’s amazing how looking where you want to go—not at the looming tree that might seem more worthy of immediate attention—makes the car go that way, almost automatically.
We visit an O’Neil garage for some hard- earned tips on preparing cars for rallying. One common mistake—familiar to anyone with an excitable Evo or WRX-owning pal—is to crank up power without bothering to beef up brakes and suspension, or to gird the underbody with quarter-inch aluminum skid plates. “The extra horsepower doesn’t help if you can’t even drive your 200-horsepower Subaru correctly,” Long says, arching an eyebrow in our direction. For people who might actually rally one day, it’s great stuff: Shake a load of ground black pepper into a torn-up radiator and it will plug the leaks. Hook a strap around a bent suspension arm and to the nearest tree, then back the car up to straighten out the part. For the non-DIY type, the school will rent you one of several professionally race-prepped O’Neil cars, including a sweet, heavily decaled Mazdaspeed 3 for just $7,500 for a race weekend—more than fair in a
sport where building your own competitive open-class racer costs at least $100,000.
On day two we graduate to the AWD Audis. And after a frustrating morning that makes me feel like I’m starting from scratch, it all starts to click. Our convoy begins executing looping pendulum turns, keeping the cars on course and set up for the next turn. We don’t shine, exactly, but neither do we suck.
I buttonhole Jeff Price, 26, our fellow student from Salt Lake City, and force him to speak on behalf of Generation X Games. “Basically, I like going sideways, but in control,” he says. “Then add in the factor of going 90 mph through the woods. If you can do that, you can do anything.”
That “anything,” as instructors remind us, includes the daily freeway runs and Home Depot errands we’ll return to the second the classes are done. Prior to O’Neil’s, I’d attended at least a half-dozen racing schools. But the accident-avoidance exercises and other lessons learned in these woods—especially the ability to maintain total control when your car skids or spins—translate most readily to the street. The next time some text-thumbing moron threatens to T-bone me, I’ll stand a better chance.
As a spoiled auto writer, I managed to drive up to the school in a showroom-shiny Mitsubishi Evo, a rally-ready car that’s much more, well, evolved than the rides we’re learning on. O’Neil wants to suss it out, so while the rest of the class moves on to day three, we head out. In these gnarly woods, O’Neil has tried to build and mimic every type of corner that’s caught him out during his racing career. I show off my best lift-throttle oversteer maneuver and find that O’Neil was right: The Evo is point-and-shoot easy, but its specialized winter tires and all-wheel-drive system do most of the work. It’s fun as hell, but I’m not about to explore the Evo’s sickeningly high limits on the sinister advanced-level Upper Brook Road, especially when I see the trees scarred by other training cars. I hand the wheel to the master, and O’Neil instantly cranks up the pace, chatting casually while displaying such invincible control that I feel no trace of fear.
“I get silly out here,” O’Neil says, not really apologizing. He acknowledges that despite the growing profile of rallying, there’s no money in it, no grandstands full of fans, no pneumatic pit honeys. Racers do it for the love. The thrill of winning. Or just surviving.
“Once you’ve rallied, the street just doesn’t compare,” he says, executing a tree-blurring pendulum turn around a blind hairpin. “You can spend your whole life getting good at flying through the woods.”
Back home in Brooklyn, a foot of snow smothers New York. Brow-furrowed TV storm teams predict certain death for anyone who dares fondle an ignition key. I jump into an all-wheel-drive Subaru Legacy turbo, head to an abandoned airstrip near Rockaway Beach, and work on my pendulum turns.
Just like that, I’m struck by the best lesson of all: If I get pulled over carving loops like a glitter-mad figure skater, I’m blaming everything on Tim O’Neil.