With a full class of 12 students of varying backgrounds and skill levels, I recently attended a four-day driving course at the 12-year old Team O’Neil Rally School & Car Control Center in Dalton, New Hampshire. Rally driving is an extreme motor sport where cars race on limited-traction surfaces such as dirt, snow and ice. Combining a curriculum of classroom work and hands-on driving, the school’s mission is to teach people — novice to expert — driving skills that include skid control, accident avoidance and vehicle dynamics.
My goal was to learn the skills required to compete in local rally events. By the end of the week I was executing high-speed turns on snow-covered roads like a champ. While in Dalton, I had the opportunity to sit down with the man who started it all, Tim O’Neil, 49, a five-time U.S. and North American Rally Racing Champion, to ask him some questions about the school and his motivation for operating it.
BOB KILPATRICK: Though my dad has been road racing all of my life, I have had no hands-on experience with motor sports until recently, while writing and shooting videos for Seven Days Auto Finder. Something about rally really piqued my interest. Rather than choosing another motor sport, I had to give rally a try.
TIM O’NEIL: I say there are two kinds of people: those who like total control and everything precise, and those who like to wing it. And the over-steer [rally] crowd seems to be better at winging things than having everything perfect.
BK: That makes sense. I like to push my limits. I like things a little on the edge.
TO: That’s why the new generation is so hot on rally, because a lot of them are like that. They’ve seen stock car racing and they think, That’s foolish, and they’ve seen drag racing and they think, That’s foolish, but this [rally] is completely wacky.
BK: They’re raised on video games and hanging by the seat of their pants — on a game controller. So that’s what they look for, I guess. I was really impressed with the course and instructors; I never felt like I was thrown into something. It was a very steady progression. How long did it take you to develop the course and the steps we go through?
TO: It’s still evolving today, but for the most part it took me about two years. I come from military and flight training. I need to be able to train a group of 12 people, and they’re all different. If I was training some rally champion, it would be different, but I have to train people who are scared of driving or who don’t know how to drive with a standard transmission. You have to create a crawl-walk-run process that’s made for everybody.
We get about 90 percent success, which means that, with nine out of 10 students, I would ride anywhere with them after this training. We are still evolving. Techniques like trail braking — we didn’t really have it as an official exercise until about six years ago. And learning about lines and apexes — standing outside the car and looking at the cones that outline the course and judging where to point the vehicle — we didn’t do that six years ago . . .
This training program is not very cost-effective for us. If I were looking for 30 percent profit, like most people, I would never run the business this way. I would have to increase the ratio of students to teachers. At the end of the day, though, I would not be able to provide the same level of high-quality instruction. If you said you wanted to learn this all in one day, I couldn’t do it. I need that first day to teach you a technique and then let that sink in. The second day, we teach you another technique and let that sink in. Now, the third day, we’re taking those techniques and putting them together. And now we let that sink in.
It’s got to be over time. There have to be failures. Part of the problem we have in our society, I think, is there aren’t enough failures. If you went for your driving test in Europe, you’d fail the first time. With our system, if you don’t do it exactly right, you spin out immediately and hit the bank. Then you’re like, all right, I’ll learn, I’ll listen.
BK: So if there’s not great revenue in this, what led you to do it?
TO: The satisfaction of seeing you come from where you were to where you are now. I love being outside. I love driving cars. This is my passion. I don’t do anything for money. You have to make money to pay your bills and pay your people, but I just really get a buzz from seeing people learn. I think it’s a life-changing experience. People come back and tell me they saved their own life because of what I taught them. I won’t die when I see a moose in front of me because I know how to react. People tell me that three or four months or a year later, a moose jumped out in front of them and they went right around him and their wife goes, “Wow! Where’d you learn that?” Then they realize I made them visualize what they would do in that situation. So, when it happens, you react appropriately because you’ve already worked it through.
BK: What are your long-term goals for Team O’Neil?
TO: We’re going to continue doing what we do. We’re going to do it better, like we always do, everything better. We will provide synthetic [simulation-based] training with live training. That will make the live training better. We’ll do motor-sport testing and development. But everything is all about driver improvement.
Interested in rally racing or in dramatically improving your foul-weather or accident-avoidance driving skills at Team O’Neil? I encourage you to read more about my day-by-day experience at the school and see videos of my exploits in the rally section here on my Good Carma blog. I’ll warn you, though, this training may sound like work, but in reality it’s more fun than you could imagine. And fun like that is contagious.