The evening before I head to the Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire, O’Neil director of special projects Wyatt Knox tweets a photo of a rare steak next to a bottle of beer. The caption reads, “Spanking a supercar on ice in the morning, time to chow like a Viking.” Meanwhile, somewhere down the road at the Common Man restaurant in Lincoln, I’m eating a salad that includes candied hazelnuts. If tomorrow I drive into a tree due to my dangerously low iron levels, I will curse myself for my un-Viking-like nutritional preparation.
The Team O’Neil Rally School is the coolest place in New England that you probably don’t know about. Founded in 1997 by champion rally driver Tim O’Neil, the school is based at a 600-acre campus of gravel roads, carved into the craggy White Mountains not too far from where the Old Man’s face fell off. O’Neil maintains its own fleet of cars—mostly Ford Fiestas, Audi 4000s and the most abused BMWs you’ve ever seen—but today I’m upping the ante with something a little different.
Like many of the O’Neil instruction cars, today’s ride is an all-wheel-drive Audi. Unlike those hearty old tanks, this one has a 525-horsepower V10 bolted behind its two seats. The 2014 R8 V10 Spyder might look better suited to Miami than Franconia Notch, but with its Pirelli snow tires I’m confident that the sexy Estoril Blue R8 will climb an unplowed gravel road just as sure-footedly as the beater Subarus that are indigenous to this region. Of course, I’ve offered assurances that this exquisite $184,350 piece of machinery will not end up burrowed into the side of a mountain. And with Wyatt’s expertise and my good judgment on our side, I’m 85 percent confident that it won’t!
O’Neil offers instruction ranging from a basic $499 winter-driving course all the way to an advanced five-day course that runs about six grand. I contend that they’re all bargains, given that the techniques you learn in the woods are the ones that best translate to real-world emergency situations. Rally driving takes place on real roads, often messy and unpaved, and thus incorporates plenty of improvisation—just like an actual drive home in any given blizzard. Sure, it’s fun to learn the fast way around a dry racetrack, but memorizing the braking point for Turn 1 at Loudon probably won’t help you much on your daily commute. Knowing how to coax your car out of a skid, though, damn well might.
Rally racing’s cocktail of skill, danger and excitement seems to attract a particular kind of character. Wyatt, when he’s not driving cars inadvisably quickly, always seems to be skiing Tuckerman or wrestling alligators or engaging in other macho outdoor activities. You get the idea that his daily routine doesn’t involve a lot of Excel spreadsheets. Trevor Wert, who’s also on hand to help us out today, is a professional ski jumper. And the last time I came here, eight years ago, I rode shotgun with a former fighter pilot who told me, “If I could have two hours with a beautiful woman, an F-14 or a rally car, I’d take the rally car.” These guys make Ron Swanson look as tough as Michael Jackson.
Before we begin our lesson, we stop by an outpost near the skidpad and collect our helmets. I notice, up on the rafters, a collection of graffiti-smeared pink helmets. Wyatt explains that the pink lids are bestowed upon drivers who crash, like scarlet letters of inept car control. Lest you read the pink helmets as evidence that this is a boys’ club, contrary evidence is just outside, in the form of competition cars driven by female racers. One of which is emblazoned with graphics that include a robot tyrannosaurus with lasers shooting out of its eyes. There must be something about sliding a car around on dirt that raises one’s testosterone level, regardless of gender.
Dorky black helmets donned, we head out into the woods to the upper skidpad, where Wyatt will attempt to bestow some driving tips. The unplowed road glows bright white with fresh show, and as the temperature creeps up a thick fog sets in despite the strong sunshine. The sunny snowfog lends an otherworldly aura to the forest, the kind of hushed beauty that would’ve inspired Emerson to sit on a stump and compose a transcendentalist poem. Is not a car in motion, balanced on the knife-edge of adhesion, pistons beating and tires clawing, its own kind of poetry? It is, my good sir!
I know we’re here to improve my driving skills, but as I gaze upon the open untracked expanse of the skidpad, I call an audible. First thing we do is some big donuts. Or rather, Wyatt does big donuts, drifting the Audi in a perfectly scribed arc while I stand in the middle and contemplate the total righteousness of a supercar powersliding across fresh New Hampshire snow. As Wyatt works the throttle and makes nuanced corrections with the steering wheel, the R8 dances past in a cloud of powder, its exhaust echoing off the hills. He rolls down the window and yells, “I’m not coming in! I’m gonna just keep going until it runs out of gas!”
Next, it’s my turn. With Wyatt in the passenger seat, I attempt to replicate the feat that he just made look so easy—keeping the car in a perpetual controlled slide.
Predictably, it does not go as well. I can only get halfway around, perhaps a little farther, before either going too fast and spinning out or going too slow and regaining traction. Being a dude, I naturally blame the car. “I feel like the all-wheel-drive system is sending power to the front sometimes and pulling me out of it,” I say. Wyatt tactfully agrees that sure, that might be the problem. It just wasn’t a problem when he was driving, for some reason. I’m like a golfer blaming my duffed tee shot on my new carbon-fiber Callaways.
From the skidpad we move to the slalom course. Here, we’ll practice precisely timed transitions without undue worry that a wrong move will wrap a shapely German fender around a pine tree. Wyatt demonstrates how to use the brakes to transfer weight forward to the front tires, followed by quick countersteering as the now-unloaded rear end swings around behind you. Doing this once is easy and even natural. Executing it five or so times in tight succession requires you to understand the physics behind what you’re doing. Because if you goof up the first or second turn, your error can compound itself until you’re completely out of control by the final turns. That’s how I once slid a Lamborghini into a field next to an airport runway, but that’s another story.
Riding with Wyatt through the slalom, we’re going so fast that the wind beats on my face through my side window (oh, and we’ve also put the top down, as Thoreau would want). When I’m at the wheel we don’t go that fast, but within a few tries I’m navigating successfully through the complete slalom. The Audi, although all-wheel-drive, tends to send most of its power to the rear wheels, which means that I can steer with the gas pedal the same way I did with the two-wheel-drive pickup I drove during my formative winters in Maine. This is not, I should point out, the O’Neil-approved way to do things. But I’m getting the job done and demonstrating sufficient competence that Wyatt deems me ready for my day’s graduation exam: departing the obstacle-free safety of the skidpad and throwing this piece of metal down a real road. One with ditches. And trees. Adding to my stress level, Wyatt will shadow me in one of O’Neil’s Audis, a 1984 4000 Quattro that looms in my rearview mirror like a stern schoolmarm raring to whack my knuckles with a ruler.
With Wyatt no longer sitting alongside and doling out tips, I’ll have to figure this out for myself. We steer down onto a road beneath the skidpad to set up for a hilly section that climbs back up toward the slalom. I have a walkie-talkie clipped to the console, and I hear Wyatt’s voice crackle, “We’re coming in hot,” advising anyone else in the area that it’s officially a bad time to wander onto this particular road.
Would you believe that I made a perfect ascent on the very first try? Then I won’t disabuse you of that lovely notion. Let’s just leave it at the fact that the car never went off the road, and on my final attempt I nailed it so thoroughly that my exclamations of triumph rang out from Presque Isle to St. Johnsbury. It is deeply satisfying and cathartic to pitch a car sideways, catch it and then continue unabated at a high speed through a majestic forest wonderland. I can see why this line of work attracts fighter pilots and ski jumpers, people who have rather high expectations for excitement.
Wyatt, for his part, says that bottomless O’Neil adrenaline spigot has rendered him a serene driver on the street. “I used to drive like an asshole,” he says. “I got lots of tickets. But you get it out of your system up here, so you don’t feel like you want to drive like that on the street. People tell me now that I drive like a grandma.”
With dusk falling, I soon bid farewell and point the R8 south on Interstate 93. Wyatt’s right—I don’t feel any compulsion to answer the challenge of the occasional Volkswagen driver who bombs past me at 85 mph. All my usual aggressive driving inclinations are thoroughly purged from my system. I could go for a steak, though. Drive like a grandma, chow like a Viking.
Photography by Jason Evans
Article Credit: improper.com Follow the link for original article.