Brake, brake, brake - stay on the gas
Part of summer vacation 2018 was attending 3 days of Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire with my wife, Jill. After she picked me up from Boston Logan International Airport, we started the slow drive through traffic to Littleton, NH.
The next morning, we headed to another local hotel where staff from Team O’Neil led a procession of students to the training facility about 20 minutes out of town.
Day 1 began with a brief classroom session, after which we moved to the skid pad where there was one front-wheel driver Fiesta and one instructor for every two students. Exercises included (1) steering with the brake on the skid pad - turn the steering 180, gas at 75%, then steer the car with the brake, (2) slalom at 35 mph, turn the steering 90, brake to move weight forward and rotate the car, center the steering then release the brake to straighten things out, (3) slalom with more offset - meaning more brake to rotate and (4) accident avoidance with stopping, brake and release, and lane change maneuvers.
Skills were developed through exercises that focused on individual driving inputs, like braking, while minimizing others. After both students made 4 attempts, the pair would move to a different car / instructor to provide exposure to another teaching style that might better match the students needs.
I struggled to adapt to gravel from tarmac - steering with the brake instead of the throttle, and performing actions in sequence rather than together (e.g. turn then brake, center steering then release). Jill and I both sucked at the accident avoidance, but we’re blaming that on the instructor leaving the directions a little too late.
Day 2 involved a longer slalom with increasing and decreasing radius turns - short to long going uphill, then long to short coming down. At the bottom of the downhill section, the course ended with a 90 left requiring a pendulum turn. In the front wheel drive cars, the Scandinavian flick required turning to the right with “turn then brake”, then while still braking, counter-steer followed by releasing the brake and throttle at the same time to pivot the car around. As it pivots, center the wheel again and start feeding in throttle.
I actually did okay with the mechanics, eventually getting the timing right, but didn’t have the instincts available to correct for anything unexpected (e.g. getting sucked into the thick mud just wide of the driving line, etc.). We then focused on the pendulum turn alone - just a 90 left in the middle of the skid pad. It was the same mechanics and I got the hang of it, ramping up the speed for the last couple of runs.
In the afternoon, we moved to all-wheel drive Subaru’s with more power and boosted brakes. The big difference in technique was lifting off the gas prior to turning. You still brake to rotate the car, centering the wheel in the new direction before releasing the brake and blending back on throttle. We also practiced getting the car light over a crest, where it was important to get the turn complete and straight the steering input before landing.
On Day 3, we continued the uphill and downhill practice runs, but also added two rear-wheel drive BMW’s to the mix. The E46 was a challenge to drive - it took very little throttle input for the back to start overtaking the front of the car. The older E30, however, was a hoot with just enough power that you could really steer with the throttle.
After a few cycles through the slalom in each of the front-, all- and rear-wheel drive cars, we prepared to put all of our new skills to the test on a short rally “stage”. We walked the loop that would be added to the skid pad and slalom section, studying the road camber and crests. Again, we had a chance to tackle the course in each type of car. While I loved the older BMW for being so tail-happy, there was something oddly satisfying about making a FWD Fiesta drift around a bend (even if it wasn’t very fast).
The Team O’Neil Rally School was a mind-bender for me after focusing track skills over the last few years. A lot of the right things to do on track were the wrong things to do on gravel.
Thanks to the staff at Team O’Neil! We can’t wait to come back and learn more next year!
Bryan Bursey, driver, founded Underbite Racing in 2015.