The Team O’Neil Rally Racing school trains Ford Racing champions—and our writer—in the car that excels in the sport: the Fiesta!
By Robert Edelstein
Photographs by Daniel Byrne
There is only one remaining dirt road in the town of Caldwell, N.J., and my driveway feeds right into it. For reasons I never fully grasped, I always argued against the idea of seeing it paved. Now, after taking a two-day road-racing course at the Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, I finally understand why.
The official rally school of Ford Racing uses a screaming Ford Fiesta fleet to teach aspiring rally racers the ins and outs of slaloming, fishtailing and squirreling through manic trails—just like the pros. The biggest names in the game—Ford Racing’s Brian Deegan, Ken Block and Tanner Foust—tear up the circuit in modified Fiesta vehicles even more ferocious than those my 15 fellow students and I were trying to tame. As we learned during an introductory classroom lesson before getting our in-car training, this is not your high school driver’s ed class.
Rally racing requires an incredibly counterintuitive mind-set. Here, dirt-road drivers brake with their left foot instead of their right for quicker reactions. Making high-speed hairpin turns is more about throwing your car into a spin and then braking through the curve than about simple steering. A “three-point turn” begins when you’ve got the car up to about 3,700 rpm and ends with you kicking up a blinding cloud of gravel as you power around a corner.
Our two days each ran from about 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (As one instructor astutely put it, “We could go later, but you guys will get pretty wiped out.”) They included several lessons drawn out on blackboards, followed by in-car demonstrations (with one instructor and two students in each car). Then it was our turn to strap on a helmet and tackle an alien selection of skills, from sliding around a circular skid pad to slaloming through a long line of cones to learning how to race into and then exit 90-degree turns from different axis points. You might call it a crash course in adrenaline.
The rotating committee of instructors—many current or former rally racers—were well acquainted with any possible error I could make and ready with a sarcastic rip or maybe just a bit of encouragement when needed. (When I forgot to lift my foot off the gas during one spirited slalom run, my teacher said, “Next time let’s try to do it without making the guys want to puke in the backseat.”)
But for all of us rally hopefuls, the surprise of how easily we took to the course was only rivaled by our admiration for the real stars out there—the lightning-quick Fiesta racers, whose 130 horsepower delivered more than enough muscle to take us through our paces.
“We’re making these cars go sideways every day of their lives for years,” says Tim O’Neil, who segued from his own championship racing career into running this rally school that teaches racing car control to up to 1,500 students a year. “When they say ‘Ford Tough,’ they’re obviously not talking just about trucks.”
THE RALLY RACING RUSH
The little Fiesta is a big deal in the snowballing story of rally racing. It is a dominant factor as the sport makes steady gains in U.S. popularity. A big contribution also comes from the Ford Racing team that is leading the pack in the two major rally racing circuits.
In those sanctioned league contests, and in a myriad of regional competitions, a dialed-in driver—along with a co-driver who, like a five-speed orchestra leader, calmly details the parade of jumps and hairpin turns coming down the road—tries to best competitors either in individual time-trial stage runs or in head-on contests. In the U.S. the stage competitions are at the heart of the Rally America National Championship series, which features six annual events for all-wheel drive and two-wheel drive vehicles. This is the domain of O’Neil school instructor Chris Duplessis, who racked up championships in 2007, ’08 and ’10, and whose Fiesta R2 Kit Car—which anyone at home can build (see “Rally Your Fiesta”)—routinely bests rivals that sport more horsepower.
Meanwhile, the higher-profile Global RallyCross Championship runs its own six events, including ESPN’s annual X Games competition. GRC is the brand-new complement to the global juggernaut that is FIA’s World Rally Championship series. The cars pump out a lot more power (they go zero to 60 in two seconds) and feature the chariot of choice for the fearsome Ford Racing Team trio of Block, Foust and Deegan.
The souped-up RallyCross Fiesta has made the X Games its personal playground since its arrival on the circuit in 2009—taking gold medals three straight years, with three different drivers, and sweeping the top three places in X Games RallyCross competition last season, with Deegan edging teammate Foust for the top prize.
Block’s annual releases of mind-boggling “Gymkhana” videos—with more than 100 million combined YouTube views—have introduced the sport to a massive number of fans around the world who are amped up to embrace the fast and the crazy. It appears that rally is ready for its close-up.
“It’s such a visually dynamic sport,” says Scott Denby, Ford Racing rally program manager. “The cars are doing things you don’t think they should be able to do.” And that is a great endorsement for the next generation of Ford Fiesta fans.
“To build a really good rally car you need a good street-car platform, and the Fiesta is perfect for that,” says Duplessis, who will be racing in some WRC events this year. “The full-on, WRC Fiesta still starts out with a stock shell. You’re driving through the woods on narrow dirt roads, you need a light car—something that has a good power-to-weight ratio—and the Fiesta has that. It’s just a really good car to begin with and that makes it a really good rally car.”
Making cars do “things you don’t think they should be able to do” turns out to be the biggest thrill of my Team O’Neil journey. Even as a novice, managing the trajectory of a speeding Fiesta through a power slide without riding the brake—in essence, curbing the little voice in my head that screams, “Mommy, make it stop!”—turns out to be a fantasy come true.
It all comes together at the end of day two while trying to master the Pendulum Turn—which found me hurtling toward a 90-degree curve, braking hard, turning left to start a slide, and then lifting off the brake and gas while patiently letting the car slide through the turn before giving it the gas it needs to enter the straightaway.
Duplessis was in the passenger seat during my best Pendulum run. “Man, that was textbook,” he said, his smile widening.
After only a couple of days of training, I feel ready to hit the X Games myself. “At the end of a five-day program, people are really good,” says Mike Doucette, an instructor at the school since 2004. “But it is a perishable skill.”
And so, during my long drive home, I practiced my left-foot braking. And when I finally pulled into my driveway in the middle of the night, I might have taken it a little too fast on purpose, asking my regular ride to grind and slide in ways it never had—and why not?
Sure, I have a wife, three kids, a dog and a mortgage. I may not be hitting the road in a rally car anytime soon. But I do live on the last dirt road in town. And at 52, a boy can still dream.
Team O’Neil Rally School offers one- to five-day courses and is located in Dalton, N.H. (2.5 hours north of Boston). Learn more here.