When racing through the narrow, thicketed roads at the Team O'Neil Rally School, the last thing most drivers expect to see blocking the path is a baby's car seat.
"Oh, they crush them, they take them out hard," said school founder and rally driving champion Tim O'Neil. "The people with kids, they feel really bad."Teaching students the emergency driving skills to avoid such unforeseen obstacles is one of the primary goals of the rally school, which, from its unassuming location in Dalton, in the foothills of the White Mountains, has become one of the preeminent (and only) rally schools in the nation.For the uninitiated, rallying is a motor sport in which drivers of modified, street-legal racecars zip through narrow, winding courses, which are split into several stages. Drivers and their navigators (called co-drivers) compete for the fastest speed in each stage, in all weather conditions, on all sorts of surfaces.For spectators, "it's not like a racetrack where you're a long ways away," said O'Neil. "You are right next to the road and the car's going by at 100 mph and the car's throwing rocks and flames and dust and nasty."Rallying is similar to soccer in that it has failed to capture the national attention of Americans, never coming close to gaining similar traction as NASCAR, which this year drew more than 30 million pairs of eyes to its largest event.Still, the sport appeals to people with a certain kind of sensibility, those who are willing to tough out rough conditions for big thrills, said O'Neil."Rallying is tromping out into the woods, and standing out there, getting beaten by rocks, and eaten by bugs. So I guess we're kind of looking for that type of person, a little sick-minded," joked O'Neil.Driving with confidenceSince its founding in 1997, the 560-acre driving school has welcomed some of the top names in the sport, including four-time Rally America champion Travis Pastrana and three-time X Games medalist Ken Block.A large percentage of Team O'Neil's business also comes from its security school, which teaches members of the military and privately employed security professionals advanced car control techniques how to stay safe in unyielding situations.But the school is in no way intended just for the experts. From the beginning, it has also aimed to arm drivers of all ability levels with improved handling techniques in a safe, controlled environment."Everybody thinks you've got to be a driver or rally champion or something to come here," said O'Neil. "But no, our specialty is training people with no skills, who have never driven a standard, don't know anything about cars, that want to get more confident in driving."Whatever their reason for attending - a bad skid on a patch of black ice, a family member lost to a car crash, or nervousness about night driving - students are given the skills they need to drive with confidence, said O'Neil.To that end, Team O'Neil employs 10 rally instructors who offer a range of courses for students of all backgrounds. There's the one-day winter driving school, which teaches students emergency driving techniques in their own vehicles. Then there are the two-, three-, four- and five-day rally schools, which introduce drivers to the basics of rally - everything from skid control, accident avoidance and vehicle dynamics to left-foot braking, pendulum turns and slalom driving.Students drive through the school's 6.5-mile course behind the wheels of Audi Quattros, Subaru Imprezas, BMW 3 Series, Volkswagen GTIs and Ford Fiestas, 47 of which were given to the school through a partnership with Ford Racing. To prepare them for rally, the magenta and lime-green Fiestas were upfitted with roll bars, rally suspension and off-road tires. And to handle its fleet of roughly 100 vehicles, the school employs six full-time mechanics, who replace spent tires and repair everything on site.The school tends to attract a pretty specific crowd: predominantly, well-off men between the ages of 35 and 55. But O'Neil would like to see include more young people, women, corporate clients and international visitors.For young people who may be interested in the school, the price point is often too high (the five-day rally school, for instance, costs $5,750). This is where, perhaps, a corporate sponsor could come in to support a program for a younger crowd, said Richard Dale-Mesaros, marketing consultant for Team O'Neil.‘My life changed’So how did one of the only rally schools in North America come to be located in Dalton, a sleepy town 20 miles north of Franconia Notch with fewer than 1,000 residents?The story starts in New Mexico, where O'Neil was sent fresh out of high school by the Air Force to work as an aircraft mechanic.When the Whitefield native returned to the Granite State, he discovered his friends had taken up stock car driving. Naturally, given his experience repairing airplanes, he became the go-to mechanic. And naturally, he took up stock car racing himself, which remained his hobby until an article in Road & Track magazine introduced him to what would become his true passion: rally."As soon as I saw a sports car going through a mud puddle sideways, my life changed," said O'Neil. "I didn't even know what rally was, and of course half of us were doing it anyway for simple entertainment in northern New Hampshire."And so O'Neil set off to become a professional rally driver, seeking out masters like John Buffum, under whose tutelage he learned the skills to drive, build and maintain rally cars.Armed with this knowledge, he again returned to northern New Hampshire and worked at any garage that allowed him to tinker on his racecar on nights and weekends."I got into the business so I could go racing," he said.Eventually, O'Neil opened his own garage, which he has since sold but helped him to raise the funds to start the Team O'Neil Rally School.During his racing career - which was most active in the ‘80s, and from which he has retired, and unretired, a few times - O'Neil has been a factory driver for both Volkswagen and Mitsubishi and has won five North American rally championships. But these days he teaches more than he competes.For many students, the confidence the school gives them changes their whole outlook on life, said O'Neil."There have been a number of people sending me letters and emails, saying ‘After I came to your school, I changed my way of thinking, I quit my job, got rid of the boyfriend, sold the house, built a business.’""It's a culture change," said O'Neil. "People come here, and they don't just learn a couple little tricks. They change their whole attitude."Kathleen Callahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article appears in the June 17 2011 issue of New Hampshire Business Review