Off-track motorsport entails racing against the clock down narrow, twisting dirt or snow-covered roads.
It would seem a parent’s nightmare.
A 15-year-old without a driver’s license was gleefully sliding the car sideways through turn after turn, the gas pedal floored and the occupants straining against their seatbelts as they were thrown from side to side.
But the father, one of the back-seat passengers, nodded his approval.
“I want him to be better at everything than I am,” Alex Dunser, a lawyer from Tampa, Fla., says of his teenage son, Lech, as the instructor in the front passenger seat critiqued the controlled chaos.
The Dunsers were among the dozen students in northern New Hampshire recently for a $3,600, three-day course at the Team O’Neil Rally School.
The school’s main purpose is to impart the integral skills of rally racing, an off-track motorsport that entails racing against the clock down narrow, twisting dirt or snow-covered roads.
But many of the Team O’Neil school’s students take the classes for fun, or to learn crash-avoidance techniques. Or, in the case of members of the military’s special operations forces who have taken the course, they learn how to drive under extreme duress on rough terrain.
“We use pieces of roads that are borrowed from the United States Forest Service or a logging company,” Travis Hanson, a rally veteran and the director of training, tells the group that included the Dunsers.
“It is a real road,’’ he says. “It is not designed to be driven fast on. If you fly off the road in a rally there are rocks, cliffs and trees, and everything is designed to kill you.”
About 500 people take the course each year at this 600-acre complex. Most are seeking an automotive adventure with the additional benefit of learning to control a car in an emergency or on a slippery road, says Chris Cyr, the school’s general manager.
But some are intent on learning to race, and all come away with some basic skills for the sport. In North America, rally courses typically range from 10 to 20 miles on roads that are closed to the public. While speeds vary with the road conditions and the car, 70 mph is not unusual, and the most powerful rally cars easily reach 100 mph.
“Rally is the best form of motorsports,” Hanson tells the class.
Competing on a racetrack is relatively safe, he says, because there are grassy or gravel runoff areas to slow an errant vehicle. And racetrack drivers practice lap after lap, learning what each turn looks like and how to take it. But there are no practice runs in rallying.
“In rally, either you are on the road or you crash,” Hanson tells the novices. “It’s a little crazy, but I think you guys will like it.”
The promised craziness began with six Ford Fiestas, each containing two students and an instructor, all wearing helmets. They were parked on the edge of a large open area called a skid pad, which a water truck had drenched to create a brown slurp.
For the students, the foundation to rally driving is understanding how the transfer of the car’s weight between the front and rear tires affects handling.
Braking or letting up on the gas makes the front of the car dip and puts more weight on the front tires, giving them more grip. The lesser weight on the rear tires makes them more likely to slide.
Throughout the course the students were urged to go ever faster.
As the class progressed, there was increasing emphasis on the principle of “looking where you want to go.”
That might seem obvious. But it is not, in the context of rally driving or navigating a road in bad weather. Sometimes the car may be sliding in a direction the driver does not want to go — like toward a tree.
The idea is to focus not on that looming, scary tree, but where the driver would rather be going — even if it means looking out a side window. The brain tells the driver’s hands how to direct the car. It is a leap of faith, but it works, the instructors say.
By the third day the class was doing laps along around a small loop of the school’s 6 miles of private roads.
Lech Dunser, the 15-year-old, was cornering confidently. “It’s awesome,” he says.