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When we returned, I wrote about what Day 1 and Day 2 held for those daring enough to get behind the wheel of a rally car sliding sideways in the mud as the wheels spin in search of anything that might resemble traction. And then, life returned to normal. I went back to working my nine-to-five and dreaming of the day that I can turn my automotive passion into something tangible. While I had proved to myself that I was more than just another enthusiast stuck watching from the sidelines, nothing was keeping me in the race.
That was, until I got an invitation a couple of months later to return to the rally school for more mud sliding and sideways shenanigans. Team O'Neil actually wanted me to come back and complete the rest of the five-day class (those fools). Unfortunately, I would not be able to bring my now 7-month pregnant wife. I would be upset about this, except I guess I am partly at fault for this predicament. So, I invited my dad to accompany me on the trip who then proceeded to invite my mom along. What started out as a fun little getaway with my dad turned into a vacation for my parents with me tagging along. But, I could care less because it meant that I would be back in a rally car seat.
So in September, I boarded a plane and flew back to Boston for the second time this year. I retraced my route out of the airport and through the maze of tunnels under the city to (somehow) end up on I-93 north to New Hampshire's White Mountains just as the fall colors were beginning to set in. I was no leaf peeper, though, I had another mission. I knew I could drive a rally car, but now I wanted to take it to the next step. Anyone with a license can drive, but it does not mean they can excel at this endeavor.
One of the great policies that Team O'Neil has for returning drivers is the ability to repeat the last day that you attended from your first visit. So, I got to repeat Day 2 of the class and get four days of rally driving in. Getting that extra day is supposed to help re-acclimate my senses for left-foot braking and Scandinavian flicks. Basically, I had to re-teach my brain that going sideways in a car does not necessarily mean that I am going to crash, in theory.
The entrance to the near 600-acre course on a cool, fall morning greeted me like an old friend. I walked back up the steps in the barn to the classroom where many of the same instructors I had met on my first visit were still trying to teach us novices something. I sat without a partner at my desk, but some of the class had only signed up for one day and I found a willing partner by the time I sat in one of the magenta Fiestas for our first runs of the day. It turns out he is a co-driver (or navigator, as he prefers to be called) at rally races around my area in the upper Midwest. So much for being the experienced one here.
I felt back at home behind the driver's seat of the roll-caged hatchback. This was a new feeling for me. My dread of crashing was replaced by an air of familiarity and comfort. I began driving good lines through the slalom course instead of trying to avoid every other cone like many of the other drivers were doing (and like what I did on my first trip). After lunch, we traded the FWD Fiestas for AWD Subaru Imprezas and Audi Quattros. I was surprised the 40 year-old Quattors were still alive for the weekly beatings since parts for them are getting harder and harder to find.
I started in a silver Impreza with a hood vent clearly installed by the previous owner who wanted more show than go. The Scandinavian flicks were just as much fun and just as confusing as my first time through the class. Somehow, my brain still had trouble understanding that turning right to turn left only made perfect sense to rally drivers. As I transitioned into the white Quattro, I surprised myself by how much better I was at getting the German brick to flick around than I was able to last time. I still preferred the precise driving needed for the Impreza over the Quattro, but I couldn't deny just how much delight there is in chucking that hunk of metal into a 180-degree spin.
After class, I stayed for a rally licensing class recommended for anyone taking the class for the whole five days. One of the instructors reviewed the basics of rally racing based on American Rally Association standards. Apparently, I'm not allowed to just jump right into any rally car and race. Every beginner has to start in a naturally aspirated FWD or AWD car to get their feet wet in a few events before even thinking about adding a turbocharger. I have to agree with this sentiment. Rally driving is unlike any other form of car racing. Sliding sideways with minimal grip takes time and experience to perfect. More power does not help in that circumstance, so it is smart to start off with less and build your way up.
My first day back at the rally school was a reminder of why the automobile continues to fascinate me. No other creation of mankind has the versatility of utility and pure pleasure draped in an artwork of metal. And I get to beat on it in the mud and gravel for four days to my heart's delight. Consider this second chance thoroughly seized.