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It all came down to this day, the last of the five-day rally course. The class had learned to slalom FWD Fiestas, AWD Imprezas and RWD BMW's around the almost 600-acre facility in upper New Hampshire. We had flicked cars like a Scandinavian (or close enough) and executed late apexes around increasing radius turns. The group had whittled down to a handful of drivers dedicated to taking the whole week off to play around in the mud and gravel with these off-road beasts. This was the last day to play, so it was time to shut up and drive.
The late September morning greeted us with a cold and rainy persona – perfect for a day of sliding around beyond the edge of traction. Given the choice of vehicles to drive for the day, I slipped back into a silver Impreza that had been a reliable friend over the week. The instructors took us up on a new part of the track that snuck through the rolling forest of maples and birches. Once we grew comfortable with the new section after a few runs, we rotated cars and I just happened to find my way into the driver's seat of a Fiesta ST. The hot hatch was the biggest ball of fun - the surprise of the class. The instructors started timing us, and I took pride in posting the fastest time on the course with the turbo beast. Excuse me while I finish my last slice of humble pie.
One of the instructors I got to know the best led me on a loop through the tiny town of Dalton to practice real rally notes that a navigator would convey during a race. It was an eye-opening experience to the mass amounts of information that gets relayed between the navigator and driver while sliding from corner to corner. There is a distance component plus a number describing the severity of the next turn. There are also key words for how to manage the idiosyncrasies of driving on public roads that are not designed for such abuse. Then, the driver can add their own laundry list of notes on top of all this to ensure they approach each turn in their own preferred manner. Oh, and all of this happens in less than 10 words. My appreciation for real rally racers went a notch or two higher.
After lunch, we got even closer to a real rally experience by suiting up in racing equipment. First, I tried on a Head and Neck Support (HANS) device that is now widely used in racing. As a hockey player growing up, I am used to wearing lots of protective gear. However, the HANS device is a whole other level of protection. I finally realized what it would feel like to be in one of those neck casts if I ever broke it, so I feel like wearing the support for a few hours beats a few months of the cast (or death). Then came the helmet, which included a microphone for speaking the above foreign language with your co-driver. Then, I Frankenstein-walked myself down the steps from the classroom and out to the Impreza.
Trying to get into the car was more like getting an astronaut into the space shuttle for this first time than plopping down in a Subaru seat like I am used to. However, the racing harness fit snuggly over the HANS device, and I was ready to test the new gear. My partner helped plug in the audio equipment to communicate with the instructor next to me, and suddenly the aura in the car changed. The world of distractions around me suddenly dulled as my eyes fixed themselves on the track in front of me and my ears piqued to the voice of the instructor speaking back to me in my helmet (who was not the usual voice in my head). It could also have been the fact that turning my head from side to side to considerable effort now, but I finally felt in a racing zone.
My laps in the equipment were limited, but I could tell that my senses were sharper and my reflexes were faster in keeping the car right where I wanted. The real test of this improved acumen was when my parents came out for my last run of the day. I found a couple of hard-hat helmets to strap over their heads and sat them down in the back of my silver Subaru. The instructor reminded me of a few notes from my last excursion, I responded in agreement and I stomped on the gas to give my parents a real rally experience.
We took off from the skid pad, spun up a sharp 180-degree turn and bound into the forest to the faint sound of exclaims coming from the back of the car (whether excitement or fear, I am still not sure). After successfully navigating a slippery right-hander and up a steep hill, I took a deep breath for the most dangerous curve on the course. It is an off-camber sweeping turn back down that steep hill that will force you to hug the inside corner for your life. I later learned that my father had closed his eyes through this section and probably said a prayer or two. Although, I cannot blame him because I never enjoyed riding passenger down that turn. After finishing my last lap, I took a sigh of relief and smiled in pure elation at another solid run.
I could hardly believe that my time at the class was done, again. I said my good-byes to the skilled instructors and thanked them for their tremendous work with us less-than-tremendous students. While it may seem like a dream job to some to spend day after day driving rally cars around, it takes a particular set of "skills" to put your life in a stranger's hand as they attempt to learn to race. It was not until after my son was born that I realized what I truly took from learning to rally race. Life did not show me what is beyond the next corner, so I have to prepare beforehand so I don't end up over the edge once I am there – or in my case to pack the hospital bag a month early before a tiny set of fingers wrap themselves around mine.
I would like to thank the Team O'Neil Rally School for their generosity in inviting me back to experience the full five-day rally class. It is worth the investment in anyone's driving resume and there are much less enjoyable things to do with a week off work (namely, just about anything else). I dedicate this series to my son, who continues to surprise me with just how much I can accomplish on less sleep than I ever have and the joy that comes around every corner of life.