Inside Team O'Neil: A Dirt (and Snow) Lover's Paradise
When I was a child, racing and motorsport really weren't in my parents' vocabulary. It's not their fault. They just didn't love cars the way I did. But thanks to the wonderful power of the Internet, I found my passion. Moreover, I found what I considered the pinnacle of racing. It wasn't Formula 1 or Le Mans, though— it was rally.
I witnessed the exploits of drivers that had almost god-like driving skills. Sebastien Loeb, Collin McCrae, Ari Vatanen, and Walter Röhl all captured my young mind and brought me into the insane world of going fast on dirt. Here and now in 2015 — wouldn't you know it — I have access to experience some of my wildest dreams first hand.
From the moment we started the new shop tour series, I made a personal wish list of everything I wanted to see. I knew if I loved it, you all would probably love it too. So it was a win-win. But the one place that I absolutely longed to visit was Team O'Neil Rally School in New Hampshire.
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After 15 hours in the car, five stops for fuel, another stop by the police, and some of the most dense fog I've ever driven through, I made it. I was pretty excited, but not as excited as I was about to be in a few minutes. You see, being there was one thing, but actually getting the chance to drive one of these plucky little rally cars was another.
Pulling up to Team O'Neil's compound was like turning the corner of the hall on Christmas morning. All the presents lined under the tree, although, instead of Stretch Armstrongs there was an array of rally cars and off-road trucks. It's probably what heaven looks like.
In one corner was Tanner Foust's Subaru WRX wagon. Then in another was Bill Caswell's BMW 318ti. And smack dab in the middle was Andrew Comrie-Picard's 2014 Rally America 2WD Championship car, complete with a sequential manual. I was absolutely awestruck, and I continued to feel that throughout the entire day.
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Obviously, turning up to some of these shops can leave you a bit tentative at first. They don't know me, I don't know them. Who knows? I could be one of those lifestyle mommy bloggers that has no idea what anything is or does. It can be — a bit icy at first (pun intended). That, however, wasn't the case when I was greeted by owner Tim O'Neil. Immediately you can tell that Tim is one of the most passionate people on the planet. He's also a certifiable maniac and I mean that lovingly.
Immediately Tim goes into every single nut, bolt, car and cage that's in the shop. Not to mention the endless name-dropping of some of the best racers on the planet who have trained there. He knows everyone, and everything, down to the last dog box gear in the drawers.
After passing Tim's own personal Group A championship winning Impreza, we went over to the build shop. Not only does Team O'Neil train future rally champions, but they build full rally cars for clients. Say you want a new rally car, they'll build you one in no time flat. But if you want to go get trained, you can turn up at the next rally event with your own personal car and Team O'Neil can make that happen too. They will teach you how to drive, train you to work on your own car, then help you out with your first race. It's amazing the level of commitment these guys have for the sport.
Throughout the race shop, there are parts to cars everywhere. From BMW E30 front fenders, roll cage pieces ready to be tacked into place, to all the stripped parts from the brand new Fiesta they just got in that day. We spent at least a half hour alone just rummaging through all the parts bins that hold the full on R3 spec rally parts for the Fiesta ST.
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After drooling over all the gear linkages, skid plates, and roll cages, we headed over to the maintenance garage under the offices. It's where O'Neil employs most of their mechanics. These guys maintain the entire fleet of vehicles the school runs. Including the 20-year-old Audi Quattro 4000's that have been with the school since the beginning. They're definitely showing their age, but still perform like champs. Even under the brutal conditions they're asked to handle.
Tim, though, a consummate off-roading nerd, isn't satisfied with just having a rally school, or just building rally cars. No, O'Neil wants to expand the business further, and that's where his next venture is headed. Security driving.
Rather than just strict law enforcement training, O’Neil’s program is more about having the ability to deal with any stressful situations no matter what the consequences are, or lack thereof. For the security school, the teachers get the students to not only work through tough terrain, but also to work out issues with the car in those same situations. It's enhances the drivers training giving them better confidence in the field.
Briefly going over the security driving school, it looks to be just as much fun as the rally school, though admittedly, with a much more serious purpose.
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Off-roading course aside, I was there for a specific reason, and that was to drive a rally car. We grabbed lunch (thanks Tim and Chris!), and made our way out to the North Course. Tim brought along his personal Focus ST — sans rear bumper — and me, alone in a Fiesta ST with a full roll cage, limited slip diff, ice tires, and bubbling anxiousness to get out on the course. I mean, this is something I've dreamed about since I was a kid. I could barely contain my obnoxious smile.
For the first two or three hours, I learned to perfect a number of different concepts. These techniques require you to completely abandon your instincts on how to control an out of control car. It seriously screws with your head. That being said, it's absolutely addicting at the same time. I could have spent weeks just sitting there soaking up all Tim had to teach me through that thick auto journalist skull of mine.
But as the light began to fade, Tim and I agreed to go back to the shop for the day’s final lesson.
At the end of each day, for both the security and rally schools, Tim takes everyone into the shop and lays out a series of car parts. All of them broken and mangled beyond repair. Here he shows the students what happens when you really screw something up. A spotlight into the real consequences of your actions out in the real world. That's really what this place does. They teach you to be the best driver you can be, not just in rally or out in the woods, but in any situation.
They're not just putting you into a rally car and letting you go crash off into a tree. Or even go back to your daily driver and do the same. Rather, Team O'Neil trains their students to be both great rally drivers and great everyday drivers. That's something really amazing.
My time spent at Team O'Neil taught me a lot of things. Like how to procure a snow drift, or, what to do when a Ford Fiesta loses control. But most importantly, it made me realize that I have an addiction, and rallying is my drug. A habit that I don't want to kick anytime soon.
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