Rally Racing School teaches the basics of controlled chaos

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DALTON, NH – It seems like a parent’s nightmare.

A 15-year-old without a driver’s license happily glided the car sideways turn after turn, the accelerator pedal to the ground and the occupants straining against their seat belts as they were thrown side to side. other.

But the father, one of the back passengers, nodded in approval.

“I want him to be better at everything than I am,” Alex Dunser, an attorney in Tampa, Fla., Said of his teenage son Lech as the instructor in the front passenger seat criticized the controlled chaos .

The Dunsers were one of a dozen students here recently for a three-day, $ 3,600 class at Team O’Neil Rally School in northern New Hampshire.

The main objective of the school is to impart the integral skills of rally racing, an off-road motor sport. Rallies involve cars racing against the clock, usually on narrow, winding dirt or snow-covered roads, day or night.

But many students at Team O’Neil School attend classes for fun or to learn accident avoidance techniques. Or, in the case of Army Special Operations Forces members who have taken the course, they learn to drive under extreme stress over rough terrain.

“We use pieces of road borrowed from the United States Forest Service or a logging company,” Travis Hanson, a rally veteran and director of training, told the group that included the Dunsers.

“It’s a real road,” he said. “It’s not designed to go fast. If you go off the road on a rally, there are rocks, cliffs, and trees, and everything is designed to kill you.

Each year, approximately 500 people take the course at this 600-acre resort. Most are looking for an automotive adventure with the added benefit of learning how to control a car in an emergency or on a slippery road, said Chris Cyr, the school’s general manager.

But some intend to learn to run and all come away with basic skills for the sport. In North America, rally routes typically run 10 to 20 miles on roads closed to the public. Although speeds vary depending on road and car conditions, 70 miles per hour is not unusual, and the most powerful rally cars easily reach 100 mph.

“Rallying is the best form of motorsport,” Mr. Hanson told the class.

Competing on a racetrack is relatively safe, he said, as there are areas of grassy or gravel runoff to slow a wandering vehicle. And racing drivers train lap after lap, learning what each turn looks like and how to take it. But there are no rally tests.

“In rallying, you’re either on the road or you crash,” Hanson told the novices. “It’s a little crazy, but I think you’ll like it.”

The promised madness began with six Ford Fiestas, each containing two students and an instructor, all wearing helmets. They were parked at the edge of a large open area called an ice rink, which a tanker had soaked to create a brown sip.

For students, the basis of rally driving is understanding how the transfer of the car’s weight between the front and rear tires affects handling.

Braking or releasing the throttle plunges the front of the car and puts more weight on the front tires, giving them more grip. The less weight on the rear tires makes them more likely to slip.

Acceleration shifts weight towards the rear of the car, making it squat and giving the rear tires more grip.

In one of the Fiestas, instructor Allen Welch explained to Amit Patel, 38, who works in finance in Des Moines, how to use his left foot to brake while pressing hard on the accelerator.

“We’re not trying to slow the car down; we’re just trying to put weight on the front to make the car run, ”said Welch, who has already spent more than a quarter of a century as a soldier in the state of New Hampshire.

Credit…Ian Thomas Jansen-Lonnquist for The New York Times

Mr. Patel began to slalom through half a dozen orange cones spaced about 75 feet apart.

“Take a little brake and add gas,” Welch explained. “Gas, gas. No more gas. Are you at full throttle? He said as the high-revving 4-cylinder engine howled as the tires crashed into the mud and the click-click of rocks thrown against the floor.

Throughout the course, the students were invited to always go faster. This class was made up entirely of men, but 10 percent of the students each year are girls and women. One of the instructors is also a woman: Duffi Pratt, an elementary school teacher who was a motorcycle rider and learned rally driving at Team O’Neil.

The instructor’s main job, Ms. Pratt said, is to monitor student use of braking, acceleration and steering and to try to make sure that each is happening at the right time, in the correct order.

“It’s like a puzzle, putting the puzzle together until there is some success,” she said.

As speeds increased, orange cones were cut, broken, and dragged under the cars. There has been some fallout. A driver lightly crashed into a ditch. But it was an enthusiastic and increasingly competent group.

Chris Hess, a 22-year-old senior at Virginia Tech, and his father, Scott, shared one of the Fiestas and were among the fastest in the group. Their past adventures included driving at high speed on race tracks, where they were tired of driving lap after lap through the same bends.

“The trail is boring,” said elder Mr. Hess, a software engineer from Alexandria, Va. “It seems like a one minute thrill because you don’t know what’s coming next.”

As the course progressed, more and more emphasis was placed on the principle of “looking where you want to go”.

It may seem obvious. But this is not the case, in the context of rally driving or road navigation in bad weather. Sometimes the car can slide in a direction the driver does not want to follow, such as towards a tree.

The idea is to focus not on that menacing, creepy tree, but on where the driver would prefer to go – even if that means looking out a side window. The brain tells the driver’s hands how to steer the car. It’s a leap of faith, but it works, say the teachers.

On the third day, the class took turns along a small loop of the school’s six-mile private road.

Lech Dunser, the 15-year-old, turned with confidence. “It’s awesome,” he says.

He learned faster than some adults and the instructors weren’t surprised.

“I think they’re at an advantage because they haven’t learned a lot of bad habits yet,” said one of Lech’s instructors, Alan Moody. “They learn the right way to drive from the start. “

This is precisely what his father wanted.

“I think he has to have a solid foundation for driving,” Mr. Dunser said.

There has been a debate for decades among auto safety researchers about the wisdom of teaching teens advanced driving skills.

Critics fear that such training encourages risk-taking.

Dr Flaura Winston, director of the Center for Child Injury Prevention Studies at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, argues that teens should focus on learning to recognize and avoid dangerous situations first. Learning to skid control should come much later.

Advocates of advanced driver training say it makes sense to equip teens with skills that can help them avoid an accident if they make a mistake.

Mr. Hanson, training director of the rally school, acknowledges the debate.

“We can give them the skills of controlling the car, but judgment is something that is difficult to teach,” Mr. Hanson said. “It would definitely be something their parents would have to work with outside of our teaching. “

Mr Dunser said Lech was far from driving alone. He can’t even apply for his Florida license until next year.

“I also told him not to confuse knowledge with experience,” said Dunser.

“My goal now is to have Lech to drive with me in as many diverse situations as possible,” he said. “I told him he wouldn’t be allowed to drive himself until I was convinced he did it better than the vast majority of drivers.”


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