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By Dan Zacharias
Ford Racing Public Relations


Rollercoasters are fun, but what I experienced last week is 1,000 times better.

Before heading to Loudon, New Hampshire, for the annual Sylvania 300, I visited the Team O'Neil Rally School, which is about a 90-minute drive north of Manchester on I-93. NASCAR drivers Greg Biffle and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. were going to be getting some lessons on how to drive rally cars, so I wanted to see how they would do.

After weaving my way through a series of dirt roads in the heavily wooded town of Whitefield, I finally arrived and was promptly greeted by Tim O'Neil, the man whose name is on the building and the one responsible for creating this one-of-a-kind facility. He immediately took me on a tour of the grounds and explained how he used his experience as a driver to personally shape and create the various characteristics that make up the six miles of gravel terrain.

If you have dreams of being a rally car driver in the United States, this is the place you must eventually go to because there are simply no other options. The school's success can be found in the fact that every Rally America Rookie of the Year since 2005 has come through their facility, including Ken Block who started that impressive run.

When the school's newest rookies, Biffle and Stenhouse, arrived on site they went through an abbreviated classroom session with O'Neil and this year's Rally America Two-Wheel Drive champion Andrew Comrie-Picard. They talked about how to execute various maneuvers through braking and shifting weight on the nimble Fiesta ST so they could execute such things as the Pendulum turn.

It didn't take long for either of them to get the hang of things, starting first on a circular skid pad and then graduating to the main course. When they had finished behind the wheel, both got a taste of what rally racing is really like when ACP put them in the passenger's seat of his race-ready Fiesta ST. Both tried to play the co-driver role and decipher coded pages of notes, but it wasn't easy. Stenhouse got a passing grade, but Biffle received an incomplete because after futilely trying to figure out the shorthand he simply told him to "go as fast as you can without hitting anything."

When they were done, ACP asked if anyone else wanted a ride.

I wasn't expecting that sort of invitation and was momentarily torn. It was like in the movies where the devil is on your left shoulder saying one thing. "Go ahead, it'll be fun. He's a professional driver. You have nothing to worry about." And the angel is on the other saying the exact opposite. "Are you really considering this? You have a wife, two young kids and a brand new puppy that depend on you. Don't do it!"
But I couldn't resist.

I jumped in the car and put on my helmet before fastening the five-point safety harness and plugging in the radio jack so we could talk on the course.

From the moment ACP hit the gas and slid down the hill towards the first turn I knew this was going to be fun. As we sped down straights at close to 80 miles an hour and skidded through turns with deft precision, I compared it to a skier competing in the giant slalom at the Olympics. ACP calmly talked to me about the nuances of the course while shifting, braking and sawing on the wheel all at once. It was amazing.

The highlight was when we came up a crest to an immediate left-hand turn and got all four wheels off the ground. I clenched my teeth and braced for what I thought would be a rough sideways landing, but it was almost like we landed on a pillow as the shocks absorbed the energy and the tires immediately grabbed the surface to take us down the final hill.

I got out and was feeling an adrenaline rush, so when Stenhouse asked if anyone wanted to go for a ride with him, I didn't hesitate.

We took off and I could tell Stenhouse was taking this seriously, but, unlike my first ride, I could feel myself getting tense as we slid right and left. The trees that lined both sides of the path were a blur as we whizzed past, but the car began drifting sideways as we approached a left-hand turn. I looked out my passenger window, and all I could see about 20 yards in front of me was a tree. I had this vision of tree limbs coming right through the window, which was cracked halfway down.

At this point I also heard one of those little voices inside my head and it was saying, "I told you not to do it!"

I could see Stenhouse working the wheel out of the corner of my eye, and then it felt like we hit something with the rear tire that propelled us back into the middle of the road. We finished without further incident and found out later from a course worker who witnessed our near off-road excursion that the left-front tire actually got off the ground as the right-rear slid downward into the ditch.

"You were still smiling when you passed me," he said.

And why wouldn't I be? It was the ride of a lifetime and something I'll never forget.

(If you have your own dreams of becoming a Rally champion, or simply want to spend a few days at the country's premier Rally School learning how to control your car like a pro, visit www.teamoneil.com. They have one to five-day Rally courses, Technical Off-Road training and more.)

Dan Zacharias is a member for the Ford Racing Public Relations staff.
  • 16 years on the NASCAR beat for Ford Racing
  • Faster than a speeding bullet when it comes to transcribing driver interviews
  • Able to leap pit wall in a single bound during post-race mayhem

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