I admit it: I’ve been driving a car since I was 16 (which without revealing my exact age has almost been twenty years – almost) and before spending a weekend at Team O’Neil Rally School, I didn’t know how to drive a manual transmission car. In my defense, I live in New York City, where having a car is more an inconvenience than anything else. So you can imagine my apprehension, traveling to New Hampshire for a weekend where I’d spend 5-10 hours of seat time driving a manual transmission rally car while learning complex maneuvers normally left to the professionals.
Thanks to the team at Brite Spokes, an experiential travel company who offers thematic trips and experiences, the entire weekend was well planned and coordinated for myself and my girlfriend Kirsten. After our private plane had arrived at an airstrip in Dalton, New Hampshire on Saturday morning, we were greeted by Verena Mei, a world class rally car driver who along with her driving partner, became the only all-female team to win a national class championship in the history of Rally America. I was immediately impressed by her credentials and how friendly & down-to-earth she was.
After a quick bus ride to the Team O’Neil’s headquarters, we received a quick download of the days activities from Tim O’Neil who even himself has won five US and North American Rally Championships. I was surrounded by pure professionals and impressive rally car drivers. Before I knew it, it was game time. I was a little worried about admitting I didn’t know how to drive a stick shift. Surely, the instructors expected anyone who would sign up for a weekend of rally car driving would already be comfortable with the basics of manual transmission. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case – Tim and all of the instructors at Team O’Neil were completely okay with my skill level. I quickly realized that all of the instructors were all down-to-earth, easygoing guys who absolutely loved what they did and were excited to get us all in the drivers seat. Tim himself took me for a 10-minute crash course – no actual crashing involved – on everything I needed to know how to drive manual.
While I had several stall-outs initially, to get the car moving, I wasn’t nervous about doing so with Tim in the passenger’s seat. Tim’s method of teaching put me completely at ease. His instruction came without frustration; like the rest of his team, he has a knack for teaching everything from simple to complex maneuvers in a digestible way. Before I knew it, I was driving a manual transmission and shifting from first to second to third and coming to complete stops without stalling. Amazing.
Not having to worry about whether or not I could drive a manual – while also trying to learn the technical skills of left-foot breaking, j-turns, driving the slalom and skidpad – was a huge relief. Thanks to Tim’s quick and effective instruction, I was able to enjoy the experience of learning maneuvers that the pro’s execute while rally car racing.
The weekend experience culminated in a final race – a course that would put to the test all of the skills that we had learned. When I realized that it would be a timed race against everyone in my group I traveled with at Brite Spokes, my adrenaline levels were amped up. The nervousness came back. It was game time. After carefully selecting the car I wanted to race (now my lucky #10), I started the car, clutch in, pulled up to the starting line and eagerly anticipated the word “GO“. I wasn’t worried about stalling out. The only thing on my mind was getting from start to finish, not hitting any cones and making the best time.
After I took two turns around the lap, I transformed from competitor to cheerleader – rooting for my girlfriend Kirsten as she did her best Verena Mei impression, weaving in and out of the turns. She, like me, was also a stick shift novice – and also complete led the course with great time, with no stall-outs or problems whatsoever. After everyone had completed their laps, two drivers were left tied for best time – a driver who was fully familiar with driving stick, and amazingly, myself. I was pretty shocked. Prior to that weekend, I never had expected to complete any course with a good time, let alone do so in a stick shift car. Being tied for best time only meant one thing – RACE OFF. It couldn’t have been scripted any better if it was a Hollywood movie.
I was the first to go. I got back in my lucky #10, pulled up to the line, and started to rev the engine. At the word “GO,” I was off and running, like a character from a Fast & Furious film. I felt my third time around the lap was my best, but I didn’t know how the other driver would do. My fingers were crossed. I watched as the second driver took his turn. From my vantage point, he was doing incredibly well, but only the stopwatch would tell.
The final results were in. The other driver’s time was announced – everything had happened so quickly, I can only recall that he finished with a time of fifty-something seconds. Then I heard my own name: “… with a time of 48.9 seconds.” In a single weekend, I transformed from novice to race-winner.
It’s a moment that I’ll never forget. And as a bonus, we got to sit in the passenger seat of Verena’s rally car while she took a spin around the track. It was exhilirating to say the least (thanks to Verena for the footage):
Next up: hopefully doing the four- or five-day rally course to get back in the driver’s seat.
Just to note that this weekend took place in 2013. Since I didn’t have a website at the time, I had no where to post this article!