Driver education in this country is a joke. There's a place where you can learn to do better, and it kicks ass. Let me explain why you and everyone you know should go to rally school.
A few weekends ago, I made the drive up to New Hampshire near the Canadian border to visit the Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center. Truth be told, I was going more for the 'car control' side of things than the 'rally school.' I was going with Steve, Jalopnik contributor and competitive rally co-driver. He has a desert racing truck. He is cool.
While Steve and I would have been happy to get real rally school experience, that's a multi-day affair that costs thousands of bucks. Jalopnik has already been there done that anyway, when we sent Sam Smith and Bill Caswell up for four days of rally prep (which would cost you $4,772) a few years back.
Steve and I were there for the $569 one-day experience. We'd be working with basically stock Ford Fiestas and getting lessons in car control that you can find descriptions of just about anywhere online.
I had no idea how much fun I would have, or how much more I would learn behind the wheel as opposed to just skimming yet another driver training article on the Internet.
(Full Disclosure: Tim O'Neil wanted Steve and me to review his driving school so bad, he told us to drive up any time and take a one-day class for free. He forgot to tell anyone else at Team O'Neil that we were coming, but it all worked out in the end.)
The day starts around eight or nine in the morning with instruction from Travis Hanson, winner of the 2011 Rally America National Championship in the Super Production class, at one point beating out the top Unlimited cars for an overall win. At the school, we're a class of about 10, ranging from 20-something tracktards to grey haired men getting a retirement present.
Travis' instructions are always simple: know the limits of the road. Know the limits of your vehicle. Know your own limits.
He keeps us on theory through the morning: how do accidents happen? Too much speed for the conditions, too little prep on the vehicle, too many maneuvers at one time.
Then he goes to the white board and gave the same basic spiel you see in most performance driving guides. He diagrams corners with magnets and points out the gains of a late apex. He talks about steering with the brakes, braking with your left leg, and how all of us would screw that up. That's when we go out to the course to drive and Travis was right - we all do screw it up.
The first test is a skidpad. All I have to do is drive around a wet, muddy circle. The trick is I have to keep the steering wheel locked at about a quarter turn off of center and I have to keep my right foot steady on about three-quarters throttle. As the car plows wide, I'm supposed to add a little brake with my left foot. Gently, smoothly.
That doesn't happen.
If you use your left foot while driving at all, you use it for the clutch, and all that takes is just jamming your foot to the floor and lifting it back up again. Left foot braking means you have to be as careful with the brake as you are with the gas. Brush the pedal, don't mash it.
It's no surprise I spend the whole time on the skidpad turning the wheel more (wrong) or lifting off the gas (wrong). On to the next exercise.
This time we move to a wide, fast slalom. Again, I'm supposed to keep the throttle absolutely steady and just modulate the car with my left foot. Again, this does not work. I'm still lifting off for the turns and steering the car too much. The basically stock Ford Fiestas feel happy and sharp, but I'm getting past the bad habits drilled into my head from my years on the road.
After a few runs, the instructors open up the slalom even wider and magical things start to happen. My foot is getting a bit more sensitive. I'm a bit more confident about keeping on the gas and when I go into a corner I stop thinking so hard. My feet just do the work. Turn in, brush the brake, and feel the car absolutely settle down into a perfect little drift.
Of course, once you get things right, you can't help but want to do things wrong. When you see how a slight bit of brake can get you a tiny, fast slide, a big bit of brake gets you a fat, slow slide. Fat, slow slides are seriously fun. They are not extremely helpful in teaching you how to be a faster, safer driver, but hearing rocks ping off the bottom of the car while you pile in tons of countersteer is addictive.
As I'm getting a hang of sliding the car, it's time for the Scandinavian flick - the pendulum turn - the holy grail of car control. Car people speak about the Scandi flick in hushed tones. The basic idea is to use the weight of the car in your favor: you throw the car in the opposite direction than you want to go, then flick back and the weight of the car slews you into a big slide. The instructors explain that to make our left hand turn we will have to:
- lift off the gas
- turn as hard as you can to the right
- lightly get on the brakes with the left foot
- turn as hard as you can to the left
- get off the brake
- get back on the gas
This is all supposed to happen in a split second. On Team O'Neil's multi-day programs, students get a whole day on the Scandi flick. We have about a dozen tries.
It turns out, if you stop thinking, it's not the hardest thing in the world to do. You just have to be totally committed to doing absolutely everything wrong in the car. Absolutely every part of the maneuver is counter intuitive. Only on the last run do I manage to get it right, letting the car swing all the way out before getting back on the gas and the little Fiesta pulls itself out of the slide. It's possible that I shout for a bit I'm so happy.
So the Scandinavian flick is the most challenging part of the day,but the part that sticks with me the most comes after and it doesn't sound as exciting. It's accident avoidance.
You drive up straight at a pile of cones and at the very last second the instructor tells you to go left or right. The idea is to simulate what it's like to come across a deer or a moose on a country road, or to see a car crash in front of you on the highway. This is where the fun of the rest of the day turns into a lesson.
You're piling on speed down a hill towards a round island of cones. The instructor yells 'left' and you throw the car to the left. You then have to throw the car back to the right or else you're going to spear off the track into the woods. What you don't realize at first is this is the setup for a Scandinavian flick. You have to be thinking about the weight transfer and countersteering properly to keep the car from getting out of control.
The lessons from before suddenly make sense. It starts to sink in that the lessons to become a good rally driver are the lessons to be a good driver, period. Nobody taught me any of this when I had my learner's permit. In fact, nobody was even allowed to teach me any of this.
In America, the way you learn how to drive is you get a little bit of basic instruction on how to follow the rules of the road, but next to nothing on how to actually drive. You get your license, and then you're sent off onto the highway to figure things out. Inevitably, everyone crashes and nobody learns how to really handle the weight or the brakes on a car.
The old system for driving instruction worked when people lived on farms; when every family had two married parents and dad had plenty of time to teach you on farm vehicles.
Now farm families are rare, nuclear families are rare, and nobody has time for anything or access to private roads where you can safely get things wrong in a car. There isn't really anything picking up that slack, other than a place like Team O'Neil. Luckily for you, the medicine that you have to take there to be a better driver means totally hooning the crap out of some fun little econoboxes.
Just get out there and do it. It's the most fun you'll ever have in school.
Photo Credits: Raphael Orlove/Steve Harrell/Jalopnik