Three years ago, Bill Caswell took a $500 Craigslist BMW to a WRC event in Mexico. He didn't suck, but he still needed work. We had America's largest rally school teach him how to do the sport right.
(Full Disclosure: Because they believe in what Caswell is doing, Team O'Neil Rally School in Dalton, New Hampshire provided two entries to its four-day driving school to help us bring you this story. As with all their students, they also bought us lunch one day (a damn good hoagie) and gave us access to their Red Bull-gifted minifridge of Red Bull. I drank some. It was bullicious.)
(Editor's Note: This story was in the archives for like two years for reasons I don't understand. I was reminded of it today. Sam, as you know, now helps run an almost monthly newsletter about cars called Road & Track when not penning rants for a LaRouche website under the nom de plume Fritz Crackers. Some of the references may be out of date. — MH)
The rally world is a strange place. As in most forms of motorsport, it's possible to be a genius behind the wheel, labor for years on the amateur circuit, win championships, and get zero attention or exposure. Competitive driving isn't like a stick-and-ball sport — you can't climb the ladder on talent alone. It takes money, luck, more money, more luck, and then some more money on top of that.
Welcome, And You Are Doing It Wrong
And so we have the strange case of Bill Caswell, a man who, like many aspiring rally drivers, started with almost nothing. He built a car in his mom's garage, spending a tenth of what most people spend, and went to Mexico to run a World Rally Championship event alongside his heroes. Despite going down with no crew and a car that was on the verge of falling apart, he didn't die and actually finished respectably. He also learned one thing: He had a bit of talent, but it wasn't going to carry him. He needed to learn how to drive.
We've told you about Bill before. We told you how someone put his car in Forza Motorsport, how he went to Pikes Peak on a whim, how you could buy a T-shirt and help support his outside-the-establishment weirdness. We mounted a last-minute, sounds-like-fun campaign to get him into the X Games, mere weeks before the event, and got 2700 people to show their support on Facebook. (Rally America ultimately nixed the idea, claiming that Bill wasn't fast enough, despite having allowed people into the event on thinner grounds before.)
The next step is making the man better. For that, we called on the Team O'Neil Rally School, the official rally school of Rally America (yes, we know the organization recently changed its name to RallyCar, but that name is confusing and somewhat obtuse, so we're going to stick with the old moniker). Located in the wilds of New Hampshire, Team O'Neil is one of the best places in the world for learning car control and the specifics of stage driving. It's also an organization that prides itself on being both eminently professional and laid-back as hell.
We visited Team O'Neil earlier this summer and brought Caswell and his ratty '91 BMW 318i along. By his own admission, Bill entered the sport the wrong way — he built a car, he went rallying, and then he realized what was needed to succeed. We wanted to see if we could undo some of his bad habits. What we learned blew our minds.
Also, holy hell but Bill's car is a piece of crap. More on that later.
Day One: Admit That You Suck
Here's the thing about racing schools: They almost never teach you what you really need to know. I'm lucky enough to have had more hours of professional driving instruction than I can count. (Note: I'm not saying this makes me any good, merely that it makes me stink less than I would have otherwise. I had a short, if somewhat successful, career in SCCA regional club racing, which only served to teach me that A) I was not Michael Schumacher, or even his half-blind cousin twice removed; and B) given enough time, almost everything I love will make me broke. Your mileage may vary.) Most of the time, you show up, you drive a car around a track, you have someone with a snazzy haircut and an ego the size of Massachusetts give you band-aid solutions to your problems while looking bored. Most racing schools teach you how to paint by numbers, not how to draw something yourself, and few are worth what you pay.
Listen to me, then, when I say this: When it comes to what you get, how you get it, and how much you pay for it, Team O'Neil is probably the best damn driving-school on the planet. It's also fun as hell.
The O'Neil Rally School sits on a 560-acre plot just outside of Dalton, New Hampshire, a small town about three hours north of Boston. It was founded in 1997 by five-time U.S. and North American rally champion Tim O'Neil, a former mechanic, stock-car racer, WRC competitor, and one-time factory driver for both Volkswagen and Mitsubishi.
Tim is an unassuming, thick-accented New Englander, the kind of easy-going guy who has his entire staff walking around in comfortable clothes and mud boots just because it's practical. His instructors run the gamut from former police officers to impossibly talented north-woods rally geeks in their twenties. There are several programs available, ranging from the one-day Ford Fiesta experience to a five-day program designed to transform ordinary nobodies into HenriPetterColinStig Kovåloinøkkakküküinønbärganeïnens. All of them make use of a fleet of Audi 5000 quattros and A2 Volkswagen Golfs and Jettas. There are also a couple of BMW E30 325s for students with a rear-wheel-drive fetish.
Which is where our pal Bill comes in.
Bill Caswell was once a rally geek in his twenties. He's now an unemployed dude in his thirties, the kind of impossibly confident person who, while living off his credit cards, sets off for a three-day rally in Mexico with no crew and a half-finished car because, as he puts it, "it just seemed like the thing to do." When we arrive at O'Neil, he is confident, happy, smiling. We sit through forty-five minutes of classroom talk — the fundamantals of the rally line, the basics of left-foot braking, that sort of thing — and he is still confident. Then we spend the rest of the day driving on dirt, watching O'Neil's instructors (all of whom are younger than both he and I) and trying things for ourselves, and I see his eyes open.
They get wider and wider.
Day Two: Attempt to Fix the Suck
Above all else, there is one basic rule in rallying: Do Not Crash. If you crash, you are no longer driving, and if you are no longer driving, then you do not finish the rally. The goal is to finish the rally.
Because of this, O'Neil's school teaches car control. Not hold my beer, watch this hoonage, but actual car control-carrying as much speed as possible in a variety of unpredictable circumstances, being prepared for the unexpected, and setting yourself up to risk as little as you have to. As you might expect, most of this involves driving sideways. But not like you might think.
"You're either a lifter or a turner — too much of one or the other. And everybody is a turner when they come out here." —Chuck, Team O'Neil instructor
The school starts you off in front-wheel-drive cars (the aforementioned VWs), teaching you the basics. All of the available cars are stock save minor suspension (stiffer springs, Bilsteins, skidplates) and interior (mostly stripped but equipped with harness bars) modifications. Through the use of a long dirt/gravel slalom, a couple of 90-degree cone boxes, and a massive dirt skidpad, you learn patience. You learn that you have spent your
entire life countersteering too much (anything more than about twenty degrees off center is considered being "handsy" with the wheel) and not using your left foot to turn the car enough. The stuff O'Neil's crew teaches is mind-blowing — you spend all of your time throwing away entry speed, leaving room to recover, and figuring out how to make the car slide within inches of the same patch of dirt over and over again. It's like road racing in Bizarro world.
You also learn the Damn Near Amazing Holy Hell Art of grabbing the car by the scruff of the neck at 45 mph and flicking it (wrong way-right way-wrong way) sideways into a ten-foot-wide, L-shaped cone gate — a corner — without hitting anything or losing momentum. (Hint: This is known as a Scandanavian Flick, and no magazine or driver's handbook has ever described how to do it properly.) And because the O'Neil guys believe repetition is the key to all awesomeness, you do it over and over and over again until you get it right and can repeat it. Despite being part of a fairly large class, we spent most of the day behind the wheel.
"You need to drive the car into rotation, not fling it there. Why use the steering if you don't have to?" —Chris, Team O'Neil instructor
Which brings us to Bill. It turns out that, on dirt, I'm decent but handicapped — after a life of driving sideways on gravel roads for fun, I actually have to teach myself how to be less dramatic and toss the car around less — and Bill has his own set of issues. We both come from a road-racing background, but he's simply better. He has more experience doing the wrong things and practicing bad habits on rally stages, but he's better at throwing those bad habits away. He's also maddeningly analytical, which surprises the hell out of me — I've watched him drive for years, and I always assumed that he pretty much just closed his eyes and planted his right foot.
His results help tell the story: Decent finishes, when he finishes, but there are usually problems. The car comes apart. He doesn't get any sleep while fixing it and is late to the start. The car catches fire. Whether fast or slow, he's entertaining but sloppy. He's only had a few significant offs, and given his car, he's done well, but… I guess I just never expected him to learn this quickly.
"I feel like I'm driving for the first time," he says.
"You guys aren't half bad, but you still suck," says an instructor.
We are making progress.
Day Three: Do What the Man in the Sunglasses Does
We are introduced to all-wheel drive.
After a lifetime of living with weird old German cars, the O'Neil school Audis — all-wheel-drive 5000s of varying vintages — feel like home. I can tell Bill feels the same way. They sound right (weird, funky, five pots). They move like Audis are supposed to move (throttle understeer, mad grip, rotate with your left foot like nobody's business). And Bill, who was frustrated earlier by the delicacy required to make the Volkswagens behave, is suddenly happier. He's smoother and faster, his inputs more liquid.
The mechanics are easy: small, dabbing steering inputs, even when the car is hung out and scrabbling. Constant throttle. Brake to induce, or recover from, a slide. Watching the instructors drive is like watching a talented artist paint — you know how it's done, and you can see yourself maybe getting there one day, but hell, not now. It just happens, and it feels right, and you can't take your eyes off it. I've ridden with a lot of pro rally drivers, everyone from Ken Block to Walter Rohrl, and some of O'Neil's guys are right up there.
Talking amongst ourselves, Bill and I are starting to sound like a two-man PR firm for this joint. It's hard not to discuss. Bill: "Other racing schools, they tell you how to properly reach the car's limits, but they don't help you get there. Here, they take away the traction and the tires. If you don't do everything right, the car isn't going to turn — period. I've set my car up to mask all my bad habits." I begin to think about buying a Volkswagen. Or several.
I watch Bill put things together, listening, asking questions. He has a habit of talking too much when he's excited, and he's excited constantly here, so he's talking constantly. But if someone else is talking, he shuts up and listens. Two older Subaru Impreza coupes are thrown in the mix, one of which has sports bald tires. Compared to the Audis, the Imprezas feel a hundred times more nimble. The bald-tired one is frustratingly impossible to go quickly in — even the instructors have issues carrying any speed with it. I hate it. Bill loves it.
Toward the end of the day, we're let loose on a course through the woods around the shop (the above picture shows the superwide slalom, not the course), putting the habits to practice with trees to hit and ditches to end up in, and neither one of us manages to hit anything. (OK, I bounce off a haybale in an Audi and come this close to a tree after fixing my eyes on it like a rube. But no harm done to car, no foul.)
For the most part, the all-wheel-drive dance goes like this: Lift. Turn. Brake to get the nose to bite and rotate the car. Once the car is pointed straight again, add throttle. Magic. If you do it right, your hands and right foot almost never move. The challenge isn't in keeping the car on the road — it's in keeping the car on the road cleanly.
At the end of the day, after three straight days of driving, I'm so exhausted I can't see straight. Bill spends most of the night fixing… something on his 318i. There's always something to fix. Good god is that car a piece of shit.
Day Four: Suck Less, Be Smart, Drive Your Crapcan, Haul Ass
The last day is best summed up in a series of anecdotes.
It's raining. We are introduced to one of the school's E30-chassis BMWs, a mud-covered 325 (no "i" or "e") with rally tires on one end and snow tires on the other. It looks like it wants to steal my lunch money. It's fun. It's beyond fun. It's a crack pipe with no consequences. Bill and I spend most of the morning hooning around in it with an approachable instructor in his mid-twenties named Wyatt.
"They spend more time off the road per driver than any of the other cars here, but they also break the least." —Wyatt, Team O'Neil instructor, on the school's BMWs
Wyatt hammers over hills at 50 mph with the car's ass hung out to next week and then immediately flicks the wheel the opposite direction, pitching us around a corner. Wyatt has an evil grin on his face and seems to enjoy the E30 more than any of the other Team O'Neil guys. We like Wyatt.
We unload Bill's car off the trailer, complete with rally tires, roll cage, and an interior still full of Mexican dirt. Bill drives it through the woods with Wyatt. I can tell from watching that he's gotten significantly better, that his crappy car — bottoming rear suspension, pogoing front shocks, howling engine and all — seems a lot crappier when it's driven in something resembling the right style. He brings it in and Wyatt climbs behind the wheel. I have a sneaking suspicion that Wyatt has never driven a rear-wheel-drive rally car with this much power. We tear off into the woods, the 318i's 200-hp, 7000-rpm four screaming its head off. The trees go all blurry.
Yeah. Dude is fast.
"He's right: He's set the car up to work around all of the things he's doing wrong. It's fast and a lot — a lot — of fun, but it needs help." — Wyatt
We stop and trade places. Because Bill is a much bigger guy than I am, I'm far too small for the seat and can't see over the dash. Wyatt is about my size and wasn't intimidated, but I'm a little freaked — Bill wants to make a rally next weekend, and I can't see over the dash, and the Michelin rally tires have a lot of grip, and the steering rack is quick, and and and…
I screw around a bit in the slalom, it rains harder, and I decide that discretion is the better part of not breaking the hell out of someone else's Internet-famous junkyard race car. (Sure, he crashed it the following month. I should've driven the wheels off it. Hindsight is 20/20.) Bill drives it again, the mud gets thicker, he gets more sideways. I go out to shoot pictures; I can see his face through the window as he passes. He's laughing.
Later, I ask Wyatt what he thinks is wrong with the car's setup. "Too much front spring, maybe," he says, a hand on a front fender. "Too little rear," he adds, pushing the trunk, watching it bounce. "The nose washes early, and the back is moving around too much."
"Yeah, I just tried to double the stock rates," Bill says. "I didn't know what I was doing and didn't have any time." I then discover that the car's undercarriage is stock save the springs, a set of Bilstein sport shocks, and some odd sway bar Bill found in his basement.
"I've been doing everything wrong. I'd use the throttle when I'm supposed to be braking and brake when I'm supposed to be on the throttle. If I jump on the gas, my car rotates. If I jump on the brakes, my car rotates. I can't believe I haven't died yet. Ass-backwards." —Bill
And So It Begins
"Rallying constantly changes, so there's no one answer that covers every situation. The goal here is to give you a library of maneuvers, to teach you everything and give you tools for your toolbox. Then you decide what you want to do. If you use the right maneuver at the right time, don't make mistakes, and listen to your navigator, then you win the rally. That's all there is to it." —Tim O'Neil
By the end of the fourth day, Bill is a totally different driver. He's cleaner, more precise, and more able to process things before they occur. I can see it in his eyes. At one point, he admits to me that he wishes he'd come to O'Neil's school before going to Mexico, even before building his car.
As for me, I've improved, but still have problems putting it all together — it's not an issue of car control, more an issue of making my body do what I want it to. But I'm definitely faster, more capable, more comfortable with the car doing silly things in a very precise fashion. Heck, after four days of this, it's impossible to stink — you may not be good, but you won't be horrible. And if you have even the slightest appreciation for the subject matter and a willingness to learn, you'll come out of it miles ahead of where you were.
"I'm not trying to be a superstar. I go rallying to have fun, to camp out with my friends. But I want to be better. Badly." —Bill
You will, Bill. You will. In the meantime, I think I'll crack open a beer, put my feet up, and watch what comes next. It's just too much fun.
"Rally is the most difficult thing I've ever tried. What a lot of people miss, a lot of people forget, is that it is about fun. It's not cheap, but it's not as expensive as it looks, either. Get off the sofa and go do something." —Tim O'Neil
Full Disclosure: Bill Caswell is my friend and has been for years. Neither I or Jalopnik profit in any way from his exposure or sponsor deals, and he is not a part of our editorial planning or privy to our publishing schedule. The staff of this website thinks he's worth getting behind simply because of what he does and how he does it.
Photo Credits: Sam Smith/Jalopnik
Special thanks to Tim, Wyatt, Forrest, Chris, and the entire gang at Team O'Neil for helping make this story happen. If you'd like to learn more about the school and its programs, visit TeamONeil.com.