“We’ve been working for 20 years now with different...kind of elements of government personnel,” former two-wheel drive national rally champion Wyatt Knox explains, “that I’ve signed a lot of things and I would disappear if I told you who they were.”
We’re on the far side of the White Mountains in New Hampshire at Team O’Neil Rally School. This is where Ken Block and the top rally drivers in the country come to test their skills and where the next generation starts to learn. And this is where some of the key elements in America’s military learn how to protect themselves on the road.
The school won’t say precisely who comes out, but the staff at Team O’Neil have their reasons for that. I asked Wyatt what would happen to him if he did let specifics slip. “You know, bag over the head, zip ties around the wrists, in the back of a van somewhere...I don’t know, and I don’t want to find out.”
As Team O’Neil has found out, the skills that you master in rally driving are the same that you have to grasp to learn tactical driving. Rally driving is all about going as fast as possible, in any kind of car, on any kind of road, without breaking the vehicle or hurting yourself. Rally cars can be light or heavy, front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, all-wheel drive. You can be racing on dirt, on pavement, in forests, towns, or deserts, on snow, or ice, or mud, rain, or fog, or any combination all on the same weekend-long event, if not on the same day.
If you suffer a mechanical failure out in the middle of the woods hours from anyone else, in rally you need to learn how to fix it with whatever you have available or learn how to limp your car as safely and quickly as possible to where it can be repaired. You need to keep control of the car sideways, over bumps, at speed. Anything that can be thrown at you in a car, rally teaches you how to solve.
The whole idea of tactical driving is how to stay safe. You’re out in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chad, Yemen, wherever. You encounter a road block. You have to get out of the situation as quickly and as safely as possible. Well, what you’re engaging in at that point is basically rally driving. You need to reverse at high speed, minimizing wheel spin as much as you can, throw the car into a slide with precision, and drive away. These are skills that a rally school is equipped to teach.
It’s also what you call high speed reversing and a reverse 180, just two individual skills that Team O’Neil teaches in its tactical driving courses. These are five-day training exercises that keep Americans from getting trapped, shot at, or worse.
Anybody can throw a car in reverse and mash the gas, but under pressure that person is likely going to lose control without training. That means a crash, that means broken equipment, and in the wrong corner of the world, that means capture or death.
My coworker Mike Ballaban and I spent two days up at Team O’Neil this summer just getting a taste of what America’s [REDACTED], [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] learn in O’Neil’s tactical driving courses, hammering Ford Crown Vics through the woods, backwards and forwards, drilling with a former Navy SEAL on protocols for what to do if your car is disabled by enemy fire or explosives, and how to protect yourself at last resort. That meant tactical shooting with pistols, AR-15s and an AK-47.
What these people have to go through to maintain their safety out on the world’s more hostile roads is intense. I wouldn’t want to do it for a living. But it’s interesting to be sure that it’s a little rally school that teaches them how to stay safe, and that the skills translate so easily.
(Catch these antics and more every Wednesday on Car vs. America, 8 p.m. ET and PT on Fusion.)