To all of the parents who say that those dern video games (shakes fist) exist just to turn their kids’ brains to mush, talk to Dave Carapetyan. He turned a passion for rallying in the gaming world to a real-life motorsports career and his own school for rally racing down in Austin, Texas.
Who says video games are a waste of time?
The school is Rally Ready Driving School, and it’s one of only a handful of rally schools in the nation. All businesses have their tales, but this one has a particularly interesting backstory that I’ve had the pleasure of learning over the past year from Carapetyan himself.
Today Carapetyan is a longtime Pikes Peak International Hill Climb competitor, a ClubRally national champion, a driver coach in the Red Bull Global Rallycross Lites series and a dedicated teacher of the art of getting sideways on dirt.
It all began with Gran Turismo 3. No, I’m not kidding.
(Full disclosure: I found Dave’s rally school online and went to check it out for a story earlier this year. He let me turn some laps, and we’ve become friends since then because he’s a good guy.)
The game sat practically untouched at a friend’s house, so Carapetyan picked up a controller to try it at age 15. Naturally, it didn’t take long for him to learn that he was “practically untouchable” when it came to the rallying portion, in his words.
“In the video game, my friends got so tired of me beating them that at one point, one of my buddies said, ‘Well this is bullshit, why don’t you just get a real rally car?’” he said. “And I was like, ‘Well, that’s a good idea.’”
And he did. That is, after crashing his mom’s ’87 Chevrolet Nova a few times while learning to do hand-brake turns in parking lots and attempting to clear massive jumps in fields.
With a video game and the totaling of his mom’s vehicle as the extent of his rallying experience to date, Carapetyan used money he’d made playing music (Note: How does one acquire this many diverse talents? Can I purchase talent somewhere?) and a little help from his father to buy a rally car on his 17th birthday in 2004. Taking it to his first rally three months later, he realized that the game’s portrayal of the sport was pretty accurate.
Carapetyan took a liking to the fact that rally driving couldn’t be broken down to a science — that no computer-simulated model could predict how a certain driver, car, track or weather condition would perform on a lap-by-lap basis. The style of racing, he concluded, is “entirely too dynamic” to do so.
“Every time a tire hits a patch of gravel, that surface completely and totally changes, and that’s the same for 30 or 40 cars,” he said. “Even in a video game, that sense of the way you control the car and the way you communicate with the car — and how it’s much less scientific and much more on feel in many respects — really spoke to me.”
The driver was sold, but his dad remained skeptically supportive of the endeavor. As those familiar to racing can attest to, Carapetyan hadn’t chosen the most financially stable route.
“You don’t get into this line of work because you’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to get paid for this,” he said. “It’s extremely, unbearably expensive, and the reward is whatever you make of it, really.”
The Pikes Peak hill climb in 2005 marked Carapetyan’s third race, an event he’s now competed in for more than a decade running. It soon became the staple of his career — giving him the nickname “Texas Dave.”
But it also left him wondering what came next.
“I won Pikes Peak in the Open Division in 2008, 2009 and 2010, and it was after the second of those three wins in 2009 that I was like, hell, well what do I do with this?” he said.
As it turns out, he could do a lot with it.
Carapetyan knew he wanted to share the love he’d found for rallying, but came to the conclusion that it isn’t something you can just tell a person about.
“It’s hard to explain what it is that rallying is, but more importantly, you can’t describe what the adrenaline, and the intensity, and really, the empowering beauty that is driving a rally car,” Carapetyan said. “You can’t explain that to somebody in words.”
So, he decided that he’d show people instead — not just show them, but teach them as well. Thus, the concept of developing a rally school came into the mix.
The birth of that concept allowed for Rally Ready to join a rather short list of rally schools in the U.S., one that includes the well-known DirtFish Rally School in Washington, The Florida International Rally & Motorsport Park and Team O’Neil Rally School in New Hampshire.
Armed with experience from driving at Team O’Neil, Carapetyan attended sales training at a local Austin company owned by former Subaru Rally Team USA driver Karl Scheible. Soon after, he and partner Rob Amato got to work on the future school’s curriculum in 2010.
But one thing was still missing: the track. Without a course to evaluate the curriculum on, Carapetyan said “it was like writing a cookbook without a kitchen to test [the] recipes.”
Closing on a property contract in 2012 (the school has since moved to a new, 138-acre piece of land in Dale southeast of Austin called the “Rally Ranch”), the team finally got its kitchen. Testing the product on everyone from experienced racers to folks who had no clue what rallying was, they discovered that the recipe was spot on.
“People who had never even so much as Googled left-foot braking were able to run a rally course at a comparable time to me and [fellow racing driver and owner of a Texas rallycross track] Brianne Corn,” he said. “So, most of what I found was really that we either got super lucky with our test students, we were terrible drivers, or we delivered on everything we had hoped much better than we expected.”
Delivery of the curriculum boiled down to a more one-on-one approach, both inside the car and out. But how do you actually teach people to go fast?
“People learn really in three different ways: there are auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners for the most part,” he said. “Most of us are some combination of those things, so in terms of the actual way that we communicate the information to people, we want to make sure that it comes at people in a lot of different ways.”
The same concept goes for every student at the school, whether they be casual learners, aspiring rally drivers or otherwise.
Some participants hail from the autocross or road-racing ranks, drivers looking to adopt rally car control to assist with skills in their own disciplines. The skills, Carapetyan says, help drivers to feel more confident in pushing vehicles to the limit and knowing what they will do when taken beyond that point.
They want to develop the muscle-memory skills so that when they’re on the track and their car goes into oversteer, and they start sliding though a corner, they can instinctively stay in the throttle and counter steer without lifting, getting scared, looking down and having a big accident.
Keeping accidents in mind, we wrapped up this particular conversation and headed out to the track for a taste of what rally class is really like. (Note: this kind of class is much more fun than the ones held in a lecture hall.)
After a thorough tossing around as a passenger on the track and amongst a fleet of rally cars, Carapetyan turns to me and asks if I want to get in the driver’s seat of one. Shaken up yet somehow trying to be witty, I respond by asking him if he actually wants me behind the wheel.
He did, so we switched out our ride for a less-powerful front-wheel driver used during the beginning stages of a typical class. (Classes can run up to a total of four days, with lessons on all-wheel drive starting as early as day two.)
Picture driving a vehicle with a snowboard in place of its back wheels. Now, take a turn more round than the steering wheel your hands are on at full speed, with your back end leading you around (wittiness update: last time I checked, the front of a car is supposed to be out front). It’s one thing to talk about getting the rear end out on dirt; actually doing it, and doing it correctly, is an entirely different thing.
With Dave walking me through every movement and foot of track as it unfolded in real time, I was able to execute laps in a way that made me feel like a walk-on professional. Given, there was a bit of “You want me to what? Throttle into the corner? Remind me again how long you’ve been doing this?” along the way, but it was one of the most empowering and exhilarating experiences that a person could have — topping even the most intense of superspeedway and road-course ride alongs.
I pushed my limits behind the wheel out there. I’d do it again without a second thought.
And for Carapetyan, that type of learner empowerment is the ultimate goal:
“Whether or not you ever want to drive a rally car again, everybody leaves feeling so absolutely empowered that they’re able to,” he said. “For some people, it’s just the simple fact that they’re like, wow, I can still learn things, because you get people who haven’t been in a classroom in 20 years. They forget how capable they are and how good they are at learning things, and being able to do that with people is really the most awesome part for me.”
As a college student, I’m amazed that I’m not burned out on learning things yet. But boy, did I learn a lot in just a few minutes behind the wheel of that car.
So thanks, Gran Turismo 3 — as crazy as it is to think that a video game could result in something like this, it did the racing world a great service if it helped inspire all this.
Photo credit: Alanis King/Jalopnik, Brianne Corn
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