How To Master The Trickiest Kind Of Driving

Illustration for article titled How To Master The Trickiest Kind Of Driving
Screenshot: Team O’Neil

There is nothing more challenging than having to cover ground on unfamiliar roads. But there is a whole training school devoted to this kind of driving and it’s a bit of a dying art.


This is, of course, rallying. Now, modern rallies are done using what are called pacenotes. Driver and co-driver crews will drive a route before going hot in competition and take notes on everything that lies ahead of them. Bumps, rocks, crests, the severity of each and every turn, the length of each and every straightaway.

But that kind of route prep—recce—takes time. A whole day! Rallies didn’t use to eat up that much of everyone’s schedule. It was not all that long ago that rallies typically ran without pacenotes and only the most basic routebooks. Just enough to keep people from getting too lost, at least if they knew how to get from A to B.

But the last big international rally to run like that was in the mid-80s. Ever since, reading a road has become something less of a practice and more of an art, a dying art.

That said, even in today’s pacenotes format, rally crews still get lost, co-drivers lose their place in their notes, and a driver will have to drive “blind,” so to speak. The best rally drivers will still have good eyes for reading a road, even one they’ve never driven before.


Wyatt Knox is indeed one of the best rally drivers in the country, a former 2WD national champion, and a current expert working at the Team O’Neil Rally School. I’m even looking at a plaque right now from the 2014 New England Forest Rally, in which Wyatt drove me, a first-time co-driver, to win our class over half the event. He got me some silverware. Me! I’m a moron.

In any case, Wyatt put together a little on-video class on how to read an unfamiliar road. You get to sit right-seat with him as he talks through every turn. You’ll hear that even though Wyatt is running just on an open road, he still is calling out corners in the same way you would while running recce. Each corner gets a number, and relevant details are pointed out too. There’s some standardization, some analysis.


At a basic level, what Wyatt is doing is following the tree line. The gap in the trees ahead of him also tells him which way the road is going to follow. He can generally expect that the road is going to continue along where the trees aren’t. nobody in the New Hampshire DOT is going to send a road straight through a forest; they’re going to clear a road. A wall of trees ahead of you can be a tightening turn, information that you’re getting before it would become a surprise. Surprises mean crashes.

But there is a lot more to it than that. Wyatt’s eyes are doing a lot of work. They’re scanning the road for bumps and dips, things which would make the car behave unusually, unsettle it before a turn and send you into a tree. Minding crests that make the car light before turns, using them instead as places to look far ahead up the road, into sections that might have worse visibility when you’re in the midst of them.


Taking care to note that turning onto a new road may mean a very different surface. You may find yourself on a road that’s now more poorly maintained, or slicker, or rougher. Even something like a narrower road needs to be noted and cautioned against, not just because your margin of error is down, but your visibility is limited.

The point I draw from all of this is not so much the observations Wyatt is making so much as that he is clearly making them. The road as he sees it goes from being an unfamiliar stretch to a series of turns, dips, obstacles, challenges. Everything becomes categorized. The act of observation becomes an act of classification. Demystified, basically.


it’s the uncertainty that catches you out. Nothing in this video describes driving too fast for your conditions, nothing that would have you blitzing around a blind corner only to find a truck coming the other way. It’s something to ward that off, and take any surprise out of it.

If that fear, that surprise, has ever caught you out before, run through the whole video, and read through our pacenotes guides as well.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.



I have but one weird trick to offer. Driving at night on an unlit, unlevel, curvy road, how do you anticipate oncoming vehicles so you don’t blind them with your brights or get surprised with lights in your eyes? I use the power lines. You’ll often see headlights reflecting on the wires before you see any other hint of a vehicle coming the other way.