"It's tippy-er than I thought it'd be," Wyatt says. It's unclear if he means that the car turns in faster than he expected, or if the car feels like it's going to roll over. I get the sense he means the latter.
Wyatt turns right into that last corner with a sharp, strong lift off the throttle and the back comes swinging around. The Baja Bug leans way over, seeming like it's weighing down on the left rear tire alone. Wyatt waits, not getting on the gas. We're sliding and more weight seems to press down on that one corner. Wyatt still waits. It feels like I'm staring out the far side window to look ahead on the course. More lean, more weight on the back tire. We drift past the cone and Wyatt finally picks up the throttle. The car pulls itself together, settles down, and we power away.
I will admit, the whole time I am definitely sure that we're about to roll.
(Welcome to the Continuing Misadventures of Raphael and his Baja Bug, a series on how I buy a half-broken 1973 Volkswagen offroader that I proceed to break, fix, break, fix, and break again.)
We're up at Team O'Neil Rally School and Car Control Center in New Hampshire on the far side of the White Mountains. Wyatt is the director of special projects at the school, meaning he does, uh, erm, I'm not exactly sure he has a clear job description. The last I saw of him he was snow-drifting an Audi R8, but recently he's been busy turning the maze of old logging trails around the school into stage roads for advanced student testing.
At the moment, he's getting out from the Baja's driver's seat, wide-eyed, and about to give me a refresher course in car control. He calls the car a "tight little rig." He grins. He stares straight through my head. His eyes are laser beams. Wyatt is a slightly intense human being.
I've driven O'Neil's dirt slalom before, when I went up for a one-day rally school last year. I learned about left-foot braking to get a car into a corner, and I learned about keeping your eyes focused when you're sliding. Well, I thought I had learned something.
"What were you looking at there?" Wyatt shouts over the engine. I spin out past another cone. "I have no idea!" I shout back.
The thing about rally driving (and any driving, really) is that you go where you're eyes are pointing. Today I'm spinning out because I keep staring at the cones ahead of me. I stare at them, because I don't want to hit them.
"We had a student here crash out on one of the rally roads. He saw a rock in the ditch. He didn't want to hit the rock, so he stared right at it. He didn't hit the rock," Wyatt explains, "but he totaled the car."
I'm going where I'm looking, and I'm not looking where I want to be going. In effect, I'm putting myself a step behind the Baja. I get a little off on one corner, then I get a little bit more off on the next one, and then the next one and the next one, until I spin out. If this were a rally stage, I would put myself into a tree.
But on the dirt slalom, I just keep spinning, missing turns, and slipping almost off the road. I actually ride up the dirt embankment on the edge of the course at one point.
The thing about the Beetle is it's rear-engined. I mean, really rear-engined. Completely, all the way behind the rear wheels. It looks like Volkswagen designed a whole car, and then stuck an engine onto the back of it.
Since this is a Baja Bug and not just an ordinary Beetle, there's tons of suspension travel. The car leans like you wouldn't believe.
When Wyatt drives, he uses all that suspension and all that rear-engined mass to tip the car into a corner, then push out of it. Wyatt is, with the 2011 Rally America two-wheel drive national championship under his belt, a much better driver than I am.
When I drive, I'm all over the course, trying to powerslide through the turns and losing it when the engine comes around.
Eventually, I start getting a hang of things. I start to look at what part of the course I want to be, not what I don't want to hit. When things start getting too hairy, I learn to ease off, not pile on more power. It all starts to come together.
My runs aren't as wild, or as sideways as they were when I started. They're smoother, and cleaner, and (according to Wyatt) faster.
At some point after we finish, the ridiculousness of running a Baja Bug behind a school of O'Neil's Ford Fiestas starts to sink in. The car creaks and roars and wriggles in your hands. It's got almost no power, but it booms and blares through the dark New Hampshire clay like an earthquake. A slow, overly dramatic earthquake.
This is, naturally, in the car that I have to drive over three hundred miles to get home that night, the car that did not start that morning, nor the night before. The day previous it had climbed Mount Washington, and had driven another eight hundred or so miles in the few days before that, some of which in a mountain thunderstorm. I think I'm missing the part of my brain that says this kind of thing is a bad idea.
In the end, I had maybe a dozen runs on Team O'Neil's course, itself just a handful of cones in a line on a manicured dirt slope.
It's incredible what a bit of repetition and focus can do in a controlled environment. Your bad habits start to really make themselves clear, and you can take measured steps to fix them. And a rally driver sitting in the passenger seat yelling at you doesn't hurt, either.
Photo and Video Credits: Bill Caswell, of all people. Thanks Bill! Here's a cut of my runs, so you can see how crap a driver I am.