by Jonathon Klein
It’s a running theme around the The Smoking Tire crew that if you want to be accepted, or come to their picnics, you need to have at least one thing under your belt. Drive a Fiesta ST.
Unfortunately, I’m not yet in the good graces of Ford. Meaning I, couldn’t just ring up my local press office and kindly ask for one. I am however, savvy enough to rook/pitch an idea to let me write an article on Team O’Neil Rally School. Why? Because rally is the coolest form of motorsport, and I have been watching it since I was a little child. I just remember seeing those insane clips of Walter Rohl sliding his Ur Quattro through a forest at apocalyptic speeds. It was an experience I just knew I had to try.
Additionally, Team O’Neil just so happens to have a few Fiesta ST’s. Each of which have been completely rally kitted out. It’s was as if it was meant to be.
Meeting the guys at Team O’Neil for the first time was like meeting your heroes. These instructors are masters of car control, no matter what the situation. They could be on gravel, dirt, ice or snow, and each one of them would be able to read the road ahead of them and be perfectly fine. They’re rock stars, and I their faithful groupie.
After running around the shops starring at rally components up on the walls, rummaging through all the parts bins for an R3 Fiesta, and drooling over cars owned by Caswell, ACP, Foust, and Tim O’Neil’s personal Group A Championship winning Impreza (complete with dogbox transmission). (what does it say about the internet that Jonathon put those cars in that order? – ed.) Tim asked me, “so, ready for your lesson?” I was fairly certain they knew I would’ve given my left leg to drive something, but still was completely taken aback by the question. They were going to trust me with a rally car? FUCK YES I’M READY!
As we prepped one of the schools Fiesta ST’s, I went around the car checking out everything I could on the car. It had a full cage that makes it not only safe for the occupants who are traveling at ridiculous speed through the woods, but also make the car extremely stiff. Something I’d notice later as I drove the car. This specific car was also equipped with both a Quaife limited slip differential, and a set of small stud ice tires. The two of these components combined results in a crazy amount of grip on ice and snow that is truly mind blowing.
We headed out into the icy forests of New Hampshire and I just can’t stop myself from muttering, “oh my god I’m in a rally car on rally course!” Going down a tight tree lined, snowy road is pure bliss. It doesn’t matter that Tim is going way faster than I feel comfortable with. It doesn’t matter that the seat really needs to come down another 2-4 inches for me to really feel solid in the car. I just want to keep this experience going forever.
Being my first time in the Fiesta ST, I tried to take stock in all the sensations, all the rattles, everything I could in order to be better acquainted with the car. First off, the shifter is sublime. It’s a super short throw between gears and is unbelievably easy to get going. Second, the level of progression of the throttle is perfect for the task at hand. You can easily modulate the throttle to go faster and faster through the woods.
We get to the North Course and Tim outlines a real brief introduction into the how to drive a rally car. At this junction I’d like to point out that the North Course was almost a complete sheet of ice, and for someone that’s just been plopped into a rally car for the first time, I was a bit nervous.
We started off just on the skid pad, learning to use left foot braking in order to help turn the car through a corner. It’s bloody hard, especially when you consider you have to keep your right foot on the gas pedal as stable as you can, and keep the wheel pretty much locked in place. After awhile though, I began to get the hang of it. Tim told me to go around the skidpad a few dozen more times, which most likely made him sick. Then he told me I was ready for the next lesson, the slalom.
First off, a skidpad is just a circle where nothing can really go wrong. It’s not as if there are banks, or cliffs surrounding you. However, that can’t be said about the slalom which is a completely different animal altogether. Your body and brain are having to work in overdrive. Accelerate towards the turn, turn the wheel, left foot brakes as your right foot keeps on the gas, as you setup for the following turn.
I slide off almost into the embankment.
“Give it another try,” Tim urges. Accelerate towards the turn, turn the wheel, left foot brakes as your right foot keeps on the gas, as you setup for the following turn. Got it! Accelerate towards the turn, turn the wheel, left foot brakes as your right foot keeps on the gas, as you setup for the following turn.
I give it too much gas and understeers outwards towards the sheer rock wall. Ugh.
Let me tell you, learning to brake and hold the gas at the same time, when you’re feeling the cars back end go loose is a weird feeling. Everything in your body and all your past experiences are telling you that you need to let up off the throttle or give it more throttle to catch the back end. That however, in a FWD rally car, is how you end up with a completely uncontrollable car. Even with the studded ice tires I kept making the same mistakes, but if I still had a breath in my body, I was going to do this.
I just keep repeating and repeating until that uneasy back end sliding feeling is gone. You try to get your body to react antithetical to your instincts.
Towards the end, I started to get the hang of it, and actually thought “I’M A RALLY GOD!” I’m not, but I did feel much more at home in the car by the end of the day. A huge part of that is due to Tim, another part is definitely just how good the Fiesta ST really is.
Although, I just want to make this clear, a few hours in a rally car does not turn you into Collin McCrae. Especially when you’re learning on a sheet of ice. That said, Tim was able to get everything he could out of me in that short period of time.
And that’s what Tim and Team O’Neil do, they first break you down your driving habits, then build you back up to a whole other level. Each part of their training makes you not only a great rally driver, but a great road-going driver as well. I personally would’ve never thought about using both the brake and gas at the same time to control a slide. It’s an insane program, but a program that gives you the tools to become a truly impressive driver.
At the end of the day, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream, driving a rally car. Sure it was only one of the training cars, but in my mind, it was the real deal. Add to the fact that I finally drove a Fiesta ST, which was phenomenal in the snow and on ice, and my life was pretty much complete. Although if I have one gripe about the Fiestas is that I can’t really fit in it, and there’s a distinct lack of noise. I have no idea how Thad fits since he’s taller than me, and I can see why they went with a Cobb exhaust since the turbo muffles the car so much.
Now however, all I keep thinking is how much I want to go back. It’s addictive, this sport.