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Team O'Neil Rally School Teaches Drivers to Get a Grip on Winter Roads

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COURTESY OF TEAM O'NEIL RALLY SCHOOL
  • Courtesy Of Team O'neil Rally School

When the U.S. military's special forces hit the roads of Iraq, Afghanistan and other global hot spots, their drivers need to know how to elude attackers and keep their vehicles moving through sand, dirt, mud and gravel. Many of those military personnel learned such driving skills at a rally racing school in northern New Hampshire. There, civilian motorists can learn many of the same life-saving driving techniques, which are useful when confronting a different threat: harsh winter road conditions in New England.

Since 1997, Team O'Neil Rally School, in Dalton, N.H., has run its Winter Driving School, which trains motorists in skid control, accident avoidance, and safe vehicle handling on snow, sleet and ice. The one-day course, which costs $499, is taught by the same driving instructors who train professional race-car drivers, federal law enforcement agents, military personnel and private bodyguards.

Team O'Neil is located on a narrow dirt road in the mountainous Great North Woods region of New Hampshire, about a two-hour drive from Burlington. On the front gate, a sign reads "Danger: If this gate is closed, do not enter. High-speed vehicle traffic and high-power rifle range."

Despite the ominous warning — the expansive wooded property hosts long-distance precision shooting tournaments — members of Team O'Neil are a friendly and welcoming bunch who were happy to show a visiting reporter around.

Karl Stone, Team O'Neil's marketing manager, started the tour at the automotive shop, where the walls are lined with motorsport-themed sponsorship banners — Koni shock absorbers, Yokohama tires, Optima batteries, Hawk Performance brakes. Upstairs, a second-floor classroom is where instructors teach the first hour of the winter driving course.

However, students don't spend much time indoors, Stone emphasized. Team O'Neil has more than six miles of private dirt roads that snake through 583 acres of rugged and wooded terrain, where most of the seven-hour course takes place.

Team O'Neil got its name from its founder, Tim O'Neil, a five-time U.S. and North American rally champion who, from the 1980s to early 2000s, drove for teams sponsored by Volkswagen, Mitsubishi and the Air Force Reserve. Rally racing, aka rallying, is a timed, point-to-point stage race on dirt, snow, gravel, mud and asphalt that features road obstacles such as water crossings, hills, curves, jumps and dips. Though rally is considered a niche motorsport in the United States, elsewhere in the world, especially in Scandinavia, it's more popular than Grand Prix motor racing or NASCAR stock car racing.

Team O'Neil, which has 25 full-time employees, including nine year-round instructors, derives about half of its business from teaching rally racing to motorsport enthusiasts, such as fans of desert truck racing and drift racing, Stone said. The remainder comes largely from government contracts with the military and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as from private security firms. Only 40 percent of Team O'Neil's clients live within driving distance of the school, Stone noted; the others come from around the country or overseas for weeklong training sessions.

Though the winter driving course represents only a small fraction of Team O'Neil's income, it's actually how the school got its start, explained Chris Cyr, the company's CEO and now majority owner. In the 1990s, Tim O'Neil was hired by a Chevrolet dealership in nearby Littleton, N.H., to provide free winter driving lessons to customers who bought a new Chevy car or truck. O'Neil purchased an old gravel pit to teach the class, and then expanded into teaching rally racing and, later, defensive and offensive driving techniques to military and police.

Many of the skills and techniques taught in rally racing and security work are applicable to winter driving, such as skid control on loose and slippery road surfaces. The most notable difference, Stone said, is that in rally and security driving courses, students learn on Team O'Neil's fleet of more than 70 standard-transmission vehicles, which include Ford Fiestas and Mustangs, Subaru Imprezas, BMW E30s and E46s, and Jeep Cherokees.

By contrast, winter driving students learn on their own vehicles — be they front-, rear- or all-wheel drive — so that they experience how it handles. This way, when a moose jumps into the road or another driver cuts you off in traffic, Stone said, "You've gotten comfortable in the car you're in."

Another big difference: The winter driving course is always taught on snow-covered roads, a condition that's common at Team O'Neil's property, which averages about 100 inches of snowfall annually. In fact, if it hasn't snowed in the days just before the course, Stone noted, Team O'Neil's crews plow their snowbanks into the roads to make them messier.

At the winter driving course's one-hour classroom session, Stone explained, students learn about the driving techniques they will practice outdoors and the essential supplies they should keep in the car in winter. Instructors also cover some basic automotive mechanics.

Next, two students are paired with one instructor, who brings them to one of the property's two skid pads. There, students drive their vehicles in a 300-foot-diameter circle, then apply the brakes until the vehicle's back end starts sliding.

"What most people are going to do [when] they start skidding is, they lock up the brakes and they keep looking at either the snowbank or the tree that they're about to hit," Stone said. "And then, they hit it."

On the skid pad, students learn to counter steer, or turn into the skid, while keeping their eyes focused on where they want the vehicle to go. This technique brings the tires back into alignment with the car's trajectory.

Next, students move on to a slalom course, where they navigate a line of cones on a stretch of road about the length of several football fields. After that, students learn accident-avoidance techniques such as how to stop suddenly on a slippery road.

For experienced drivers who learned to drive in winter weather, many of these skills are second nature — but not all. For example, counter steering is often taught in drivers' education classes. A less commonly taught skill is how to recover from that skid without overcorrecting and fishtailing, Stone said. Team O'Neil's instructors teach drivers when to, say, lift their foot lightly off the brake or when to hit the gas; the latter shifts the weight of the vehicle toward the rear and helps the driver regain control.

Because students learn and practice these techniques on a wide-open and forgiving course, where they're never moving faster than 30 miles per hour, there are few consequences for mistakes. The biggest object they're likely to hit is a snowbank.

"We're not letting you cut loose and just do doughnuts out there," Stone said. "The focus is on keeping you safer and more comfortable when you do get into a skid."

Another critical component of the Winter Driving School, Stone said, is showing drivers how the accident-prevention technology built into modern vehicles, such as antilock brake systems and traction control, can sometimes hinder winter driving and give drivers a false sense of security. Though traction control "kicks ass on dry pavement," he said, spinning one's wheels on a snow-covered road can actually help dig through layers of snow to reach the firmer road surface beneath. For this reason, students whose vehicles can switch off their traction control are encouraged to practice using both modes.

Who can benefit from Team O'Neil's Winter Driving School? The course, which can accommodate up to 12 students at a time, typically attracts recent transplants to New England from warmer regions, Stone said, as well as people with limited winter driving experience and those who get nervous or panicky when encountering snow or ice. But the course is open to drivers of all abilities, including those who don't yet have a driver's license.

As Cyr pointed out, some families worry that if they teach their kids these winter driving maneuvers, their teen will start skidding around on the roads deliberately. While some teens may do that, he conceded, they probably would have done so anyway. "In our opinion and experience, a trained teen is a safer teen," he said.

Alas, the Winter Driving School doesn't cover the most advanced (read: adrenaline-junky) driving skills that Team O'Neil teaches to its military and law enforcement clients. These "James Bond maneuvers," as Cyr called them, include ramming and pursuit-intervention techniques, "driver down" scenarios (in which a passenger takes the wheel from an incapacitated driver), and J turns, that staple of action-adventure movies whereby a driver speeds the car in reverse, then suddenly swings the front end around 180 degrees and continues driving, facing forward, in the same direction.

To learn those advanced skills, Cyr noted, clients must first undergo a stringent background check to vet them for criminal or terrorist activity. As he explained, "We don't want to [offer] these skills to people who might use them against ... our own forces."

Which is not to suggest that the Winter Driving School isn't fun. In essence, the course is all about deliberately losing control of one's car or truck and then learning how to recover quickly — without crashing into a tree or landing in a ditch.

"This is not a place where you come to joyride," Stone added. "But if you want to get better and really learn to drive, we can check that box."

Snow Going: Winter driving tips from the pros

The professional driving instructors at Team O'Neil Rally School are happy to share the winter driving advice they give to paying clients. In fact, they consider it a public service to help keep all motorists safe. Here are some of their top recommendations.

Invest in winter tires. Team O'Neil CEO Chris Cyr likens an all-season tire to a houseboat: It serves both purposes adequately, but it's neither an excellent house nor an excellent boat. In fact, Team O'Neill now asks all Winter Driving School students to have winter tires installed on their vehicle before they arrive. (You may not be able to reach the school without them.) And for those on a limited budget who must choose between buying snow tires and taking the course, Cyr says, "Just go buy the tires, and don't come to us."

Be prepared for winter driving. Be sure that all parts of your vehicle are in working order before the snow flies. Invest in new wiper blades, fill the windshield washer fluid reservoir and check that your battery holds a charge. Keep an emergency kit in your vehicle that includes spare gloves, a hat, warm clothes, a small shovel, jumper cables, flares and a tow strap.

Test the road conditions, and your vehicle, after the first snowfall. "I've been driving on pavement for six months, and my brain is wired to that," Cyr said. "Now I've got to get used to slippery surfaces again." Before facing a real-world winter driving challenge, he recommends finding a safe, open and unobstructed spot — an empty parking lot or lightly used road — and firmly applying your brakes and making hard turns. Doing this early in the winter will remind you of how your vehicle handles in wet or snowy conditions and how to safely compensate for those reactions. For vehicles equipped with a traction-control button — typically, it's indicated by a car with squiggly lines below it — practice driving with traction control turned on and off to see how differently the vehicle handles in the two modes.

Prioritize your maneuvers. Because tires have limited grip in slippery road conditions, you run the risk of losing traction and sliding out of control when you ask them to do too much simultaneously. When traction is limited, try to separate your accelerating, steering and braking — do only one of these actions at a time. Accelerate and brake in a straight line whenever possible; maintain a steady speed while steering around a corner.

Look in the direction you want your vehicle to go. When confronted with an unexpected slide or skid, drivers often fixate on an object on the side of the road — then crash into it. When your vehicle starts to skid, remain calm and focus your eyes on where you want the vehicle to go. Then concentrate on steering into the skid and cautiously accelerating and braking.

Maintain longer distances between vehicles, and reduce your speed. In winter weather, many motorists assume that they can drive at the same speeds and distances from other vehicles as they do on dry pavement. Winter tires, all-wheel drive, antilock braking systems, traction control and other safety features don't give you carte blanche to drive too close or too quickly. Drivers of trucks and SUVs, in particular, be mindful that your higher position above the road gives you a longer line of sight, but it also makes you feel as though you're moving more slowly than you actually are. And because taller vehicles have a higher center of gravity, they're more prone to roll in a crash. So slow down and keep your distance.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Skid Happens | Team O'Neil Rally School teaches drivers to get a grip on winter roads"