Driving Sideways: The Amateur goes to rally car school

Spencer Hall shows off his athletic anti-prowess while attempting various sporting activities for the first time in The Amateur. In this edition, Spencer goes to New Hampshire with a camera crew to learn how to drive a car sideways, and he is surprisingly not terrible at it.

Hope is not a strategy, but optimism is.

--The Team O'Neil Driving Manual

The car is accelerating toward a blind curve. The man in the passenger's seat waves his hand down, down, down, mimicking the motion of a foot on the gas pedal. If he could be heard, he would be saying "GAS, GAS, GAS, GAS, GAS," but instead he's pantomiming for the three people in the car, including himself. The ancient Audi Quattro, roaring like an outraged camel, hogs the conversation.

The words on the whiteboard don't quite translate as well right now. Hope is not a strategy, and why would it be in a situation where a driver accelerates a car towards a blind corner at 50 MPH? Why wouldn't optimism make sense when a car older than most division one football players is making an intentional beeline towards trees -- hard, pointy trees capable of devouring a rally car like a wood chipper sucking down a sapling?*

Denial? You deny all kinds of things when the teacher tells you to do something like accelerate towards hard, immobile objects at high speed.

*If this makes trees sound like some kind of car-eating Scandinavian forest creature, well, good. Scandinavia happens to produce some of the best rally car drivers in the world. This is for many reasons: they drive on snow, gravel and ice in all seasons, racing in general is very popular in the region, and also because they are all insane. Especially you, Finland. Especially you.

These were all words on the whiteboard at the Team O'Neil Rally School, and like most of the words anyone has ever written down on a whiteboard for a student to learn in any context, they evaporate the minute real life asks you to apply them. In the case of rally car, evaporation is not the right word: they snap to nothingness in an audible pop, often while you are sideways and wondering if a skateboarding helmet is enough protection for what may be about to happen.

Star-divide

To the casual sports fan on the Internet, rally car is a simple sport. Take one small car you might otherwise describe as "puny" or "maybe sort of shitty, I dunno," slap some fog lights on the front and a roll cage inside, and then drive on a horrible road until you get up enough speed to crash spectacularly. Then, per rally regulations, post this video on the Internet, and send to friends with notes like "SWEDEZ ARE CRAZEE YO," and "HERE'S THAT DUDE FROM NITRO CIRCUS FLIPPING A THOUSAND TIMES."

That is rally car on the Internet. In real life, rallying is the oldest form of auto racing, and it is nearly unchanged in principle from its roots. Cars race on any road in any condition, going from point A to point B in stages that are run not against competitors directly, but against the clock for an aggregate time. The cars are the same, as well: basic production cars with a few closely regulated tweaks, with at least 2,500 of the race model sold against at least 25,000 in global production.

So this is not a McLaren I'm sitting in on day one of Team O'Neil's rally car school. The history of modern rally car is, to the untrained eye, a tour through some of your friends' cars you last saw smoking on some desolate roadside: the Ford Escort, the Suburu Impreza, various Renaults you wouldn't touch with your worst enemy's keys, Citroens, Lancias, Mitsubishi Lancers and the humble Ford Fiesta.

Shs_002_3_medium

Like everything else about rally car, this is assbackwards rule. In normal life, the Ford Fiesta waits for every traveler at an airport counter who ever clicked "compact" on the online form. It is the nondescript, loyal and unspectacular dog at adoption day taken home only when all other shinier cars with bigger barks and flashier pedigrees have been chosen. Tiny -- and perhaps sad -- it waits for you meekly to fumble at its radio dials in a dark parking lot in a midsize American city while you GPS your hotel.

In rally car, things run backwards. A Ford Fiesta will rip your face off and eat it like a pound of lunchmeat.

Star-divide

On day one, we're spinning.

It is terrifying how easy this is to do, and without resorting to the disdained hand brake. Oh, that thing, the instructors say with their eyebrows when you ask them about that time your friend Todd pulled it in a parking lot in high school and turned, like, at least eighty degrees or so in a Plymouth Sundance.

The handbrake is a low speed maneuver. Rally school instructors say this like a veteran comic spitting out the words "Dane Cook." The idea of losing speed disgusts them, which feels like a really weird thing for anyone driving a Ford Fiesta to say, but there you are, driving sideways in a circle for a minute at 30 MPH, steering the car with the foot brake.

Oh, that's another thing. The wheel is to start steering, but in order to skate all over the place like an otter belly-sliding into a river, you have to reverse everything. Gas is for control, and is down flat more than your sanity will really want to admit later. Trainees rarely run above second gear. This seems laughable, but the week prior someone had rolled a Fiesta in second in the span of 70 yards or so. Second gear going sideways is more than enough to feed the car-eating timber demons.

I'm not even really sure what the wheel is for in rally car. You announce turns well ahead of time with it, and then snap it back while your feet take care of the rest. Think of it as a signal flag that you intend to do something, like an engagement ring or a drumroll before a spectacular circus stunt. Both of those can go really well, or end in death and flames. Either is entirely appropriate for the sport.

The brake steers the car. If you are like me, and are right-handed, the entire left side of your body has already suffered a kind of permanent stroke that set in sometime around the age of five when your brain said, "You're right-handed!" and then never learned how to do anything with it ever again. Okay, it learned to operate the D-Pad and all secondary weapons functions in video games. (Congratulations, left index finger: you're the reason we suck at all Call of Duty games.)

Suddenly, in rally car, your left foot has to control the car through turns. This is a problem because in rally car, everything is one long, 130 mile series of turns, and your left foot has to suddenly learn a level of skills it is clearly unprepared to handle.

Your left foot will tell you this -- because it has feelings. In fact, it's a deeply emotional appendage. It will be angry you've never asked it to do anything, or at least that's what one instructor told me after I missed a turn, slid clear of the course, and had to choose between force-feeding the front of my car a mouthful of embankment or ducking into a bailout road on the side.

"See, you've never asked your left foot to do anything, and now it's braking, and your right foot is jealous."

"Are you telling me I have emotional feet?"

He pauses, turns to ponder this for a second, and nods.

"Yes. I didn't realize it, but that's your problem. You have overly emotional feet."

Shs_002_4_medium

Star-divide

Day two. There is no real time to deal with the psychology of your feet when Der Kommissar arrives and demands your attention. He is an ancient 1985-ish Audi Quattro, a car built in West Germany but with the respiratory health and temperament of an East German officer who is lost, drunk and seriously in need of a bath and a fresh pack of cigarettes.

The Quattros were the monsters of what was known as Group B racing. This is what you need to know in short about Group B rally car racing.

One: it was ridiculously fast and happened on tiny, suicidal roads in places like Portugal and Corsica.

Two: spectators, either desperate to die from something other than rural boredom, usually watched the races while standing in the middle of the road course. They often remained in the road until seconds prior to a car's arrival, even ignoring the obvious approaching sound of porn music coming down the road.

Group B featured cars as powerful as Porsches, and if that sounds like a horrendous idea in close quarters in cars full of gasoline, it was. Spectators died, crashes were rolling atrocities of unspeakable horror, and it all ended when Henri Toivonen put his car off a cliff in Corsica in 1986. No one is sure what happened, but it involved fire, force and sheer horror. Toivonen's skeleton and that of his co-driver were found in a framework of something that was once his car, and Group B was buried with him.

Star-divide

Der Kommissar doesn't want to talk about Group B, or the past, or anything else because the red hulk of Der Kommissar feels seconds from death at all times.

The instructor warns: "These are ... um ... different. You'll have to, you know, drive more."

A few lights flicker on the dash ominously. The engine hacks like a Chinese coal miner.

I expect the wheels to fly off when I floor it, but Der Kommissar's battered red hulk fails to explode when told to move. On the contrary, Der Kommissar tears through the slalom course like a donkey breaking out to the lead in the Preakness.

The Fiesta tiptoed around the corners, barely requiring a nudge of the wheel and a tap of the brake. Der Komissar is less obliging. Its engine and frame must be made of whatever neutron stars are made of, because around turns, it feels like throwing an entire planet around. I'm giggling out loud: it's like being put at the controls of Peyton Hillis on speed skates, all horsepower and hurtling bulk thrown loose on low-friction, chaos-friendly surfaces. Every turn feels like utter disaster.

Der Kommissar is brilliant, and he leaves a gigantic plume of choking gray smoke behind him on every run through the teaching course. The instructors and students laugh, and they should: Der Kommissar is a sprinter with emphysema, a fog-belching dinosaur on the loose from an automotive Jurassic Park. You have to hammer your turns, slam the wheel and mule-kick the brakes to throw the Quattro in the right position, but when you do, the car hops on its lines with a growling, fearsome precision.

On a good run, it is like winning a steeplechase with a donkey, and twice as fun.

Der Kommissar also blows a cylinder two runs later and has to limp to the garage. I feel like saluting as he passes. He has earned it.

Star-divide

The point of rallying is not to maim cones. It is to race, something the instructors are all too happy to talk about at length before letting you loose on a stage. SUVs come so close to their mirrors scraping the road before miraculous saves, spectators who watched cars roll over hunch over figures in massive crashes.

At the Sno-Drift in Michigan, spectators mass in the snow on one particular turn and wait for drivers to hit the turn before throwing buckets of gas on a bonfire. You can feel the heat from the flames through your window, and hear the spectators going insane over the chattering engine. Engines can run so hot they melt the rubber on co-driver's shoes. Deer can jump out of the woods at any point, ending the race before you even start.

One instructor finished a five-mile stage on three wheels. The wheel just flew the hell off, and he had to run the whole thing with one axle-end bouncing on the road on turns, with no brakes but the loathsome handbrake. Kids came up to him afterward: that was the coolest thing we've ever seen.

Star-divide

The finale is the road, a gravel loop that turns into a toboggan ride the minute you turn a Quattro nose-first out of a sliding turn and down into gravity's willing joke on the rally car driver. So much of rally car sounds like the instruction given to quarterbacks: move your eyes, keep them downfield, anticipate, read. The tiny bump at 20 miles per hour will turn into a landmine at 60; the ditch you would harmlessly slip into at low speed would devour an entire axle and front end assembly at 45 MPH.

Lift, turn, brake. Off brake. Car swings. Dust. Dust everywhere. In your teeth. In your hair. Wheels forward. Look where you want to go. Can't see where. Hit gas wildly. Wait for physics. Physics reporting in. Car does supernaturally-weird thing car is supposed to do: correction, line. Now forward without crashing. Trees are breathing in through passenger window. Hey, trees.

The road racers in the class, Ferrari millionaires, never really get it. They are accustomed to the clinicians of road racing, apex turning, the precise number of RPMs to have at the exact spot, the points on the track where X amount of brake has to be applied to achieve effect Y. I have no doubt doing this in a $400,000 car at speed on a flawless track in a $2,000 driving suit with custom shoes has its own thrill. I have no doubt it makes an abundant amount of sense all on its own.

Downhill. Accelerate. Brain revolts. Brain is gone. Brain stem in charge. Trees. TREES.

That's not rallying. Drivers listen more than watch the RPMs. They feel the road swimming beneath the floor of the car, and they reach out with their feet through the brakes to feel the road's mood. (There's a lot of emoting going on with the feet here.) Engines are tuned by feel as much as by required output. Repairs during races are less brain surgery and more meatball triage done with the bandito's toolkit: a welder, spare crap knocking around the trunk, and the universal band-aid, primer gray duct tape.

Sliding properly. Gas, gas, gas. Foot on the floor. Quattro engine rattling on the mounts like a frying egg on a skillet. Miss ditch. Ditch missed.

I have never had that moment in anything remotely sporting where the payoff of the experience transcended the demands of the panicky physical world. I have never hit a golf ball just so, or connected with a pitch with that effortless, perfectly converted transfer of momentum to power. I can't hit a jump shot to save my life or throw a football farther than twenty yards with any accuracy. I haven't ever played hockey, and given my inability to ice skate, the results would be tragicomic at best, leaving me a double amputee at the ankles at worst.

Back up the hill. Hearing nothing. Zero thoughts whatsoever with pedal hammered and flying towards corner.

I know this is Fisher-Price level transcendence. Some Finn would take this at twice the speed and throw three pendulum turns into each corner, most likely while letting the engine bounce off the rev limiter for no other reason than the simplest one: because he could. There is a difference between being good at something and getting it.

And then it slides. Moving right. Eyes up, thinking four turns ahead. Making the next turn before the last one ends. Brain on some weird rhythm of its own. Not thinking, but doing. Hammer down. Back up hill. Dirt swimming under the feet. Brain reading car braille through the toes. The car moving in happy arcs along some ever-shifting line wobblng across the ground.

The two are not mutually exclusive. That mindlessness, that completely blank but blissed-out focus of hitting something just so? The weird mesosphere between elation and total focus?

Kicking the living daylights out of an Audi Quattro and wearing a pair of jeans and a filthy pair of Nikes in the New Hampshire woods, sliding sideways in the only perfect trail-brake turn I pull all day, I float somewhere dangerously close to it.

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