On a Friday.
And I am wide awake.
That’s because a few hour jaunt over the Green Mountains, Team O’Neil Rally School and a field full of vintage rally cars awaits. It could be -15*F at 3AM on a Saturday for all I care.
I was invited by Marc Feinstein, owner of German Performance Service and pilot of the 964 rally car you will see in the pictures. Despite a late arrival, it seems my morning is not the worst of the bunch; I’m greeted by a team working fervently to get the Rothman’s 959 replica started. A combination of an old dry cell battery and the cold weather are proving formidable opponents. I snap a couple pics, offer the battery out of my Audi, and finally decide that I’m really just annoying them, so I head up to the main building just in time to miss introductions. Apparently 5AM was too late of a start time.
Team O’Neil, located in Dalton, NH, has been providing top-notch instruction for drivers of all talent levels, from WRC factory pilots to those just looking to slide around for a weekend since 1997. The school is a matrix of gravel roads that sprawls across 585 acres of Granite State terrain featuring off-road terrain parks, snowmobile trails and tactical security training courses in addition to their signature rally roads. This diverse background allows Team O’Neil to stay a leader in the world of rally schools, and provide a huge range of offerings to their clients. Today they have put together a venerable history book of cars for us to sample with the goal of illustrating the evolution of the rally car through the ages.
I arrived under the impression that I was going to get to see some cool cars, take some cool pictures, meet some awesome people, and freeze my ass off. So you can imagine my thoughts as Wyatt Knox, Special Projects director for Team O’Neil, began running through the itinerary. Rides then drives in each of the vehicles was the plan, with the idea that we would progress chronologically through the field ending to really gain a feel for how much has changed and for how much has stayed the same. Wait- we’re driving? I would say sign me up but, almost unbelievably, I already am. Luckily I have enough auto-x, rally-x and track experience that I’m more excited than scared. For now at least…
The lineup touches on a number of important historical innovations, beginning with the blue 2-stroke Saab. It was built as a tribute to Erik ‘On the Roof’ Carlsson’s days winning rallies for the marque. The red Saab is a later 4 stroke, and although it isn’t as ‘vintage’ it is just as cool as anything here, featuring a V4 4 stroke engine on Megasquirt standalone fuel injection with individual throttle bodies, a hydraulic e-brake, and an electronic, variable-ratio steering rack. These two represent a massive leap forward in technology as Saab was one of the first manufacturers to bring front-wheel-drive to the masses, and they found huge success in off-road disciplines with this formula.
Next up in the evolutionary line was Charles’ Volvo 142. Charles also owns a Volvo dealership in Canada, which makes a lot of sense for a few reasons. This car has the most history of the group, as it was driven by Marku Alen in the 1973 1000 Lakes rally, and has been more or less active in international competition through today. In the drivers’ meeting Charles makes it very clear that his car is not here to be driven. It is here to be beaten. It’s dual Weber carburetors, resultant 3,000rpm idle and lack of anything resembling modern electronics confirm the nature of this beast. With a limited slip and studs, it is also the fastest car of the day. These Canadian boys came prepared.
Next up was something intimately familiar to me, what might be considered the godson of modern rally, the Audi 4000. Mechanically these cars are almost identical to the URquattro that spawned the fire breathing S1 and Sport Quattro, but without a turbo and with an extra set of doors. Same block casting, same transmission, differentials and suspension. Old Audi’s are my forte, I’ve owned 5 from the 80’s all with the legendary quattro AWD, and the red 4000 feels like an old friend as I climb in. You might expect each vehicle at Team O’Neil is stripped out and race car prepped, but this is far from the truth. In fact, this car retains much of it’s wonderful 80’s interior, right down to the dash, seats, and locking center/rear differentials.
Unfortunately I did not get a chance to get behind the wheel of the Team O’Neil E30 3 series BMW, but it was a pretty similar story to the Volvo- lots of sliding with a razor’s edge of balance between speed and spinning tires. You could tell that Team O’Neil instructor Travis Hanson has done this more than many times, as evidenced by the pin point car control and huge slip angles he was able to produce lap after lap.
Finally it’s time to get into the car that brought me here in the first place; the C2 964 owned by Marc and prepared by his shop German Performance Service in Brighton, MA. The car has already been labeled simply ‘a tough drive’ by several drivers than myself, so I’m a bit hesitant. At least I’m more comfortable than I have been all day; I’m 6’5 and Marc comes in around 6’4 making it a perfect seating setup for me. I’m sweating a bit but I’m ready.
Compared to the Volvo this thing feels completely composed. The rear-engine configuration helps grip significantly by putting plenty of weight over the rear tires, and the suspension works brilliantly. My first half lap is an exercise in building confidence, Marc can’t fit in the passenger seat as it’s solid mounted to the floor and set up for his 5’3 co-driver so I’m on my own. I’m feeling the car and it’s working great as long as I stay smooth; no sudden throttle inputs, no crazy steering angles, just tap the brakes to get the front tires to bite coming into a corner and feed it throttle to keep it rotating. But I’m no professional and halfway through the track I’m sideways… backwards… and back sideways. Two-feet-in keep me from too much embarrassment, and I go back to basics for the remaining part of the lap.
By the end of my third trip around the course I’m getting in the groove. It is just so predictable- that’s not to say it’s easy because it isn’t- but as long as I stay smooth I’m scooting around the track at a good pace. Well, good enough for me anyway. This car certainly evokes the most visceral pleasure- there’s nothing like the note of an aircooled flat-six, and the lightweight flywheel makes the gearbox sound like a metal box of rocks. To any Porsche and/or rally enthusiast, I am sitting in a little piece of heaven.
Finally I’ve made it towards the end of the line, and I’m ready to sample the Rothman’s 959 replica. I am NOT driving this one. Damon, owner of Series 900 in Sunapee, NH built this car- every body panel is hand-laid Kevlar and the entire thing is a one-off. What I love about this car is the attention to detail; it is not just a 964 C4 with a body kit. It has a completely custom fuel delivery system which mimics the factory cars, and there is an aluminum space frame to support all the body work, as well as a million little touches like the rear transmission cooler, over sized oil cooler and a ton of other racecar goods. Unfortunately the car is currently set up for tarmac, so the spring rates are a bit high for this kind of driving, but Damon does a great job getting it to rotate throughout the course in spite of this. Thanks to the AWD this thing has plenty of grip, and once it’s pointing the right direction it simply sticks and rips, even in these conditions.
Finally Team O’Neil brought out one of their top dogs for the event; a WRC spec Subaru Impreza piloted by none other than Tim O’Neil himself. Tim immediately begins hucking the car around the course, and for a mothballed rally car that hasn’t been out much in the past few years, the car takes it extremely well. With Tim at the wheel the Impreza is as entertaining to watch as the Volvo, and probably a bit faster. It seems it is in need of a bit of setup work, but overall it certainly seems to have aged well.
The day is winding down, I’m frozen, tired, and still have several hours of driving ahead of me, but I hang around until the last of the group packs it in. It isn’t everyday you get to be a part of such an incredible group of people and cars in such a liberating and welcoming environment, and frostbite-be-damned I’m milking every last minute of it. Finally everyone is gone, I finish helping Marc load up the 964, and by that I mean mostly watch, and follow him back out the maze of dirt roads that surround the facility. Today was a good day.
HUGE thank you to Team O’Neil Rally school and all of the staff for putting this event together. These guys are not only on top of the rally school game, but they are some of the nicest and genuinely enthusiastic people you will meet. Also BIG thank you to Marc Feinstein of German Performance Service for inviting us, without him I wouldn’t have been able to experience such an epic outing!