Ken Block, Tanner Foust, and Travis Pastrana are now household names. They have headlined at the X-Games and the Gymkhana Series, and they have been featured on Top Gear USA. They’re all superlatively great behind the wheel — but, they weren’t born that way. They, like all professionals, had a teacher. Their educator is Tim O’Neil.
If you’re a fan of North American Rally, you know Tim. If you’re new to rallying, you’ll want to know Tim. A professional rally driver in the ’80s and the ’90s, O’Neil competed against the likes of Stig Blumqvist in his Audi Quattro and went on to win championships as a factory driver for Volkswagen and Mitsubishi. He’s been an Air Force mechanic and a ProRally Champion, and now, he’s teaching America’s brightest rally stars. I sat down with him to talk truth about rallying, breaking cars and how to get beer from spectators.
Q. How’d you get into rallying?
A. Well, when I got out of the Air Force I was going to continue as an aircraft mechanic. But some of my friends were already racing stock cars and they wanted me as a mechanic. I didn’t know about rally. And they used to have mechanics races where once a year the mechanic would drive, and it was usually kind of funny because they’d all start spinning out and hitting things; it was just ridiculous. I went out and won the race and didn’t even know it. I just passed everybody. The next two years I raced stock cars and turned out not to like it all that much. The people involved are angry and it seemed like it was all about the car setup and how much money you could spend. The driving was a secondary element of it. At the same time I was into foreign cars and I was following the Triumph TR8. I saw a magazine with John Buffum’s TR8 rally car going through a mud puddle at 80 mph, and I said, “What is that?!” I knew a guy that worked with Buffum and got introduced and at that point I said, “That’s it. That’s all I want to do with the rest of my life.” I haven’t thought about anything else since, and that was like, ’80 or ’81.
There’s nothing like a steaming, dirty rally driver begging for beer. Spectators always give you beer.
Q. What was it like when you first got into Rallying?
A. The Quattro was just coming out. And I learned early on from Stig Blumqvist and a lot of the other Finnish and Swedish drivers that in order to master all-wheel-drive, you had to master front-wheel-drive first. A friend I had was working for Saab, so I started working for him, preparing FWD cars. The standard-based production cars were all I could afford, so that’s where I started. Around ’86, VW had a Group A Rally Golf, so I bought one used and started winning. When their factory driver retired, I was the main candidate to take his seat. And in ’87 I got my first factory ride with VW.
Q. How did you come to found the school?
A. I’ve been a mechanic all my life. Being a business owner, a garage owner and that kind stuff wore me out — standing up on cement, fixing cars. So I needed to find different work. I got a job in England where people get to ride and drive with a rally driver and I was the driver. I’d train people and they’d say, “You know, I have been coming to these for years, and I learned more in five minutes with you than anybody else.” I kind of got the bug of teaching after that. The championship no longer interested me, so I taught all over: England, a dealership in Littleton, NH, the Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Colorado. But every year the snow melted. I needed a year-round facility I could control. I started to look into areas I knew, like right around here.
Q. So you knew the area from driving around as a teen? I assume you were friendly with the local law enforcement?
A. Very friendly. When we were younger, there was nothing else to do around here. So this was a gravel pit. It was a place where the road was blocked and you could come in, shut the gate and burn back and forth, and nobody knew you were here. At the time, the police weren’t too bothered by it as long as you didn’t run somebody off the road or race by their house. So I learned, you know. One time I went by Mrs. Black’s house, and she called the police. The police didn’t say stop doing it. They just said, “Stop going by her house so fast. You know what? If you just go out of town, do whatever you want as long as we don’t see you.”
I said, “I can race around as long as nobody sees me and nobody complains and I don’t hit anybody, you don’t really care?”
“No. We just don’t want to get a phone call and have to go chase you down.”
Q. Until recently, rally hasn’t had a big following in the States. What do you make of the GRC?
A. Well, it’s Americanized. It’s stadium racing. One of the things when I was younger, I always knew about European rallycross and that’s what I always wanted to do. It’s so awesome to take unrestricted race cars, let them all go at it on both gravel and pavement with close contact — you know, stock car stuff. In order for rallying to be popular, it needed to be done in an open area where everybody could see it, near a big city — people aren’t going to want to trudge hours and hours to get to a rally and stand there for one car to go by every minute. Americans don’t like that. So I knew from racing stock cars, that’s probably what rallying in this country needed, to show people the car control that drivers have, the skills that they have and the ability to have grip way beyond what most people would think is possible.
I’d look at that smoking car and I wouldn’t be happy until I figured out what I did wrong and what I needed to do better.
Q. Do you have a favorite rally that you’ve done?
A. The New England Forest Rally is my home rally. I am the chairman of that rally, so that is technically my favorite rally [smirks]. The most extreme rally I ever went to and my favorite rally in the world would be the Thousand Lakes Rally in Finland. It’s very fast, very technical and I love the Finnish people and their humor. Usually the local farmer kid ends up being the world champions. So I kind of like that. Tall Pines Rally in Canada — I won that three times in a row, back in the day. I suppose you can say that would be my favorite.
Q. When you were rallying, if you stuffed the car into a bank or a ditch, what’s the first thing you did?
A. Well, the first thing — as soon as you crashed — there was immediate damage control: counter steer, reverse. You’re trying to get it going, right? A lot of times you can. You try not to rip the wheel off or whatever, so you don’t end up at the mechanic. But generally, as soon as my day is over, I look for beer. People used to think I had beer in the car because after I crashed the next car — well, one minute later they would see me on the side of the course with a cold one. And I am here to officially say, the way I did it was, I always went looking for spectators, because spectators always had beer. I’d go off, crash or brake and I’d just search for spectators. I’d find ’em and ask, “Sir, may I have a beer?” There’s nothing like a steaming, dirty rally driver begging for beer. Spectators always give you beer.
Q. And after the beer?
A. It’s important not to just leave and go in your trailer. I’d always hang out. I’d go spectating. I might try to find my regular clothes, so I don’t have to stand around in a race suit, but I’d hang out and help other drivers or the spectators. I’d show up at a spectator area and start telling people, “Oh, yeah, there’s Bob in the Quattro, yeah, he’s running on one cylinder.” Or, “This guy’s got bad brakes”, and the spectators loved that they had somebody that knew something about rallying narrating it.
Q. What have you taken away the most from a life of rallying?
A. One of the things I attribute to my success is being humble. I learned from my mistakes. If I crash or break something, instead of saying, “Well, it’s not my fault”, I am not happy until I can figure out what it is I should’ve done differently. I know people that used to always blame something or another for why they had a problem. And these are the same people, for 30 years that kept doing the same thing wrong — kept blaming and never learning. They never were successful. But me, I’d look at that smoking car and I wouldn’t be happy until I figured out what I did wrong and what I needed to do better.
Q. Why do you keep doing at it? What drives you?
A. Guys like me need something like this to keep us occupied. I know people that don’t have racing. They drive on the street way too fast and do stupid things. When they get into racing, when you are racing, you’re challenging yourself. You are at your maximum.