SLIP-SLIDIN' AWAY 


The Super Bowl was held in Jacksonville Feb. 5, in case you hadn't heard. Something about grown men in pads knocking into one another, then retiring to a locker room to slap asses and howl. Football. Sounds like a hoot. I'll have to check that out someday when I'm really old.

Or not. Due to a missing gene, I'm utterly lacking in appreciation for the team sports every other male in this country (or so it seems) cannot live without. And no, I'm not gay, so there goes that theory.

This affliction manifested itself early in life when, as a lad, I longed to be a professional rally driver. Not for me dunking basketballs or shagging flies (though I do have a deep and abiding respect for former Minnesota Twins outfielder Kirby Puckett); my sports dreams consisted of flogging an overpowered sedan through the woods at triple-digit speeds, dodging trees, rocks and spectators while executing perfect four-wheel drifts and textbook Scandinavian flicks (nothing to do with boogers) at the Acropolis Rally. While my peers idolized Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, O.J. Simpson and Muhammad Ali, I thought it was cool that Michele Mouton won the San Remo rally in 1981, driving an Audi Quattro and earning the nickname "fastest woman in the world."

Sadly, there is no infrastructure to nurture budding rally drivers, or at least there wasn't in my house. So as a teenager, I purchased a very used Chevy Vega station wagon for $50, stripped the interior of all but the front seats and headed for the nearest empty, wooded lot. There I knocked into trees, bashed over bumps and scattered wildlife in my wake. Good, clean American fun.

Dreams die, however, and so do Vegas when you neglect to put water in the radiator. Without the rally wagon my thoughts turned naturally to keg parties and cheerleaders. Then came college, the nagging need to get and keep a job and the rest of the things in life that harness us to the yoke of responsibility.

Fast forward an undisclosed number of years to a couple of weeks ago, when I discovered that Florida is home to one of only two schools in the country that teach the delicious art of rally driving. The sport is still wildly popular in Europe and is gaining ground in the States thanks to World Rally Cup coverage on the Speed channel and the proliferation of rallying video games. There are club-level events held throughout the United States. But not in Florida. There isn't a single rally event held regularly anywhere in the Sunshine State. The nearest is the Sandblast Rally in South Carolina.

But Ivor Wigham's European Rally School is here, located about two hours north of Orlando near Starke.

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Wigham is an affable Brit and a former driver, having logged 14 years of rallying in Europe. In 1999, he found a 430-acre tract of land in Bradford County – a decommissioned World War II-era airport – and leased it from the federal government for 50 years. His school and workshop are tucked into one corner of this vast acreage, where he's carved out four rally courses, a go-kart track and two ATV courses. Wigham teaches corporate and military types evasive driving to help keep them alive in Third World countries, and he teaches young and old alike how to properly handle ATVs. But what attracted me was the rally school.

My one-day introduction – retail price $675 – began with about 20 minutes of classroom instruction from Eduardo Marques, a very composed 28-year-old Brazilian who has completely lost his fear of riding in cars driven by people who don't know what the hell they are doing. Nice guy. I liked him.

We spent a few minutes on safety (tighten those belts until they hurt!), 10 minutes discussing proper racing lines, another 10 or so on handbrake turns (a topic fondly recalled from high school, except we called them "shitties"), and then off to the go-kart track in the Neon to practice. As any Walter Mitty who finally makes it onto a racetrack will tell you, it's hard to rid yourself of the bad habits ingrained by everyday driving. Wringing the little Neon's neck, then squashing the brakes at the last minute and diving into a turn is not the generally accepted way of motoring to Publix. People who drive on the street in such a manner are commonly referred to as "fuckheads."

Bad habits shed, it was time for handbrake-turn practice on the skidpad, which consisted of two cones set about 100 yards apart on a wide strip of dirt road. The idea is to get the car going at a good clip in a straight line, shove in the clutch, yank on the emergency brake and whip the back end of the car 180 degrees around the cone. Midway through the skid, Marques said, I was to calmly notch the shifter from second back to first. When the nose of the car is again pointed the way you want to go, you let out the clutch and jump back on the gas. Wheel spin is encouraged.

Done right, a handbrake turn is pure hooliganism that feels so very wrong. And these guys were encouraging it, teaching it, and even supplying the car. Yes, sometimes life is good.

Marques took us around the course first. After strapping me in the passenger seat, he flogged the valiant-but-battered Neon down the course at about 30 mph, accelerating until the nose of the car was almost even with the cone. Then he pulled that emergency brake and the back end whipped around, the front wheels dug in for traction, and we shot off toward the next cone. He cranked off one perfect handbrake turn after another, narrating the whole time as calmly as someone reading a grocery list.

When it was my turn to drive I found that my inner speed governor kicked in way too early to really get the back end of the car sliding, and that it took a mighty pull on that brake lever to get the rear wheels properly locked and sliding. The sequence again is accelerate, shift to second, brake, clutch in, turn the wheel, yank on handbrake, shift into first while sliding, clutch out, accelerate out of the turn. It's a lot of information to process in a second or two, and a hell of a lot of work. I was sweating like a pig. Just like you, I thought motorsports couldn't possibly be physically demanding. You and I are wrong.

The class consisted of me and two other men indulging their racing fantasies. There is, it turns out, an entire industry built on selling men (primarily) going soft in the middle some time behind the wheel of a race car before they cross that big finish line in the sky. You can drive stock cars, dragsters, sports cars, go-karts, etc., right here in Central Florida. All you need is an unfulfilled life and a fat wallet.

One of the other students in my class at ERS is a veteran of several race schools, and even owned and drove a Mazda road racer back in the day. He quit when he realized it was costing him at least $1,000 just to show up and run a race, even if nothing broke on the car. His career lasted about $6,000 worth. That in itself is one good reason why there will always be a market for racing schools.

THE RACE IS ON

Having graduated from the handbrake course, it was finally time to do some real playing in the dirt. Wigham put us on a tight course with three hairpin turns, ostensibly to practice handbrake turns but probably also to keep the speed down in case one of us took an off-course detour into the trees. I may never have topped 35 mph, but the experience felt dangerous and exhilarating.

Once again Marques took us around the course first, patiently and calmly slithering the car all over the road. The back and front ends never seemed to line up straight, but that's the fastest way around a dirt course.

When it was my turn to drive I once again had all manner of problems with the handbrake turns; accelerating hard toward a hairpin turn is just not normal behavior, and it takes a long time to accurately gauge how fast is fast enough to break the rear end loose. If you go too slow, the front end plows. Too fast and you miss the turn altogether and slide into the weeds.

One good thing about ERS is that you get a lot of seat time for the money. In some of the more advanced courses, Wigham puts drivers in the seat for six or more hours a day; students leave ERS physically exhausted, says Wigham, often able only to drag themselves to a hotel room, eat dinner and go to bed. Even the introductory course, which only lasted a day, included three or four hours of driving.

I needed the practice. Long story short, I got a lot better as the day wore on. On my last lap I put together a couple of controlled slides, cranked off a passable handbrake turn and learned how to properly dive into corners. Marques was impressed. While he stopped short of insisting that I switch careers RIGHT NOW and sign on with a rally team, he did say that for a first-day student my driving was "not bad." Vega bashing pays off.

I was pretty proud of myself. Until I took a lap in the passenger seat of the school's all-wheel drive, turbocharged Toyota Celica with Wigham at the wheel. Only then did I come to realize that I know nothing about driving a car fast in the dirt, and probably never will. You've got to learn this stuff when you're young, otherwise the natural instinct for self-preservation kicks in and you'll forever be a timid wimp.

Wigham hit 60 mph in the short straights, so fast it seemed beyond the laws of physics that he could slow down enough to turn. At the last possible instant, as the car seemed fated for the trees, he'd smash the brakes, get the back end sliding in a perfectly controlled arc, then jump back on the gas. With all four of its wheels clawing the gravel, the Celica would slide through the turns, accelerating wildly. At that speed, each turn melded into the next so that the car was almost always going sideways, and at an alarming clip. My helmet knocked into the rollbar so hard and so often that my neck hurt the next day. Wigham's hands and feet were a blur as he worked the controls. It was a damned impressive display of driving, and it took me a very long time to wipe the smile off my face after the ride.

"A little sloppy," Wigham said as he climbed out of the car and took off his helmet.

Show-off.

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