The podium finishers at this weekend’s fifth annual Dumont Cup received more than just a cheque for their efforts. As a bonus, and for the very first time, Simon arranged for the victors to spend a day with Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center in Dalton, New Hampshire. Asked to cover the action, I found myself in a three-car caravan en route to the school on Sunday morning following the ski contest. What lay ahead promised to be a unique and memorable experience for champion Nick Goepper, runner-up Gus Kenworthy, and third place finisher Joss Christensen.
Also along for the ride were Dumont himself; Forest Duplessis, a friend of Dumont tracing back to high school, and the one who helped Simon organize the Team O’Neil outing; Forest’s lady friend, Lacy; Craig Coker, former pro, host of the War of Rails and assistant to Simon in the week leading up to the competition; Alex Martini of Stept Productions, documenting action both on-hill and off- for the next edition of Simon’s web series, Drop In; and Goepper’s 16-year-old sister Casey.
After an hour and a half on the road—and a mandatory stop at Dunkin’ Donuts—we arrived at the Team O’Neil HQ, situated deep in the woods, at the foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. We were introduced to Tim O’Neil (53), owner and operator of the school, and also a few of his staffers. And while most visitors to the school spend upwards of a week under Tim’s care, we had only a matter of hours at our disposal and thus wasted no time before getting underway.
Before the boys would have a chance to get in the driver’s seat, Tim rounded us up in a classroom setting to go over some of the ground rules, and to introduce us to his operation. It quickly became clear that this would be a day filled with learning, and not just reckless showmanship. “Education blended with entertainment,” said Tim. And after all, who ever learned anything without having a little fun?
O’Neil’s mission? To provide a “safe and realistic environment for students of all abilities to develop a high level of driving (driver) performance and automotive awareness through world-class instruction, teamwork and development of state-of-the-art technology.” O’Neil told the gang, whether you’re an old codge’ looking to improve accident avoidance and driving skills on the roadways, or an aspiring rally driver looking to get through a turn as quickly as possible, he and his team are there to help. For skiers like us, arguably the most important takeaway of the day would be the development of correct responses to keep safe while driving in adverse conditions. That, or the sweet, sweet memory of drifting a Ford Fiesta around a closed track for a number of hours. Regardless, you could sense that the group was eager to get up and out of the classroom, and so we did.
After a short drive through the forest, we emerged in a clearing and laid eyes on the proving grounds for the first time. An open arena ideal for donuts connected to a narrower path which led into the distance and out of sight. For a while, everyone had a turn behind the wheel to familiarize themselves with the vehicles. Meanwhile, Tim and his cohorts instructed the group on car dynamics, weight transfer, various types of skids and braking, and the 19 most common rally mistakes—the first of which is “lifting,” i.e. lifting your foot off the gas in a pressure situation when, in fact, you should be gassing it.
“Holy sh#t, that was fun,” said Gus after hopping out of the car on his first spin around the ring. Goepper, after his first go, jumped out and threw both arms into the air with a loud, “Wooo!”
As the boys continued to spin laps, we pressed Goepper’s sister Casey to spill some dirt on the 2013 X Games Aspen slopestyle champ. She happily obliged, telling tales of Nick’s rollerblading escapades, and explaining how she used to imagine Nick would pursue rollerblading as a pro sport. Things got a little more PG-13 when she transitioned into stories about Nick peeing in a laundry machine, dressing up as a cheerleader in a sports bra and skirt, etc. And while it was evident that the siblings are close, Casey admitted that she had never seen her brother compete in person before coming to the Dumont Cup. Nice of Nick to put on a good show, don’t you think?
Drifting for days — Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center
For hours, the group continued to work on new driving tactics: Controlled skids, pendulum turns, etc. And to cap off the day, Tim brought his personal car out of the garage—fully suped-up—and allowed each of us to sit along in the passenger seat, one at a time, while he zoomed around the premises displaying his superior skill. “Oh my god, that car was f#cked,” exclaimed Simon, with a wide-eyed look on his face after stepping out.
“The rally driving was phenomenal,” Christensen replied when I asked him about the experience late in the afternoon. “My adrenaline was pumping hard all day. I found out I’m pretty bad at drifting and rally driving. [He was the only one to pop a tire that day.] I think I learned how to control a car a little better, though.”
In a word? “Exhilarating,” said Goepper. “I really had a great time. I’ve never done anything like this before. When I was driving with Mr. O’Neil, he kept calling me a renaissance man because I was too much of a thinker behind the wheel. ‘Don’t think, just drive,’ were my instructions,” said Goepper with a chuckle.
I also picked Simon’s brain about the outing, who noted, “Today was super fun, it was awesome that O’Neil gave us the opportunity to come here, and hopefully this is the start of a long lasting relationship and we can keep coming back here.” Simon continued, “I’ve learned some of this before [Simon had visited the school once in the past], but getting in a car like Tim’s, that was new to me. It has a ‘dog box,’ so you don’t have to put in the clutch when you shift… you just yank on it, so that was pretty weird. But all-in-all, a really fun day, and nice to see these guys smiling and having a good time.”
Whether or not the others return—perhaps dependent on how they perform at the sixth annual Dumont Cup—Simon explained, “Personally, I’m hoping to build a strong relationship and maybe transition into a rally career after the Olympics in Sochi.” Will we see Dumont add an X Games medal to his collection, earned in an arena full of dirt instead of snow? Having sat shotgun while he maneuvered his way around the track, it’s fair to say he’s got a shot.
To close, I extend additional thanks to Tim and Team O’Neil for hosting us—’twas a “unique and memorable experience,” indeed—one that we won’t soon forget.