Part 1 – Driving by Feel
“Later today you’re going to look back at this and wonder why you couldn’t figure it out,” Chief Rally Instructor Bryn Walters told me from the passenger seat of one the FIRM’s rally school cars, a front-wheel-drive Mitsubishi Lancer. We were out on the skidpad, a massive flat lot covered in powder-fine limestone sand, and Bryn had been attempting to get me to execute a pendulum turn. The “Scandinavian Flick” is not a movie they show in IKEA, but instead a maneuver that uses the momentum of the car to gyrate around tight turns without the use of a handbrake. It was obvious to him that I was getting frustrated. Bryn had shown me from the driver’s seat, but I was having a really hard time figuring out the order of all the inputs (they seemed to me to be all simultaneous) to get the car to dance around the turn, carrying momentum and blasting out of the corner exit with speed like he did.
“Let’s take a break,” Bryn suggested. Cooling off at a shady table by the skidpad, Bryn demonstrated one of his many skills as a Rally Instructor. As impressed as I was by his driving, what really impressed me was his emotional intelligence. His ability to read his students without the need to even talk makes for an incredibly effective teacher. “I know what a student will be like just from where they choose to sit in the classroom,” he told me that morning. My body language and the way I was attempting to drive the car was enough for him to know that I needed to collect my thoughts before getting back in the driver seat.
As we had some water and I caught my breath, Bryn gave me the run-down. “You’re beating yourself up, mate.” He was correct. “No need to do that; everybody goes through this. You’re an analytical guy and you’re thinking too hard about this. You’re used to figuring everything out and understanding it. Rally is something you’ve got to just feel.” He was again correct. And just as he had told me a few minutes before in the car, I did later find myself that afternoon performing tidy pendulum turns and powering out of tight corners, tires shooting rooster tails in the sand and silt of one of the FIRM’s rally stages. Exactly as Bryn had told me that morning, I was completely unaware as to how or when exactly I had gone from Completely Useless at Rally to “now you’re just showing off, mate.” I was no longer thinking about which hand should go where; I was driving by feel.
I’ve done a lot of schooling and training from formal education to the military, on-the-job, and other driving schools. Normally all of that is quite cut-and-dry, with plenty of boring rote memorization. Those things may be effective at teaching an analytical skill. I certainly have learned much of how I drive by studying traction circles, slip angle, and telemetry. Those things are all value-adders when learning to drive on pavement. But no presentation or book can teach you an art like Bryn taught me at the FIRM’s rally school. This was the Tango; I had to get in the car with a codriver and make it dance.