“You stuffed it well,” chuckled Chris Duplessis as he gave the Mazda Miata one last futile push. “The wheel is too full of snow to even turn.” I wedged my large frame through the narrow opening in the roll cage and fell speechlessly into the snow bank I had just rammed us through at about 40 miles per hour. The front of the Miata was covered in wet spring snow, fresh from the day before, and I set to work removing it with my hands.
Tearing off a giant chunk, a big chunk of the front fascia went with it. My heart sank. “Did I, uh, break the car,” I asked Duplessis shyly as he inspected the damage. “No, there is already a zip link here. You just re-broke it,” he laughed. When I started my apologies, he put his hands up. ” You learn. Shit happens,” he smiles. “You were doing good…until you weren’t.” A quick tow and we were back on track, figuratively and literally.
When I launched the idea of making a rally story by Duplessis, track director at Monticello Automobile Club in New York State, there was no hesitation. “Come in the morning after the next big snowstorm,” he said. About a week later, a perfectly snow-covered course awaited, along with a haggard but rock-solid ’90s NA MX-5 Miata with Michelin X-Ice studless snow tires, a race cage and a welded differential. This last item is important because it effectively gives you a strong rear axle, causing the wheels to spin at the same speed, thus causing the inside wheel to lose traction, making it easier to oversteer. And we wanted all the oversteer.
“The conditions are perfect,” smiled Duplessis just before the start. “The sun softens the snow, but there is enough base to drag us down.” After starting out as a rally driver in 2006, Duplessis won the Rally America championship the following year. Three more national championships soon followed, as did countless regional championships and several rounds of the World Rally Championship series. He is the perfect coach for the right seat, not only because of his impressive resume, but also because of his high spirits. If this guy is having a bad day, you’ll never know by his perpetual smile. And he always encourages you to “send” him.
I had done the 4.1 mile course at Monticello many times, but never when the trail was buried in snow. To be fast on dry pavement, smooth and steady inputs on the steering wheel and throttle are needed, as is knowing your braking zones and when to turn. To be fast in the snow, the same principles apply, except every action you take is exaggerated and magnified. “Do everything sooner and even easier,” Duplessis shouted as I tried to hammer the first corner and then found the Miata spinning out of control. “You have to plan ahead and not be jerky at the wheel because the attitude of the car changes very quickly in the snow. Also, the steering wheel is more of a suggestion.
Say again? “Lead with the accelerator,” he explained. If you want to go to the right, turn the steering wheel just a little bit, then do all the work with your feet. A small brake will load the front end with weight and help the car start to spin slightly, but you spin the car by pressing hard on the accelerator pedal. With the rear wheels spinning, thanks to this locked differential, the car will pirouette. “A little gas will make the car do a lot more than adding a ton of wheels,” Duplessis said.
Easy in theory, but getting it all is anything but easy. Learning to rally or drive fast in the snow involves embracing the counterintuitive. You have to ignore the nagging voice in your head screaming at you to brake when you should gas it or surrender real early. The best tool at your disposal? Patience. You have to wait and wait, often beyond the point of comfort, because if you act too soon, you’ll end up in trouble.
For example, going straight downhill into a tight left-hander, my instinct was to brake early, turn the car and accelerate right away. This approach meant that the car did not have enough entry speed and was not on track either. So when I went to add the gas to drift into the corner, the rear just started spinning in a circle instead of pushing us through. “Wait this time. Go a little further,” said Duplessis. “When cornering, pause before the throttle to let the front end bite, then go hard on the throttle.” The first few times instinctively felt bad, but the Miata navigated the corner at an exponentially faster pace.
It merges once you understand where your level of fear is and begin to push those boundaries. Ironically, the faster you go, the easier it gets. “The car doesn’t move or slide until you’re going about 35 miles per hour,” Duplessis said, “which might not seem fast, but it is. You need to get to that speed for the car to move sideways, and then you’ll start to figure out how it will react. When you feel the car slipping and it’s on edge, the effects of applying more or less throttle are crystal clear. The same goes for the amount of steering. Duplessis must have shouted “Less robbery!” so many times I started to think that was my name.
Listen to the master, and your reward is speed. And you feel like you’re starting to understand the basics. After about five laps, we came through an elongated corner called the mushroom cloud, starting to kick some solid rooster tails. “That’s it, baby!” cried Duplessis. “Let them fly!”
Just when I felt like I figured out the ideal entry speed and the amount of steering and throttle for a given turn, the track conditions changed. The spring sun was clearing snow at a rapid pace, and where there was snow a lap before, the pavement was now exposed. My mental cues were only good for a lap or two before I had to reassess and rethink my approach. “Just like the rally, where the conditions are constantly changing,” smiles Duplessis.
Initially, I had a less-than-stellar idea to lift the throttle when I saw black spots approaching, and tried to straighten the wheels to keep the car from snagging on the asphalt and breaking us. The right solution to any problem in these tough conditions, Duplessis said, was more power and less steering. “If you spin the rear wheels, the car will slide straight on the asphalt.” Sure enough, with the throttle buried, the Miata would float over any crud and crowning tarmac.
It takes years of seat time to go from grasshopper to sensei, but after your first hour behind the wheel, you’ll be hooked enough to want to commit to that amount of time. It’s downright addictive. But where to start ? Preferably in someone else’s car, and there are plenty of rally schools that will do just that. “If you want ice and snow, Bridgestone Winter Driving School in Steamboat Springs is by far the best,” Duplessis said. “You get a brand new Toyota on great Bridgestones, the lessons are awesome and the instructors are top notch.”
If you want loose surfaces (gravel and dirt) instead of snow and ice, if you’re on the East Coast you’ll want to head to Team O’Neil Rally School, where Duplessis spent years as an instructor. “O’Neil has the best facilities in terms of stage routes and jumps, but if you want to do absolutely everything, you’ll want the six-day course,” Duplessis said. The west coasts should head towards DirtFish Rally School, located in Seattle. “It’s in an old log yard, and they actually filmed Twin Peaks there. The instructors are great, and they have all-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive Subaruses that are perfect for the terrain.
Anything in the middle of the country and you’ll want to head for Rally Ready Driving School in Texas. “I love this place so much that we took our Monticello members there for the multi-day classes,” Duplessis explained. “There are UTVs and rally buggies and everything in between. Dave Carapetyanthe owner, is a truly fantastic guy who loves rallying more than anyone in the world and he will cater to anything you want.”
Before you book anything, you should probably be comfortable with a manual, as that’s what all rally schools use. (Duplessis noted that any of the schools will also teach you to drive the stick, if needed.) And don’t hate the smaller, seemingly underpowered cars, like the 130-hp Miata Monticello lent me. “You can learn more in a Miata than a brand new BMW M5 because it’s raw and you feel it and you can mess it up,” he said before flashing a toothy grin. and nod to the cracked front of the Miata. “A $100,000 car crashes the same way a $1,000 car does. You know the latter, right?”