This month we feature Team O’Neil Rally School graduate Paul Willemsen of Costa Mesa, CA, who attended TON in 2009 after rallying for several years. Here’s his story.
I had the opportunity in late 2009 to fill a last-minute spot in a 3-day rally course. I
suppose I should start by saying I have been an active Production GT competitor on the West Coast since 2003. Finances and car condition permitting, I had competed in some notable rallies, including Rim Of the World Rally a few times. I didn’t even know about rally in the USA and had been watching on WRC on TV for years. A friend one day was watching with me and says “you know a buddy of mine at work does that” – that was all I needed to hear. There wasn’t much on the internet at that point, but I found out what I could, attended a licensing school/class(SCCA, CRS) and it wasn’t long before I purchased a used rally car. I literally jumped into it. I purchased a 1992 Mitsubishi GSX Eclipse (AWD Turbo). Back then you could start in all but “Pro” class. Growing up in mainly suburban areas in Southern California, I hadn’t gained a lot of off road or racing experience. I always assumed it was out of my reach. With a fairly powerful car, I suckered one of my closest friends into the “Silly Seat” (Co-Driver) and we were off to our first event. The story(s) escalate from here from respectable finishes, to DNF’s, and just about everything in between.
After being in the rally community for a while I kept noticing these “Team O’Neil” stickers on several cars. I found out about it, but with incident (crash) repairs and event fees I just couldn’t find it in my budget and I wanted to keep racing. Finally we had a fairly serious “incident” at Rim of the World Rally in ’04. Repairs to a jump gone very bad put me back almost 2 years. When I finally got it back together we went to Oregon & Washington to race in ’07. These were some of the best conditions and roads we ever raced. Being so far from home and the trails lined with huge trees (compared to our normal desert-like conditions at home) we decided to take it easy and save the car. We successfully completed both events, but again I was haunted by more cars with these TON stickers. At this time we decided to invest in building a new (to us) Rally Car, my 2003 WRX daily Driver. The next couple of years would be dedicated to building this car.
Finally in 2009, I stumbled onto the TON website and noticed that there was a class starting in a few days with a small discount offered to fill the last spot, made the call and decided since I was investing so much in the car I should see what this TON thing was all about and invest in myself as well. I hadn’t raced in a couple years and the rally bug was really starting to itch. I hoped this class would tie me over until we could finish the car. I had never been to the North East, and what a beautiful time to see it (October). Once in my rental from the airport and out of the city, I had to call the hotel and ask how late I could check in because the commute demanded a few stops to take it all in.
Once at TON, I was greeted by what seemed to be a few kids that were going to teach me how to rally? I was a bit older than most of the instructors like Duplessis & Knox - it just didn’t seem right. I had to have more experience… Once in the classroom and in session, however, I figured they could “talk the talk”, and once I was in the car(s) and Knox was instructing us while sliding the car though the slalom I realized I just needed to shut up and pay attention. I learned more the first day in an unassuming FWD car than I had in 6 years of trying to figure it out on my own. I couldn’t wait for the next couple days and of course it was over way too soon. Having dinner one night with fellow students, we were all amazed at what we could make these cars do in so little time. Our last day I finally got to meet Tim, and before leaving he gave me and another 3-day student (sitting in on a 4-day class) a private discussion and Q&A. It was nice to have this interaction and have the owner face to face showing concern not only that our expectations were met and exceeded, but to remind us that this was only the beginning, we would still require a lot of practice to be proficient, and that TON had opened the door and if nothing else gave us the tools to diagnose what we were doing right and wrong.
It was still almost 2 years before we would compete in our newly prepared car and put the
TON techniques to the test. Our first event was a small local rally called High Desert Trails (in 2011). I was feverishly studying my notebook from TON days before the event. The event was probably our most perfect event ever, everything seemed so smooth and fluid and we walked away with a working car and a first in class (PGT) finish, 2 minutes ahead of the the previous 2 years’ champion. I could not more highly recommend TON, and would say without a doubt, if Rally Racing is in your future you need to start by investing in yourself, and TON is the perfect place to do it….
We are now feverishly working to prepare the car for High Desert Trails Rally next month to defend that first-in-class win last year.
Best of luck to Paul and his team (DB Rally Team) at High Desert Trails Rally next month!
I was saddened by the recent loss of one of the most influential mentors during my rally career. Mike started with VW in 1967 and played a leading role as VW Motorsports manager in 1985. He brought the VW Golf to rally fame in the U.S. by supporting grassroots efforts with his extensive background in automotive racing. I bought an 8-valve Golf and was campaigning it when I was signed by VW to drive a 16-valve Group A factory GTI starting in 1989 in U.S. and Canadian rally events. Mike always took good care of me, and gave my team full support and guidance. Running a production car I went on to win the 1989 SCCA Production Championship, Canadian Championships and ran in more than 50 rallies in VW Golfs. If you want to read more about Mike’s contributions and VW history, read “Thirty Years of the VW Golf and Rabbit” by Kevin Clemens through Iconografix.com books. Mike also was one of the founding fathers of NPR Ducati Motorcycles of Georgia. Mike Kaptuch has touched many, many lives and will be greatly missed. Posted by Tim O’Neil, VW Factory Driver 1989