With years of racing and training under his belt, Team O’Neil Founder, Tim O’Neil has been enjoying his recent partial retirement from The Team O’Neil Rally School in less than typical fashion. While most people would lay low, pick up a new hobby or maybe even head south to a warmer climate, Tim has kept to his grind, full throttle ahead.
Turning his focus towards enjoying projects he never had the time for and introducing others to the sport of rally, Tim recently began physical training with Pete Rizzo, owner and operator of Rizfit, a Fitness Studio located in Lancaster, New Hampshire. This may sound like the ordinary, ‘aging action sports athlete begins exercising to mend a broken body.’ However, Pete, Tim’s trainer, isn’t your typical trainer.
Suffering a spinal cord injury while cutting a tree in the summer of 1999, Pete, was left paralyzed from the waist down. “Initially the first thing that went through my head was, why did the tree spare me. To be honest with you, I really didn’t want to live.” In the recent weeks following his accident Pete picked up a random copy of Flex magazine and flipped to a page highlighting Victor Konovalov, who was the first person in a wheelchair to become a pro bodybuilder. Pete took this as a sign and began his own journey as a bodybuilder competing in contests around the country. Eventually Pete turned his focus toward helping and inspiring others to overcome their own struggles in life, through weight training.
Tim has now been training under the supervision of Pete since the Fall of 2018. With Tim excited about getting his old vintage rally cars back into competitive stage rallies, the topic came up about Pete learning to drive a rally car and Tim was fully on board.
The two began working together not only in the gym but also here at The Rally School, putting in hours on the skidpad and slalom courses in one of Tim’s old cars that he raced in the early 90's, a 1991 Mitsubishi Galant VR4. With a hand controlled throttle and brake, the car was converted to an automatic transmission to allow Pete the best driving experience. Pete had developed enough confidence behind the wheel to take the Galant to New England Forest Rally with the goal of completing the race.
With the Galant needing a full rebuild, Tim and Team O’Neil Motorsports Fabricator Rob Colpitts began work on the car this past winter, restoring the body and upgrading the specs of the vehicle. “We totally restored and painted the body, upgraded suspension, motor, seats, ventilation, wheels, and cockpit of the vehicle. With Pete being a paraplegic, the rules state that he has to be able to exit the vehicle in case of an emergency in less than 15 seconds. So we designed the roll cage specifically with that in mind.” The vehicle also has been equipped with a wheelchair mount so that Pete can race with his wheelchair in the car, allowing him to get out and socialize in between stages more easily.
With the race weekend upon them, Pete and Tim arrived at beautiful Sunday River Resort in Newry, Maine full of excitement and nerves. “I’m definitely ready to go just a bit nervous,'' exclaimed Pete during Parc Expose.
The team enjoyed hanging out and sharing their story with spectators and racers before the kick off of the event. “A lot of people seemed really interested in what we were up to and it was reassuring that this is a great story and something we should be proud of.”, said Tim with a big smile.
Pete and Co-Driver Nick Pessoa headed out to the infamous Concord Pond stages for the first two stages of the rally. Putting up solid times on both runs, the team increased their speed on the second go around by 20 seconds.
It was now time for service and they traveled back to Sunday River Service area excited on the completion of the first two stages. However, the car seemed to lose throttle power on the transit back and meant the team would not attempt the last two stages of the day in order to work on the vehicle.
After putting in a long night working on the car, the mechanical team, led by Tim, discovered an issue with the front axle mounts which would put the team out for the rest of the race weekend. “I am very disappointed in myself for letting Pete down on the mechanical side of things.”, said Tim. “However, Pete showed that in only two stages, he has what it takes.
The rally would end on Saturday evening after another full day of racing in the hot and humid weather, with David Higgins and Craig Drew of Subaru Motorsports USA repeating their victory from last year. The duo has now won 4 of the last 6 New England Forest Rallies.
“I am very proud of Pete and am excited to continue training with him both in the gym and at the rally school.”, said Tim. “We achieved the objective of education and now Pete has the tools to approach more sponsors and get some more support moving forward. We are hoping to compete at STPR in September.”