DALTON — The premier loose-surface driving school in the U.S. has a new ownership structure, and founder Tim O’Neil couldn’t be happier.
Team O’Neil Rally School said that Chris Cyr, who joined the company in 2014 as general manager has become the new majority owner, while O’Neil will be the minority owner as well as the school’s “brand ambassador” and “big-picture guy.” Financial details of the recently announced deal were not disclosed.
The arrangement is an ideal one, both men said during a Jan. 31 interview.
O’Neil, 59, is a Whitefield resident and U.S. Air Force veteran who in the 1980s and ’90s won five production-based U.S. and North American rally championships. He opened the school that bears his name in 1997, on 583 acres of hilly terrain he bought from Don and Nancy Moody.
The Moodys, in turn, used the proceeds to buy land that is adjacent to the school on Miller Road and to build the Dalton Gang Shooting Range, which they ran until this past December when Cyr bought the range and the 70 acres it sits on.
The Dalton Gang range is currently being converted into the Ridgeline Training Center, which has set for itself the goal of becoming “New England’s premier tactical training facility.”
Cyr, 31, is the business adviser to Alex Hartmann, who is the owner of the RTC. A native of Littleton, Colo., he now lives in Littleton, N.H, with his wife Sarah and their two children, Cheyenne and Ryker. The self-described rally enthusiast said his real passion is running a business.
At Team O’Neil, Cyr has the opportunity to do both while O’Neil is thrilled to be able to downshift his office duties to someone who enjoys doing them and to spend more time on the track and/or in the garage.
“I knew I wanted a business guy,” not a racer or mechanic to succeed him as majority owner, said O’Neil, and someone who also could deal with the “culture shock” of life in the sparsely-populated North Country of New Hampshire and was “young enough.”
Cyr fit the bill perfectly.
At age 16, while attending Conifer High School, Cyr was bitten by the rallying bug and immersed himself in the sport. Two years later, upon entering the University of Wyoming, where he later earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, Cyr began a College Pro Painters franchise with the express goal that it fund his construction of a rally car.
To this day, that rally car remains unfinished, said Cyr, but much has changed because of it.
Cyr’s painting franchise took off and at its high mark, he had 30 employees and was painting 200 houses a summer.
“Scared of complacency,” Cyr said he took the next step up the business ladder in 2009 when he joined the staff at College Pro corporate, overseeing 100 College Pro franchise owners and also helping launch new franchises from Boston to Colorado.
Thinking his future might be with College Pro, Cyr weighed whether Boston or a more westerly city would be the best home, and ultimately chose the former because of its proximity to the Team O’Neil school.
On April 15, 2013, after terrorists had set off bombs at the Boston Marathon, Cyr, sitting in his office, asked himself why he was delaying doing what he really wanted to do and shortly thereafter, he sent O’Neil an email offering his services.
O’Neil responded some 24 hours later, and the men began an extended courtship that included Cyr making three trips up from Boston to Dalton and ended with O’Neil making Cyr an offer that many other people might have turned down.
The offer, said O’Neil with a big smile on his face, included half of what Cyr wanted as a salary; no recognition, plus long hours and lots of hard work. Cyr, of course, accepted.
Cyr “proved himself” in preserving and enhancing the quality of the business, said O’Neil, which made him comfortable with the idea of taking on a partner, the first in Team O’Neil’s history.
For his part, Cyr said there wouldn’t be a world-class driving school in Dalton without the hard work and emotional and financial investment O’Neil put into it.
While starting and running a business share many similarities, they demand different skill sets, and Cyr’s particular aptitude, both Cyr and O’Neil agreed, is the business side of Team O’Neil.
With 27 full-time employees, Team O’Neil is a year-round enterprise that annually teaches between 750 and 1,000 students and generates revenue of about $3 million, said Cyr.
The school offers courses in rally and winter-safety driving as well as courses in off-road and security driving for individuals, private companies and government agencies. Upwards of 40 percent of Team O’Neil’s students, said Cyr, are active-duty military personnel.
Team O’Neil also has a Motorsports division that preps and supports competition rally cars and it is the U.S. distributor of M-Sport parts and car kits. Team O’Neil operates the New England Forest Rally and is a primary supporter of the American Rally Association.
Apart from the economic activity generated on its campus, Team O’Neil is a regional economic engine, with Cyr explaining that students attending the school annually book some 2,000 nights, minimally, at hotels in the greater Littleton area. Those students, O’Neil added, also support local restaurants and other businesses.
O’Neil recalled, how, in the days before the internet, he’d make pitches to potential students one at a time and attend rally-industry events where he’d hand out pamphlets surreptitiously, lest he anger organizers because he hadn’t rented a booth.
Team O’Neil Rally School is enjoying some recognition now, thanks 22 years of experience and some celebrity alums — including rally legends Travis Pastrana and Ken Block, actor Mario Lopez and author Tim Ferriss, Cyr said.
Many students come to the school because they have to for their jobs, O’Neil said, but he suspects that a bigger reason is “they want to have fun and go sideways fast,” and safely, too.
Cyr sees Team O’Neil evolving to include not only teaching students how to drive a manual-transmission car or truck and shoot a firearm well, but also as a place to camp and hike and “do things that you can’t do in the city.”