“It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life, right up to the point we hit that big rock and rolled over…”
Perhaps a different kind of rock ‘n’ roll to what Vivian Campbell is used to. Nevertheless, the Def Leppard guitarist’s full rallying debut at the New England Forest Rally left a lasting impression.
While we’re used to seeing Campbell ‘on stage’, his interest in the stages that we’re more familiar with can actually be traced back to his childhood, where he spent his summers up in Donegal watching the Circuit of Ireland Rally.
“I’ve never followed motorsport really, but when I was a kid I spent every summer up in Donegal up in the north west of Ireland and back in the early ‘70s they used to run a stage of the Circuit of Ireland Rally up there,” he told DirtFish.
“So it was all very exciting to see flying Ford Escorts and 2.7 Porsche RSs being driven as they were intended before they became million dollar cars.
“I always thought it was the most exciting form of motorsport, but obviously I got into guitar and rock ‘n’ roll. And I’ve always been into cars and driving, and in recent years I got into tracking a bit.”
Having spent most of his life in Los Angeles, Campbell was previously able to indulge in his passion for track driving all year round. Well, at least when his packed schedule allowed. But after moving to New Hampshire a few years ago, the more moderate climate meant that the circuits were seasonal. It’s that that led him to first sample rallying.
“There’s a great track there called Club Motorsports about 70 miles from my house and I joined that track and I did a bunch of days last year,” he said. “Then because it’s seasonal, unlike California, the track shut down in November and they close it for six months.
I don’t even think about tracks any more. Track driving was fun until you discover rallyingVivian Campbell
“I was having serious withdrawals and I was thinking ‘I really miss California because you can drive all year round, what am I going to do?’. I came across Team O’Neil online and I realised they were just a couple of hours up the road from where I’m living so that was perfect.
“So I booked the five-day course early December of last year and I went up there and it’s completely addictive.
“I don’t even think about tracks any more,” he added with a laugh. “I mean, track driving was fun until you discover rallying.”
Bitten by the bug, Campbell took on further courses, working his way up to the point of one-to-one tuition where it was put to him that maybe he should give the real thing a go.
“It was mentioned to me by one of the instructors up there [on] one of the last times I was up, they said ‘you know you’re kind of invested in this so much, you should think about entering rallies’,” he said.
So he did. Campbell took on O’Neil’s ‘Hoon in June’ regional rally sprint where he won his class and finished fifth overall in a 22-car field, and that would serve as a precursor to a fully-fledged debut at the New England Forest Rally.
“The New England Forest Rally, that was a whole different thing because you’ve got the big boys playing there,” Campbell said. ”Long story short, it was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
That’s quite the claim from someone whose day job consists of playing to tens of thousands of adoring fans every night.
Campbell was paired with co-driver veteran Martin Headland for his full rallying debut, but the pair first met on the Wednesday before the rally started, giving them minimal preparation time ahead of the event – something that proved to be not only an eye-opener, but provide Campbell with inspiration of how to handle future rallies.
“We really didn’t get a lot of time together, then on the Thursday we did recce, this was the first time I’d done recce,” he said.
“I’ve just been watching like a million videos on YouTube, trying to get in-car cameras with good audio so I could kind of hear how people called notes and how the driver interprets them and stuff, how far ahead they are so it really was like a – forgive the pun – but it was a crash course,” he laughs, “and with hindsight, my inexperience when we were out doing recce, I probably should’ve got more involved in the notes.”
Nevertheless, Campbell’s rallying debut got off to a strong start with him vaulting from 66th overall at the start of the first day to 34th by its end, steadily holding a top-eight spot in the 12-car NA4WD class.
“I think I shaved off 30 something seconds on my second run on Concord Pond, but my first run, it was the first time I’d ever run with notes with a co-driver and we were two or three turns into the first run of Concord when I realized that I hadn’t heard a word that Martin was saying! I was basically driving with my eyes,” he quipped.
“I had so much adrenaline pumping I had to take a deep breath, slow down, calm down, and listen to what he was saying. Then he gave me whatever the fourth call was and I’m repeating it in my head.
“So I drove the first phase of Concord rather conservatively and then the second I thought well I’m going to go faster and then I did manage to get a much better time with the second run but it was amazing how the adrenaline just took over and I wasn’t listening to a word he was saying!” Campbell chuckles.
“Then the panic I had when I realized I wasn’t listening to what he was saying I was like ‘oh my god!’ Good times!
“Friday, the first day of it, it was one of the absolute top 10 days of my life, probably top five. I was just so stoked and had so much adrenaline from just being so focused on driving and we had a good day, and I think that’s what did me in on Saturday.”
Sadly the progress was halted on day two with Campbell rolling out of the event.
“It was coming off a 120 [meter straight], so I was going pretty fast, and it was a right four,” Campbell explained, “but what wasn’t in the notes was that there was a small crest right at the entrance to the right four so the back of the car got too light to control with the speed I was carrying, plus the corner was ever so slightly off-camber and there was a lot of loose gravel so the combination of those things just got me.
“And there were other things going on as well – there was a car that had had a mechanical and it was over to the side of the road on the right and then as soon as I passed that there was a group of people on the left and I didn’t look at these things but I had to look at the car to the right to see that there were holding their OK sign to make sure I didn’t have to stop,” he added.
“At the end of the day it was my right foot that got us in trouble, I needed to channel more David Higgins and Travis Pastrana.”
Pastrana, the American Rally Association presented by DirtFish National points leader, also rolled out of contention in New England. That proved to be something of a consolation for Campbell.
“I feel so bad for Travis, that he rolled four miles from the finish line,” Campbell said. “But part of me felt f****** relieved! At least it can happen to the best of the guys, you know?
“I do feel bad for them but I’m hoping that I’m one and done with the rollover crash, that I will keep in the back of my mind, but I definitely need to get more involved in the notes I think in the future, that would’ve saved me this time and I need to learn to dial it back.
I absolutely love it, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life and I want to do as much of it as possible moving forwardVivian Campbell
“I guess I was so encouraged by how well we were doing and it’s so much fun, it’s such a rush!”
Campbell was also quick to praise the US rallying community too, highlighting the help and support it offered throughout his first outing.
“It’s not very widely followed in North America, and the people that do follow it are total diehards,” he said. “It is a great, great community, a very small community and they’re very supportive.
“I thought everyone was very very helpful, very encouraging, and it was fabulous all round. I did kind of feel like ‘what the hell am I doing? I’m getting in way over my head’ considering I’d just started rallying in December.”
Now he has one eye on future rallying outings – the next potentially being the Susquehannock Trail Performance Rally in mid-September – but Campbell’s touring and recording commitments with Def Leppard and other band, Last In Line, could prove to be a stumbling block when it comes to a long-term rallying future.
“I would totally love to do that,” he enthused. “Here’s the thing though, the only reason I ever got into this in the first place is because of COVID.
“It’s a familiar sort of thing you hear from a lot of people, when the world shuts down like that and all of a sudden you reflect on your life and what it is you’ve been doing and what it is you want to do, in the back of my mind ever since I was a kid in Donegal watching Circuit of Ireland, part of me was fascinated by that and always wanted to do it, but it was something I never had time [for].
“With Def Leppard we work a lot and we always have but in the last decade, when I wasn’t working with Def Leppard I was working with Last In Line and vice versa so I was constantly on the go, getting very very little time for myself and for my family.
“Then COVID comes along and that really reinforces the realization of how hard I was working. I’ve got a bunch of cars, I’m a real Porsche nut, I’ve got a modest collection of Porsches of all vintages and as I said before I like to track, so it really gave me an opportunity to kind of play with cars and one thing led to another.
“I’d love to do it going forward, [but] I’m not so sure. It’s difficult to schedule things with my career because there’s always a lot of moving parts, especially when you’re working with two bands, but I am going to try and do it.
“But if I could, I certainly would. I absolutely love it, it’s the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life and I want to do as much of it as possible moving forward.”
One thing’s for certain, don’t expect any of Campbell’s Def Leppard band mates to join him in getting behind the wheel any time soon.
“Unfortunately none of my bandmates are car guys. Going back a few years, Joe [Elliott] bought a BMW, an X5, and he was so excited because it had a 120-disc CD [player],” Campbell quipped. “He was all about the music and audio entertainment, whereas I don’t even listen to the radio when I’m driving a Porsche. The window is down and [I’m listening to] a screaming flat-six.
“We all have our passions outside of the band, our hobbies and interests, and then when we come back together it’s all, the focus is on the music and show, but yeah, no car guys, not even close!”
“It’s totally addictive, it is an obsession with me now.”