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Def Leppard's, Vivian Campbell, Finds a New Stage

Rock guitarist, Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard has a new side gig. Campbell began competing in American rallies the summer of 2021 and select rounds into the current 2022 season.

Rally in America tends to draw people from different parts of the country as well as people from around the world to either participate or spectate. The Olympus Rally in Shelton, WA was definitely no exception as the third round of the American Rally Association (ARA) series. RX360 made the trek to Shelton on an early Saturday morning to be a part of the excitement and atmosphere of the Parc Expose being held downtown. Even arriving at 8AM for the scheduled opening of the pre-rally event found us a bit late to the party. Dozens of fans were already gathered at the front end of the blocked-off street, anticipating the arrival of rally/rallycross superstars like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block, and David Higgins. Having covered rally and rallycross since 2013 and being around these gentlemen all of these years at multiple events, RX360 knew crowds would be surrounding them. We took a few shots of their cars but our main focus hadn't yet arrived.

The RX360 team walked up and down the blocked off street looking for our main reason to be at the Olympus Rally. There wasn't any 'hysteria' when our reason arrived. In fact, it surprised us that out of the hundreds of people walking around looking at the cars and meeting the teams no one was taking a 'photograph' of our target. They weren't recognizing him, but RX360 sure did.

There he was, an unassuming man from our era and beyond, standing next to his 2003 Subaru Impreza WRX with #964 on the side doors and a TEAM O'NEIL Rally School decal slapped on the trunk.

He's traveled the world, worked in front of millions of people over the decades and is regarded by many as one of the best guitar players in rock music. Other than being a member of Def Leppard for the past 30 years, he's also been a part of a many well known rock bands such as White Snake, Dio, and Thin Lizzy, just to name a few.

RX360 approached Vivian Campbell respectfully asking him for a few minutes of his time. He seemed, at first, to be a bit reluctant, probably thinking we were going to ask more questions about Def Leppard than racing. But he was kind enough to give us the time. As we talked he really seemed to open up about his journey into rally, his learning process, and his future plans to race in rally.

"Unassuming" was definitely a good way to describe Mr. Campbell. He's very low key and a bit soft spoken. It was apparent that he enjoyed blending in with all of the other drivers and not being recognized. Once we started talking rally we think he knew we weren't there to talk about Def Leppard. Don't get the wrong impression, we are huge fans and have seen them in concert three times. However, RX360 was actually there to talk to him about rally. During the interview we forgot that this man is a legitimate rockstar. He was great at describing his fondness for rally and his introduction to becoming a rally driver. We could tell that he'd found a second passion and was enjoying every second of his time behind the wheel.

RX360: Have you always wanted to race?

VC: "No, but I always wanted to rally, which is different because racing, in my mind, is side-by-side [racing] and I would be useless in that situation because I'm too polite. I'd be like, 'no, you go ahead, you go through the corner.' I don't have that competitive sort of streak but I was always fascinated by rally. Growing up in Ireland when I was a kid in the early 70's they used to run a stage of the Circuit of Ireland rally up at Donegal where my family have a home. So every summer I used to watch that as a kid. They'd have the parc expose at the little town close to where we had the home. I was always fascinated, it was always my favorite form of motorsport by far. I don't get excited by Formula 1 or NASCAR. I love rally, I do think it is the most fun kind of driving. I've done a lot of track. I've got a lot of fast cars that I play with on the track. But once I got into a rally car and started driving sideways on the gravel, that was it. It's so exhilarating."

RX360: How did you and your co-driver, Michael Hordijk get paired together?

VC: "Rally is a very small community and everyone knows everyone. I was looking for a co-driver. Because I am new to it with my first national rally being in New England at the Forest Rally last summer, and because O'Neil hooked me up with a car they also hooked me up with a co-driver. I'd never worked with a co-driver before and I knew nothing about notes. We were running off the Jemba system and the Jemba system is just way too much information. I had a great experience at that rally right up until I rolled the car. In a split second it went from the best in my life to the worst. I learned so much just from doing that and obviously that's a major learning experience when you're upside down in a rally car. It's like, okay, what just went wrong, why did that happen and I don't ever want to do that again. But among the many things I took away from that was that I needed to understand notes better. I needed to learn how to write my own notes.

"Here is the thing about rally, in my opinion, you can have driving skills and I can improve my driving skills, there's no doubt about that, but no matter how much I improve my driving skills I think it's only going to get me a fraction more time. If I improve my notes and my ability to write them and my ability to interpret them and drive to them, it's going to improve my rally time considerably, much, much more than driving skill. I really do think that is where the magic is in rally..."

RX360: Because you know what's coming...

"Yes, because you know what's coming. You've got to be able to visualize what's around the next corner. With Michael, I feel very, very fortunate because I had asked around for recommendations for a co-driver and had talk to a few people. I got in touch with Michael and we spoke on the phone. Our first rally together was the LSPR [Lake Superior Performance Rally] last year and right away it was incredible. Michael told me to forget Jemba and that I gotta write my own notes. He actually came out to my house in New Hampshire. We went out and drove some roads and practiced. He's a really, really hard worker and he's really into rally and he's a great driver in his own right. He's really in to the science of the notes. So as we continue, I think we get better with every rally. I feel fortunate that I was able to connect with Michael. It's a great relationship and I hope we can keep it going."

RX360: Was it difficult in the beginning listening to him read the notes while concentrating on driving?

VC: "Yeah, at first. At New England last year the Concord Pond was the first stage and it's a really fast stage. It wasn't with Michael, it was with Martin Hamlin as my co-driver. Martin was reading the notes and we were into the first three or four corners before I realized that I hadn't heard a word he'd said. I was totally trying to relax. So yeah, you have to get into that and it is very, very mental. I mean, driving a rally car is very physical but way more than the physical aspect, it is very mental because you have to give it full concentration. You have to develop a way to be able to listen to the notes and interpret them while you're focusing on doing this very physical thing. But when it happens and when you find the rhythm, it's great."

RX360: How long does it take for you to get into the rhythm?

"What's happened with us in the rallies we've done so far it's usually the later stages of the day or the last three or four stages of the second day that we are usually in the zone. If we could start every rally from that perspective we would be doing great but that's very, very difficult to get there. You have to find that comfort zone."

RX360: You did RECCE yesterday. How was that?

VC: "We did a 12-hour recce [reconnaissance] day and then went back and did a video review. Like I said, Michael is really into the science. We always video a recce, we always go back and review and at service today we will review the videos. We will run the first three stages and go to service and review one or two of them during the break. It's a lot of work to do it properly and like everything else in life the more you do it supposedly the better you can potentially get, but you gotta put the work in. It's like me playing guitar. When I was a kid I wanted to be a rock guitar player and that was all I did twenty-four-seven, and I was totally devoted to my guitar and now I play guitar pretty well. So with rally, I really want to get better as a rally driver so I just gotta do it a lot. Unfortunately, it's a perishable skill like every other skill. You have to do it consistently and it's difficult to practice because you can't really go home in one of these cars and go hooning around your neighborhood sideways. Generally it's frowned upon by the local law establishment and not everyone has a dirt road they can drive on, I certainly don't. With the [Def Leppard] tour schedule it gets difficult.

"You know, rally for me wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for COVID. I'm so, so busy. I play with Def Leppard but I have a side band called Last In Line and we are working on our third record. We've been together for about ten years. The last four of the past ten years of my life have been the busiest because when I wasn't working with Def Leppard I was working with Last In Line and vice versa. I would only be home for a few days and constantly flying, traveling, doing shows, touring and making records. So when COVID happened, all of that stopped. So all of the sudden there was a chance to play with cars.

"I moved to New Hampshire a few years ago and I was tracking there and then the first winter came along in November. The track shut down and I was bemoaning moving from California where you can drive on a track 12 months a year. Then I realized that Team O'Neil was literally only a couple of hours from where I live. So that gave me the chance to take their five day course. That was December of 2020 and I was totally hooked. I ended up going every month for about six months to drive the course. They eventually told me that I need to just do a rally and told me I could rent their car. "

Photo by Jon Seaton/eWRC - SnowDrift Rally

RX360: You're one of the few I've met who found a big, big silver lining in 2020.

VC: "Well yeah, generally speaking a lot of things in life are all about how you look at it. I love my work. I love playing with Def Leppard an Last In Line. But I got a chance to do what the boy in me wanted to do since growing up in Donegal and seeing rally cars."

RX360: Were you surprised, when you first drove a rally car, to find that perhaps what you thought you knew about driving a rally car really wasn't quite right and it was going to be harder than expected?

VC: "Oh yeah, oh yeah! Every guy thinks they're a great driver, you know what I mean? I'm old now so I've been driving a long, long time and like I said I got a lot of track experience, but rally is very different. You get in a rally car and realize, at least for me, its way beyond anything I've ever done before. There so much weight control and vehicle dynamics. The driving skill is really, really important, but like I said before it's the science of the notes. That's where you find the speed."

RX360: Do you write the (pace) notes or do you coordinate with Michael?

VC: "We do it together. I write the notes but Michael definitely complements the notes or corrects them for me. He will point out to me what he thinks I'm doing wrong or what I could do better."

RX360: Rally is also a different type of racing because while you're out on a stage and either break down or wreck, you and your co-driver are the pit crew and mechanics. Are you mechanically inclined?

VC: "Oh no, not at all and I'm not proud of that. I can't even change a light bulb. Tim O'Neil himself has told me on more than one occasion that I need to kind of pay more attention to that because you have to learn to have mechanical sympathy for the vehicle. You have to know what a certain sound is or what's going on with the vehicle. I totally get that, but I've always been that whole right brain, left brain thing. I was always a more creative person. I could play guitar and a musical instrument. As a kid when you do those [car] models and stick them together with glue, I could never do that shit. Any time I had to try and fix something I'd ended up making it worse and had to have someone else come in and rescue it. I have that kind of mental block, but I'm hungry to learn more."

RX360: Do you find a correlation between music and rally?

VC: "Not necessarily with music, but with performance. When I'm on stage with Def Leppard or Last In Line and playing guitar the Virgo in me wants to be perfect and there's no such thing as perfection.

"But, you know, I'm out there playing and I'm trying to play better than the night before and I make one tiny, tiny little mistake and it weighs on me and I'm still thinking about it two or three songs further into the show. In the past I've done that, but you got to learn to let go, and it's the same thing in rally. If you go through a corner and you don't get it right and the car is all sideways and out of shape and you're thinking, 'ah, that was useless,' you can't dwell on it, you have to move on. You need to immediately be focused on what's coming up, not what's behind. So that's the only correlation that I can immediately make."

RX360: So which is more tiring or takes more out of you, rallying or concert day? I would expect that the day of a concert can be pretty busy.

VC: "Rally. Rally for sure is more physically and mentally exhausting. Yeah, because the show thing, I'm very comfortable with it. I don't know what goes on in Travis Pastrana's or Ken Block's mind on rally day but I kinda think that with their level of experience it's probably a lot more comfortable for them. For me, when I go onstage with a guitar in my hand I don't feel nervous because I know what I'm doing. I've prepared my whole life and so I kind of got a feeling that they are maybe the same way when they hit that first stage in a rally, whereas for me there's still a lot of apprehension. It is also exhilarating for sure, I absolutely love it."

RX360: Do you have any interest in doing rallycross, especially now that Travis has started the Nitro Rallycross series?

VC: "Yeah, I've seen some of that stuff on Launch Control, But again, like I said before, that's cars side-by-side. I don't have that competitive streak, I honestly don't. I mean I would back off when things got crucial, at least I assume I would. No, what I really like about rally is that you're racing against yourself, you're racing against the clock. It's your own personal thing, it's your own comfort level. You see that there are 90 plus cars here today, most of them regional drivers and I'm not chasing a championship. I want to set a personal best for myself and take risks to an extent. Like when I go into a corner I think about if I'm going to gain a tenth of a second if I push harder through this or is it worth it? No, it's not, and I'm going back off and go home to my wife and kids. You have to balance those risks. For me, I'm not a professional driver, so it's just an exhilarating past time. With that said, I have ordered a new car for next year. I'm buying my own car.

RX360: What kind of car will it be?

VC: "It's going to be an R4, an FIA R4. It will be a Mitsubishi Mirage."

RX360: Oh good, so you do plan on continuing in rally?

VC: "Oh yes, for sure. Although, I do anticipate that I'll be busier starting next year. This year I've done Snow Drift, 100 Acre Wood, Olympus, STPR and LSPR. So there are five this year and that's all I can fit into my schedule. If I can get that many in next year, I'll be pleased."


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