The Truth About My Driving
Blasting down the autocross track at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in a BMW M3, wringing that mad motor to the max, I still couldn't catch the rat bastard in the car ahead. My Teutonic ride had more than enough juice to gain ground during the straights. But the second a twist appeared my target slipped away like a thief with a knife. At some point, courage got the better part of valor; I switched off the DSC and drove well beyond what any rational human would call "safe." Wrong answer. Without Bimmer's Nanny riding shotgun, my car control disintegrated. The Dodge Neon SRT-4 pulled away, leaving me in the dust.
Before spending two-days at the Skip Barber High Performance Driving School, I was convinced I was a reasonably skilled driver. I had no idea how bad I sucked. Lucky for my ego, I wasn't the only one to make this realization. Wealthy sports car owners from all walks of life swaggered into the Vegas heat full of piss, shit and corruption; convinced they could pilot Bimmers, Porkers and a Viper with confidence and élan. One-by-one, Skip Barber's Neon-driving instructors disabused them of the notion. As we struggled through a tire-smoking orgy of spinning, understeering, knocking over cones, missing turn-in points, choosing the wrong gear, braking at the exact wrong time and place, we all came to the same conclusion: none of us could drive for shit.
Skip Barber teaches you how to steer a car with your feet, master the art of progressive trail-braking (to both induce and correct oversteer), pick the proper line through a corner, shuffle steer, heel-and-toe downshift and not to freeze-up and/or lose it when all Hell breaks loose. While it would be easy to see these high-speed Skipcapades as nothing more than a fun day out for testosterone-crazed pistonheads; or a wrong-headed indulgence for members of Hoonatics Anonymous, every single tip and technique we learned applied to real world defensive driving.
For instance, shuffle steering, where you feed the wheel from one hand to the other, ensures that no matter how the car is pointed, your hands are in the most advantageous position (9 and 3 it turns out, not 10 and 2). The technique also prevents the airbag from knocking your crossed wrists through your skull. Trail-braking ensures that you have loaded the vehicle's weight onto the front tires (the ones that do the turning), making emergency maneuvers safer. Proper heel-and-toe allows you to get away from an impending accident. Even understanding the proper race-line means that your car will be more stable at speed. Five AM coke binge or not, this is life-saving stuff.
By the end of the Two Day High Performance School, we were all… better. More importantly, we'd gained a measure of much-needed humility. In fact, it's too damn bad Skip Barber's class costs nearly three grand (plus travel and accommodation). Once upon a time, only rich bastards could afford cars with more than 200hp. These days, anyone with a reasonable credit rating and a day job can buy a Dodge, Chrysler, Pontiac, etc. with 400hp. And, of course, they're killing themselves. Oh sure, the media focuses on the Ferrari-halving Erikssons and the SLR-compatibility testing Prince Naseems. No one talks about the average schmoes running their performance cars into a tree. Nor for that matter, soccer moms in 400hp 'Slades slamming into the rest of us.
As I spun the Viper through a ragged 720, a thought occurred to me: US driver's Ed blows. It's the automotive equivalent to abstinence-only sex-education. Does anyone seriously think that knowing how to parallel park a car is more important than learning how to correct a skid before you slam into a tree? How many driving instructors spend their entire time in a fruitless attempt to convince hormone-crazed teens to drive slower, when they should be teaching them how to drive faster better? What's more critical to ensuring a new driver's survival: a viewing of the gory automotive fatalities featured in the "Red Asphalt" film series, or caning Mom's SUV through some cones?
The current system is, of course, all about money. In Germany, it costs 80 billion dollars to get a license. In the US, our free market simply wants as many people buying cars, paying for insurance, servicing their rides and sucking as much gas as possible. You can take the written exam in Farsi, for fuck's sake. Think hard; have you ever met a soul who was denied a driver's license? Me neither. Corners are cut, poor decisions are made, lives are lost. While safety campaigners talk about enforcement and passive safety and compatibility, the truth is that it's all post-horse escape, barn-door closing bullshit. If we want to stop 40k civilians dying on highways every year, there's only one way to do it: real-world training like Skip Barber's.
[The Skip Barber Driving School waived its $2695 tuition fee for this article.]
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