- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

Maybe you've never thought about going to a school for race car drivers. Well, neither had I. But there I found myself, at a racing school east of Los Angeles, where I learned a lot about safety that applies to everyday driving.

It was dawn when I arrived at the Willow Springs International Raceway to attend Danny McKeever's Fast Lane Racing School. I was there because of my work as a trainer, teaching people about car maintenance. Now it was my time to learn.

Danny McKeever, the owner and chief instructor, spent the first two hours instructing a group of us about the basic techniques of vehicle control, including why things happen under certain conditions and how to maintain maximum control of the vehicle. He said that driving, whether you're on a street or a racetrack, takes 100 percent concentration and that means you can't allow any distractions.

Distractions include everything from trying to break up a french fry fight between your preschoolers to using your cellphone to reschedule an important business meeting.

More basics: Proper braking can happen only if you have the right connection between you and the brake pedal (the ball of your foot needs to be in contact with the pedal). Your eyes can keep you out of trouble use your mirrors and know your vehicle's blind spots, and always look far enough ahead so you can make better decisions. The faster you're going, the farther ahead you need to look.

Most importantly, Mr. McKeever explained, is remembering that driving is a mental exercise and that by becoming "part" of your car, you're better able to respond to the information it's giving you.

On to the fun stuff. Actually, I don't know if you can call putting on those flame-retardant, high-necked racing suits fun. Although they're light, they made me feel kind of claustrophobic. I climbed into a Toyota Celica and strapped myself in with a special five-point seat belt, and felt like a sardine jammed into a tiny can. The day was hot, already in the 90s and getting hotter. I wasn't permitted to turn on the air conditioning because the vehicle could overheat under our racetrack driving conditions. I resigned myself to coming out of the experience with sweat stains the size of Texas.

I started the engine. I'd never heard such throaty, visceral sounds coming from a car before. I got more instruction before starting off on the slalom course which, during my first few times trying it, I drove slowly. Each time I ran the course weaving back and forth to avoid the cones I drove faster and more smoothly.

Next, I headed to the "skid pad," a watered down slippery course I circled at increasing speeds, learning to deal with steering and sliding problems. With each slide, I became less freaked out by the loss of control, and consequently, gained more control.

On to a road course that consisted of a 1,000-foot straightaway and a series of "S" curves. After a few frustrating laps, I asked one of Mr. McKeever's patient instructors to ride with me. Down the straightaway we went. "Stand on it," the instructor said (meaning: press as hard as you can on the gas pedal). "I am," I insist.

I spent the next several hours alone in the car, learning a little more about the car and the track, and a lot about me. I also realized a sense of accomplishment out of the day, not to mention the thrill of new experiences. And I got some important safety reminders: small movements are always better than big movements; driving is about looking ahead and planning your next move; and you always need to have an escape route, which means thinking ahead.

I learned that I control the car, and the car should never control me. My racing school experience gave me a sense of empowerment a word I never applied to driving before.

Going to racing school for a day was a treat, one that most people won't get to enjoy. But if you can get yourself to a school, or even contact your local sports car club, ask about their driving programs, do it. It's more than worth the sweat stains.

MOTOR MATTERS


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