Thursday, April 28, 2011
Accelerating to 80mph – then coming to a complete stop – or turning a trio of 360s on a wet road doesn’t sound like your typical driving school.
It is at Skip Barber Racing School’s New Driver Program, happening right around the corner from most of Monterey County at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca but drawing bad, young drivers from across the country.
A cousin of the Skip Barber academy for formula and high performance cars, the one-day course teaches survival skills in a safe yet realistic setting – meaning ample open space for inevitable skid-outs and emergency lane changes – needed to handle any condition on any road during any time.
It’s geared toward teenagers who’ve recently acquired a license, but in extreme cases, students have come in with driving records that include steering a car through a house. Some of the car-tastrophes (like one kid who has a resume with six totalled cars) make another’s (wrecking five cars in one accident) seem tame by comparison.
These crash-dummy-drivers often aren’t feeling the idea at first, though.
“The teen drivers come kicking and screaming,” says instructor Jonathan Frost. “In their words, they’re forced to be there.”
“Forced,” by concerned parents, that is, who have found the school through online research and word-of-mouth and believe their children need immediate driver education before they get into another vehicle.
But other students come in simply to learn safety skills.
Steve Bard of Hillsborough, Calif., recently enrolled his 17-year-old daughter in the program.
“You can read something about lane changes and skidding, but you need to be able to experience them,” Bard says. “Skip Barber allows you to recreate dangerous situations in a risk-free environment.”
“We take what the DMV teaches and turn it up a notch,” Frost says.
The program begins with a lecture on vehicle dynamics, breaking down the physics behind why a car behaves the way it does.
“A car is an instrument,” says instructor Ricky Schmidt. “As soon as you realize what the car is capable of doing, then you can predict what it will do before it happens.”
For instance, students learn about load transfer (accelerating causes the car’s weight to transfer to the back, and decelerating causes the car’s weight to transfer to the front).
After classroom lessons covering skid recovery, braking and lane change, students head outside to put their knowledge to practice.
Students break up into two teams of five led by two instructors each and embark on the hands on aspect. They start with skid recovery, where the trickiest challenge is looking in the direction you want to head in. “It’s a human instinct to look at what’s going to hurt you,” says instructor Bryan Germone. “Look for hope, not reality.”
He frequently adds this tip: “Stay off the brakes, use fast hands and a light grip on the wheel.”
Next, students practice sudden stops. They start by flooring it in one of the school’s Mazda 3 sedans. Then students sharply de-accelerate from 40mph to 0, followed by a zoom back up to 60 and 80 mph. A curve is added after this to create a more realistic situation. Ideally accuracy doesn’t suffer with speed.
Students also feel the effects of anti-lock brakes and practice emergency lane changes. As they approach three coned lanes, an instructor flips a switch corresponding to one of the outside lanes and students must swerve suddenly into it.
Along the way, instructor Jon Morley chirps coaching tips: “Add 10mph to challenge yourself,” and “Steer harder and be aggressive with the first turn and smaller with the second.”
The overriding theme is clear: Practical activities offer students the chance to see and get a sense of what authentic situations on the road feel like, while exploring a car’s life-saving limits.
The class costs a cool $1,000, but nevertheless draws locals and families who fly in from across the United States because they’d rather save a life than experience an accident.
Initially teenager Melissa Bard had no desire to go. Today she says she has new-found confidence.
“Now I know how to get out of a spin out and to better focus on my turns,” she says. “I feel more comfortable on the road knowing these useful things.”
The next New Driver Program happens Mon. 7 at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca Skip Barber Racing School, 1023 Monterey-Salinas Highway, Salinas. $999. Call 657-4620 for more information. www.skipbarber.com