“Okay, go, give it gas, let’s go!” my instructor Chris Komar says to me, as we start driving down a hill towards a line of cones on a dirt road that’s just been turned into mud by the water trucks. Chris is known for pushing students’ knees down onto the gas pedal to break them of the habit of lifting off the gas. He’s a big jovial man with a great beard and a deep, hearty laugh. He also, as far as I can tell, was born without fear. I head towards the cones. “Keep the throttle down,” he says impossibly as the cones grow closer at an alarming rate. I push the gas pedal down a little bit further as the little Fiesta’s engine hums up to 4000 rpm, unaware of the obstacle ahead.
“Now left!” he says at the very last second — it feels like I have only about three feet ahead of me before crashing through the green traffic cones. I pull the wheel hard to the left, let off the gas, and the car darts left.
I miss the cones but screw it up. Something with the brake or the throttle or the steering wheel. Now the car is hurtling sideways in a long skid towards a row of trees, and thwacking the cones marking the side of the track.
“Give it gas! More gas! Go Go Go!” urges Komar, with a big grin on his face. I fight off my natural instinct to brake, push the pedal down, countersteer, and manage to redirect the car back towards the road without sideswiping the trees. Midway through this adventure I’m looking where I want to go, which happens to be out the passenger side back window, I catch a glimpse of Max, the brand-new instructor in training who has the dubious honor of riding in the back seat.
His face has gone completely white.
Chris laughs and says “Nice save! Good job!” with a big smile on his face. As soon as the car comes to a stop, Max says that he needs to go reset the cones, undoes his safety harness, opens the door, and is halfway down the track faster than Usain Bolt at the Olympics. I can’t say I blame him.
This is the last driving exercise of Day 1 of Team O’Neil Rally School and Car Control Center. The accident avoidance exercise combines all of the skills we’ve been learning throughout the day. Left foot braking, steering with the brakes, and controlling the car on loose and wet surfaces.
There were 11 of us today. 3 of us will be doing the entire 5-day course: there’s me, doing this to let loose for a week, push myself to the limit, and get back in touch with the things I enjoy in life. There’s Will, a teacher focusing on himself and letting go of some of the stress that comes with shaping young lives, and there’s Derric, a 19-year old kid from Georgia who’s looking to develop the skills to drive his Subaru WRX STi like a bat out of hell.
The rest won’t be staying the whole week. There’s a father and son team here from my hometown in rural Pennsylvania, there’s a group of ladies from Colorado who are all in the Porsche club at home (and kicking my butt up and down the dirt all day), and there’s Brandon and Dawn, a couple who flew in from Singapore to “learn how to drive like Ken Block”.
The best part about Brandon and Dawn is that they’re used to driving on the opposite side of the car, in city traffic, and Dawn doesn’t have any experience with manual cars, and yet they’re laughing and smiling all day, and despite having severe jetlag they’re incredibly enthusiastic and insanely optimistic. When she tells me that she stalled the car out again, I tell her that she’s still got another day to become Ken Block. Brandon smiles and nods encouragingly and they jump back into their car to take another go at it. When I run into him at the supermarket later, he gives me a couple of beers. Incredible people – I’m going to miss them later in the week.
Our instructor in the morning tells us that “Optimism and Denial are strategies, hope is not.” He warns us of the dangers of target fixation, and says that if we look where we want to go, even when the car is rotating out of control, it’s much easier to correct it than if we’re staring where we don’t want to go. His advice is proven right time and time again out on the dirt.
It’s a great course, with great instructors, and by the end of the day I’m faster, smoother, and more in control. I’m looking forward to Day 2.