David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
10/20/14 2:20 p.m.

About halfway through this past week, I realized something. After being away for the last four weekends, I had a totally free one coming. So I did the only rational thing: I checked our local SCCA region’s website for an autocross.

I haven’t autocrossed as much I would have liked this past year, so I figured I’d take out the Miata for a last spin before watching 2012 totally slip away. Our Central Florida Region didn’t have an autocross planned this weekend, but they still had an event scheduled: a Street Survival school for teen drivers.

So then I did the next rational thing: I contacted Art Trier, our local program leader, to see if he needed any last-minute instructors. I have taught before and found it to be a fun, rewarding experience. Turns out he was one instructor short, so within an hour or so of that first email, I was added to the roster.

Then the realities started to sink in, like the 7:45 a.m. check-in time. The site is exactly an hour from my house, so simple math said I’d be waking up around 6 o’clock—all on my “free” weekend.

I can easily work well past the witching hour, but I fully admit that I’m not a morning person in any way, shape or form. As my sweet, understanding wife noted, it would be for a good cause. I set the alarm and turned in early. Fast-forward to the next morning, and I’m following my GPS to the site. (In addition to not being a morning person, I fully admit to having almost zero sense of direction.) I checked in, caught up with a bunch of local autocross buddies, and eventually met my student, 17-year-old Natalie.

As we walked to her car, she let me in on a little secret: Her car was a stick shift, and she’s only been driving it for about two and a half weeks. She seemed eager to be there, and I figured we’d conquer that possible obstacle together. The first exercise was an ABS test: Get up to around 40 mph and then stomp the brake pedal hard enough to invoke the ABS. On her first stop, yep, she briefly came off the brake pedal when the ABS system kicked in. Never felt that sensation before, she admitted, and was a little alarmed by it.

On the next pass, I told her to expect those pulses and stomp that brake pedal all the way to the floor. That next attempt was a textbook, full-ABS stop. Lesson learned: The ABS’s clanking and banging isn’t anything to fear. Soon after, we did the slalom exercise—something rudimentary for autocrossers, but probably a bit of a challenge for the motoring public. As she approached the first cone, I felt her bobble. A pair of sunglasses left in the center console slid around and momentarily distracted her.

She realized it, too, and after that run we discussed what had happened. Just a few ounces of plastic had caused her to lose concentration—maybe just for an instant, but there’s no denying that it affected her driving. Lesson quickly demonstrated: Even little things can cause a tangible disruption.

Toward the end of the slalom runs, though, Natalie wasn’t just surviving the course, she was dominating it—looking ahead and making smooth, deliberate inputs with both the gas pedal and steering wheel. Her instincts had kicked in, too, as she was turning in for the next cone before passing the current one. She wasn’t just reacting, she was thinking ahead.

By this time, her one-two upshifts had also gone from a little clunky to silky smooth. An hour or so of probing the limits in a safe, controlled environment had already produced obvious results.

She showed the same confidence on the skidpad. After just a little coaching—and some all-important seat time away from traffic—she quickly picked up the relationship to steering angle, throttle position and trajectory. By the end of the exercises, she could smoothly increase or decrease the circle’s radius using just the gas pedal. She also proved hard to phase. In an effort to throw something new at her, I yanked up on the parking brake. She simply turned into the skid, adjusted her right foot, and continued without skipping a beat.

The last exercise was what Street Survival calls a handling course. For the rest of us, it’s basically a rather simple, short autocross. It combined all of the lessons taught that day.

Her first run was a bit timid—unlike a real autocross, no walkthrough was allowed. After a few passes, she was again dominating it, handling the slalom like a seasoned vet, smoothly getting through the back straight’s tight kink, and finishing up with nice threshold braking.

I also added an extra distraction to the lesson. She admitted that one reason for driving a car with a manual transmission was to eliminate the temptation to text. As she noted, you can’t really text when you’re shifting gears.

On her final run, as we entered the course’s first turn, I handed over her iPhone. At the next turn, I asked for it back. A few seconds later, I returned the phone again.

That’s when she simply dropped the phone in her lap so she could keep both hands on the wheel. She admitted after the run that, yeah, there’s no way to use a phone when driving.

After the day’s driving festivities, Natalie’s dad asked an important question: So where can they drive on track? I have a feeling—and a hope—that some seeds have been planted.

All too often we work to make ourselves better drivers. This time, it felt good to pay it forward. Car crashes are the single biggest killer of teens. If spending one Saturday helping Natalie master car control tips the odds in her favor, then it was totally worth it.

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