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Driver Reeducation : High-Tech Cars Call for High-Tech Pilots

March 01, 1987|PAUL DEAN | Times Staff Writer

Ford Motor Co. in broad, extravagant promotion of its new Turbo Thunderbird, chauffeured 305 Southern California disc jockeys to Riverside International Raceway last week.

There--chaperoned by drivers from the British School of Motor Racing--the broadcasters drove 26 showroom Thunderbirds for a combined total of 1,200 laps and 3,000 miles at not much more than freeway pace.

The cars performed to the best of their high technology.

The DJs, in the main, weren't as poised. They ground gears and missed shifts. Several ran off the track. One drove the 2.5-mile circuit in third gear. A few balked at driving a car with a stick shift. One said he didn't know how.

It was classic illustration of a concern being expressed by a corps of driving instructors, professional drivers and automotive safety experts: That today's nimble, sophisticated automobiles clearly are beyond the abilities of their ham-handed owners.

Science of Car Control

"We have a situation where 92% of American motorists are negotiators because nobody taught them any differently," Bob Bondurant of Sonoma said. He is a retired Formula One race driver who preaches high performance driving as the science of car control, not the senseless application of speed. "Only 5% of todays' motorists drive well. Less than 3% drive a lot better than well."

Terry Earwood, a professional stock car racer and driving instructor with a nationwide student body, including high school teen-agers and state troopers, agreed: "The average driver's learning process begins with high school driver ed and ends with the first 5,000 miles of experience. At least 70% of all motorists drive a car at only 50% of its potential."

Yet on asphalt campuses throughout the state, Bondurant and Earwood and other teachers are working to change that situation and the statistics.

So are their students, ordinary Californians paying to become polished, extraordinary motorists capable of handling by evading all the daily dramas and periodic high emergencies of interstate, freeway and surface streets.

They are learning to accelerate out of traffic clutters that threaten trouble, not brake into them. Skids are no longer their peril. Alert lane changes, just enough brake, exactly the right amount of throttle with a reflexive touch of steering has become their accident-avoidance system.

From San Diego to Sonoma, from Riverside to Lancaster, they are registering for performance driving courses that are, in a phrase, adult driver reeducation.

Decades of bad habits are being broken at one-day schools (price: from $325 to $400) where teachers, cops, homemakers and driving instructors of more sedate methods are slinging expensive cars (yours or the school's) around greasy or water-soaked skid pads.

Learning Proper Technique

A two- or three-day session ($700-$975) typically involves correct cornering and braking techniques around the country road curves of a race track, possibly the same circuit once driven by a Mario Andretti or a Danny Sullivan.

For those who want it all (such as James Garner, who did his own stunts in television's "The Rockford Files," and Gene Hackman who did likewise in "The French Connection"), there's a four-day $1,995 course in Northern California that elevates individual driving skills from street driving to the entry level of amateur sports car racing.

Even dealers and manufacturers--from BMW to Maserati to Porsche--are offering retraining for freeway masses awakening to the realization that basic skills learned on an overweight, ill-cornering Chevrolet of the '60s are below par when it comes to driving a quick Maserati Biturbo of the '80s.

A Los Angeles woman fresh from a one-car spinout on the Harbor Freeway has enrolled. So have L.A. lawyers and a wholesale stationery supplier from Van Nuys. They are signing up for classes at:

-- Any of three high-performance street driving schools currently operating at remote Willow Springs Raceway at Rosamond, west of Edwards Air Force Base.

BMW of North America--in conjunction with the nationwide Skip Barber Racing School of Canaan, Conn., and with Earwood as a senior instructor--is offering courses at the track. The factory supplies the cars ($35,000 BMW 535s) because, said a spokesman, "people get closer to their limits when the wear is on somebody else's tires."

The Drivers' Connection--using Toyota Celicas driven during the annual Pro-Celebrity race at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach--operates a variety of "vehicle control" courses at Willow Springs. So does Connie's Team, a school that last year held 16 advanced driving classes under the supervision of Connie Fern of Mar Vista. She races a Porsche 911 at Sports Car Club of America meets.

"The larger percentage of my students, more than 70%, aren't interested in racing and just want to learn to handle their cars better and to be safer drivers," Fern said.

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