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Driving Class Lets You Test the Limits--and Learn Your Limits


BUTTONWILLOW, Calif. — Jessica Csernak was terrified, and I wasn't feeling so hot either as we looked at the other cars on the apron of Buttonwillow Race Track, about 30 incredibly hot miles northwest of Bakersfield.

Jessica, not yet 16, was there with her mom's stock 1996 Kia Sephia sedan. I, not yet 51, was there in my almost-stock 1992 sport-utility vehicle--a Mazda Navajo (a two-door Ford Explorer with a Mazda grille). In between us were a dozen-plus testosterone-charged twentysomething guys with fire-breathing Mustang GTs, race-prepared BMWs and turbocharged Mitsubishis.

We'd each paid $150 to attend Buttonwillow's inaugural "performance and safety" driving class, but despite the name, it was obvious that everyone but Jessica and I was there mainly to go around the track as fast and as often as he could. And the way the class was being taught, we'd be sharing the course with them.

The short version--and that's all the room the editors are giving me for this--is that we survived, even did well, and drove back to our respective homes that Saturday evening with a new appreciation of our abilities, a deeper understanding of our shortcomings and firsthand experience of just how far we could push our vehicles.

Did we go home as better drivers?

Jessica thinks she did, although in an interview a month after the Aug. 8 course, the high school sophomore from Northern California admitted that she hadn't done any driving since the class.

And I know I did--although my wife still nags me for driving too fast and, for her taste, too close to the traffic in front of me (more about that later).

I also learned that even big, boxy SUVs can handle pretty well at moderately high speeds if driven properly, a great advertisement for how good our vehicles are these days and a good argument, as well, for driving classes for the people who have made sport-utes, minivans and pickups as popular as passenger cars these days.

The class was a first effort by track President Les Phillips and the state chapter of the Sports Car Club of America to offer a de-tuned driving class for people who weren't pursuing a novice race driver's certificate. The next safety school will be held Nov. 28.

All of the instructors were SCCA members and licensed race drivers themselves, and each was assigned to split his time between two students for the day.

I got John Palitz Jr., a race mechanic from San Diego who combined patience and aggressiveness in a nice way: He didn't yell too much at the mistakes I made and encouraged me to let the stops out once he figured I could handle it.

After our cars were checked out to make sure they had seat belts, weren't dragging critical parts on the ground and weren't filled with loose junk that would fly around on corners, we gathered under a shade cover for an hour of classroom work. All 17 students and almost that many instructors and track officials went over the basics, including rules of the road for the on-track sessions that would take up most of the day.

Those of us who didn't already know learned how to define and recognize under-steer (when the front tires lose grip and the car keeps going straight even though you are turning the wheel, which is very, very frustrating in corners) and over-steer (when the back tires break loose and the rear of the car tries to trade places with the front end--which can be fun unless there's something else on the road).

The instructors told us how to correct for each condition and later gave us a little practice doing so.

They explained how acceleration, braking and turning affect weight distribution and tire grip and how to use that knowledge to avoid getting into sticky situations. (Hint: Slamming on the brakes while cornering hard is almost guaranteed to cause your rear tires to lose their grip on the road and send you into a nasty spin. That's why race drivers do all their braking before they get to the corner.)

We spent not nearly enough time practicing some of the textbook stuff on a wet braking area and a dry skid pad.

The purpose of the brake pad was to let us experience how our vehicles behave when their anti-lock brake systems take over and how ABS feels when it is working--the brake pedal seems to have a life of its own. That's important because many people who have never experienced the quick pumping action of a brake pedal with ABS engaged tend to panic and take their foot off the pedal when it happens, releasing the brakes and causing their cars to drive straight into the back ends of the vehicles they were trying to avoid.

The purpose of the skid pad was to get us going fast enough in tight circles to make our cars start skidding, and then to give us instruction in correcting the skid.

Then we divided into two groups, with one group watching as the other hit the track, students behind the wheels and instructors in the passenger seats giving encouragement and advice.

Afterward, I asked Palitz for his assessment of me:

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