Kids today have it so easy. Back when I was learning to drive, we didn't have things like the "BMW All New Series 3 Ultimate Driving Experience Student Driver Program." No, sir, back then you learned how to drive however you could -- even if it meant twenty minutes, no questions asked, in the cabin of some interstate trucker. As long as he agreed to teach you to drive afterward, it was kosher. I was one of the lucky ones: My dad taught me how to drive. But don't go thinking he was a softy or anything; he was one hell of a teacher, himself a graduate of the school of hard knocks. When my father was learning to swim, for example, his old man simply hoisted him into the air and then hurled him head over heels into the deep end of a pool. Sink or swim, sucker.
So when my dad was teaching me how to drive, he just got right to it. One day when I was fifteen, he woke me up and told me to get dressed; we were going for a ride. He drove us to I-70, merged onto the highway and then headed west. His demeanor had an eerie calm; curiously absent was the hostile, nonsensical screaming at the radio to which I'd become accustomed, the heated and unnecessary littering. But suddenly, right before we hit the Mousetrap, he unbuckled his seat belt and threw himself out of the moving vehicle. I remember catching a brief glimpse of him in the rearview mirror as he executed a shockingly perfect Navy Seal tuck-and-roll and landed unharmed on the shoulder, but I couldn't take time to dwell on the surprising expertise of his maneuvers: I had my own bomb to dismantle.
Many people would crumble in that situation, but I hopped into the driver's seat, jerked the car to the right and merged onto I-25 heading north. By the time I got onto U.S. 36 a few miles down the road, I was like Jeff-freaking-Gordon behind the wheel. I continued on into Boulder, where I charmed three voluptuous CU sorority sisters on the Pearl Street Mall into dining with me. Afterward, they took me back to their place, and we made sweet, sweet love. When I returned home that evening, my father knew that he had not only taught me how to drive, he had taught me how to be a man. And all by imparting that most precious of driving lessons: Don't panic.
Paul Gerrard, chief instructor of the Ultimate Driving Experience and a racer in this week's Grand Prix, agrees. "Being unpredictable is what causes accidents," he tells the hundred students packed into a tent in the parking lot of Invesco Field at Mile High this past Sunday. And unpredictability is caused by panicking. The teens suck down one carbonated beverage after another, listening to Gerrard with rapture when not staring at my stubble. By being a predictable driver, learning to anticipate, making sure your car is well-maintained and that you know how it will respond in any situation, you can become what Gerrard calls "untouchable." (That may well be, but sometimes it's rainy out and it's Halloween and you're dressed as Euro-trash and you round a corner and all of a sudden that tree outside your college gymnasium just comes out of nowhere. Then your friend walks by the scene and he's dressed up as a pimp and he's absolutely hammered and he's like, "How can I help?" And you're like, "By leaving the scene, you drunk, idiot pimp." I'm just saying.)
Furthermore, with the techniques taught by Gerrard and company, you can avoid the all-too-common phenomenon of "target fixation," in which a driver blanks, locks on to the target he is going to hit, and rather than steering around it, heads right for it. To illustrate this, Gerrard used the image of a truck carrying liquid nitrogen running a red light as you come speeding through an intersection -- and to hear him tell it, that truck is out circling the country, waiting to smash into every one of us.
There's no truck looming in the driving course set up in the parking lot -- that hallowed ground where Mile High once stood, and where John Elway narrated many a childhood -- just three emergency-training scenarios and a dozen or so top-of-the line BMW All New 3 Series vehicles. My group heads first to skid duty, where groups of three get in a car with an instructor and practice skidding out. We each take turns behind the wheel, turning as fast as we can on a blue tarp heavily sudsed up with Tide. Seeing as I'm nearly ten years into this driving game now, I figure I'll bat this one out of the park. Instead, my first attempt is marred by frantic braking and near-hysteria, causing the car to spin in circles, much to the delight of the watching teens. My second attempt is only slightly better.
Next up: The braking course, where drivers are instructed to go full throttle, start into a turn and then slam on the brakes when the instructor yells "Brakes!" sounding much like the frustrated, belligerent coach from your adolescence. My first time through I feel I do quite well, but the instructor informs me that I was "pussyfooting" and really need to slam the brakes when he yells, as if there were an elk or something leaping out in front of me. I've never made any secret of my fondness for wildlife, so the next time around I jujitsu those fucking brakes, creating a high-pitched shriek of rubber on cement that the assembled high school girls haven't heard since, well, since they saw each other in the parking lot that morning. But that's still pretty loud.
As an aside, there's something incredibly cathartic about abusing a BMW; it's like punching an old German man in the stomach. There's also nothing more terrifying than sitting in the back seat of a car as a fifteen-year-old is not only allowed, but encouraged, to drive as fast as he can, then slam on the brakes as he goes into a sharp turn. It makes you tremble with fear and doubt the direction you are heading in life. Like punching an old German man in the stomach.
Finally, the big daddy of them all -- the lane-change maneuver. Here we're again told to drive full throttle, this time for about seventy yards toward a large clump of orange cones. Just as we approach the pile, the instructor yells "Left!" or "Right!" and we suddenly have to steer in the direction he's barked, taking our foot off the gas and maintaining control. All day long, cones are flying into the air like tardy fireworks, as anxious teen after anxious teen chooses neither left nor right, but heads straight through the cones in what resembles some new form of redneck bowling. It's a tough test, but as I race toward those orange triangles, watching that MPH needle soar upward, I clear my head and remember that first day driving with my dad.
"Right!" the instructor yells. "Oh, you mean like this?" I think as I guide the car almost effortlessly around the cones to safety.
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"Right!" he shouts the next time, no doubt thinking that I've assumed he'll say "left" and will freak. Boo-yah, professor, safety again. How do you like me now?
About the same, it seems.
Courses complete, we're instructed to go inside the tent for the wrap-up speech. I stay behind a moment, looking out over the course as the hot sun bakes the cement. In front of me are three shiny silver 2006 BMWs, driver's doors open, engines running. No one's around. I look up and see cars racing on I-25 not 300 yards away, an entrance ramp in plain sight. I can just hop into one of these bad boys, fixate my target on Mexico and get the hell out of Dodge. They'll never catch me; by the time they even realize the car is gone, I'll be in Arizona. With my newly honed driving skills, I'll be what Paul Gerrard calls "untouchable." Back at BMW headquarters, they'll have to initiate some plan of attack to come find me. "Okay, listen up, everybody," a faceless official will say to an army of secret BMW commandos. "We had some shithead reporter run off with one of our cars, and we have to go get it back. He's armed and presumed very dangerous, so things could get hairy out there. I'm outfitting each of you with a cyanide pill as a precautionary measure.
"But I want you to remember your training, people," he continues. "What's the first thing we taught you? That's right: Don't panic."