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Wheels in Heels tests and redefines the limits of everyday female drivers

About 50 yards ahead, Annie Bonvoloir is standing stock-still as I accelerate directly toward her to a clip of about 30 mph, waiting for her to give me the signal. Denise Longwell, seated next to me in the passenger seat, warns me not to brake: "When she gives you the signal, follow her arm with your eyes and swerve, and try not to tap the brake." Longwell and Bonvoloir are both professional race-car drivers, Bonvoloir is refusing to give a signal as I approach her at an alarming rate of speed, and this is really, extremely nerve-wracking.

It's Wheels in Heels, an aggressive driving program for women (I am the first man ever to take the course), and it's pretty intense.

The exercise we're working on now is the last one of the course, and it's the scariest. The idea, as it is with every other exercise, is to get women comfortable with the capabilities and limitations of their cars. You, the driver, accelerate toward five road cones -- which represent "kids" -- directly behind which stands an instructor, who at the very last possible second will indicate for you to swerve left, right or stop. Earlier, demonstrating this exercise, Longwell got the signal to stop too late and plowed into the cones, coming to a halt just feet from Bonvoloir, who hardly batted an eye.

"I killed the kids," Longwell quipped. "Bummer."

It's a great example of the easy, jokey camaraderie these women establish as instructors, and it keeps the mood light -- but this is serious business. "This saves lives," says Christine Jarritts, another instructor.

Longwell and Jerritts got the idea for the course earlier this year, when they attended an expo with a group of female realtors at a racetrack in New Mexico. "By their body language," says Longwell, "you could tell they were really nervous -- a lot of these women didn't even know how to drive a stick. By the end of the day, they were empowered."

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On the way home, Jerritts and Longwell decided they wanted to keep that empowerment going. "You know, every teenage boy does this stuff," Longwell explains, "locking up the brakes, doing donuts." (She's right, by the way -- at least, I certainly did). "Women don't really tend to test the limits of their cars like that. We're kind of anomalies," she concludes, gesturing at herself and Jerritts.

Dru Shaffer, a graduate of the course, says it worked: "I drive a huge truck, and I learned how to control that truck in a way I never thought possible. I was beaming from ear to ear; everyone was."

And while it was fun, she says she also has employed skills she learned, which were driven (pun intended) in enough to become innate. Just recently, she was driving toward a crosswalk when a guy stepped out in front of her, and Shaffer says she hardly had to think about reacting: "I stopped on a dime."

Chalk up one life potentially saved. Wheels in Heels is a roughly three-and-a-half-hour course that happens once a month or so in the parking lot of Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. The next course takes place this Saturday, August 7, costs $249 and is open, again, only to women. For details, call 720-891-3093 or visit www.wheelsinheels.com.

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