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Professional Driving Lessons

Most people I know would rather walk than get in a car when I'm behind the wheel. I don't blame them. I'm a steering wheel-gripping, brake-riding, Nervous Nellie driver. That's why the brochure for the Jim Russell Racing Drivers School's Highway Survival Course hooked me; it promised a five-hour class that would boost my confidence in the driver's seat.

Taught by professional instructors at Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., Highway Survival is a far cry from a basic driving course. "We don't teach you how to read a sign or when to drive 25," says Kjell Kalman, director of sales and marketing. "By simulating accident situations, this class helps you develop skills you normally wouldn't get."

Anyone with a license can enroll. The 10 students in my class varied from a ticket-free woman who'd been driving since 1968 to a teen who flashed me a shiny new license.

Instructor John Knoedler explained the day's drills—all based on potential accident situations—with the bravado and wit you'd expect from a race car driver. "Pretend the orange cones you drive around are people," he said.

We broke into groups; I wasn't the only nervous driver in my trio. Charlie Salazar, 24, told me he saw a therapist about his behind-the-wheel fear. On the other hand, David Jagdeo, 19, had the look of a speed demon; his father, a California Highway Patrol officer, had signed him up.

In the first drill, we learned how to recover from skids and spinouts by driving a specially designed SkidCar. Hydraulic outriggers lifted the car's rear wheels, simulating the feeling of driving on a wet or icy road. Charlie went first. Within seconds, we were spinning around as if riding the Mad Hatter's Tea Cups at Disneyland. "Awesome," David said coolly. I didn't do much better than Charlie, mowing down several orange people. But at the end of my 15-minute turn, I was successfully steering into the skids. David caught on quickly; likely, these skills are most easily learned while you're young.

Next, we each drove a class car and floored it until we had to brake at the cones. The object was to stop the car in the shortest possible distance without losing control—and without filling the air with a cloud of smoke and the stench of burning tires. This skill is useful when the minivan in front of you comes to a sudden halt.

Finally, we practiced emergency lane changes, as if dodging obstacles on the freeway. Again, David mastered this quickly, while Charlie and I drove at a snail's pace and still knocked down cones. But after some 20 tries, we were ready to conquer the concrete jungle.

At the end of the day, we competed in an autocross, and then an instructor sped us around the raceway. This was exhilarating, but also seemed like a gimmick to lure us to a racing class. I wasn't ready to sign up, but Highway Survival has made me a more confident, aware driver. Now I just need to convince someone to get in the car with me. Any takers?

Highway Survival costs $385. AAA members and parents who sign up with their kids receive a 10 percent discount. Call (707) 939-7600.

Photography by Tony Irvin

This article was first published in November 2001. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.