Red, Embarrassed Asphalt

Getting my swerve on . . . for life!

Photo by Sam Varin HagenLike a lot of things, getting sideways in a brand-new Ford sounds like a good idea over the phone. It's not until I'm strapped in the back of a new black four-door -- the door shut like a coffin lid -- that I start feeling like Bugs Bunny in "Falling Hare":faced with gremlins, green around the gills, heart palpitating, palms sweaty. Our driver is a real hot shoe, a Ford ad exec who says later that he's been through Bob Bondurant a couple of times; he snaps his seat belt like Steve McQueen. It's press day. His teenage daughter will drive second. I'm third, if I live that long.

This is for her benefit: "Driving Skills for Life," two days of classes held recently in the parking lot of Verizon Wireless Amphitheater, to school Orange County high-school-age drivers on real-life situations, you know, like when you like this guy, but he totally lives on your friend's street and she likes him too and -- omigod! No, not that. The annual course, sponsored by Ford and the state, aims at providing firsthand knowledge that conventional driver's training, with its four-door Dodge Aspens and nanoseconds on the freeway, can't touch; tactics that scare films like Red Asphalt will never teach. And it works; you're reading this, it's just the getting there that was a little, well, unsettling.

"You want to take off aggressively and get to about 25 or 30," our instructor, a real former race-car driver, said, smiling, "and when you see the lights change, take your foot off the gas, swerve toward the green, and then get back on the gas." They set two of three traffic lights facing you to turn red, simulating a driver pulling out in front of you; you'd veer toward the third, which would stay green, through great, orange lines of cones -- each representing a real, live person, the teacher says. Last time I tried something like this, I did a 180 outside Circle Porsche-Audi -- but no time for brooding: we're off. The executive nails it; the lights turn red, he swerves -- I swear it feels like we'll roll -- pulls out of the swerve and guns it and wipes out the last few cones. I'm quietly pleased, knowing I can do much better -- and my stomach is doing nip-ups. "Ever roll one of these?" I ask, getting bland assurances all around. The exec improves on the second and third go-rounds; the cones stay up, and then it's his daughter's turn. Honed, perhaps, in the family Navigator, her driving skills are, to my great relief -- though not that of my stomach -- on par with those of her dad, and after three gut-wrenching runs it's my turn.

I crank the seat up as high as it'll go, then blast off. The lights go red, and I swerve toward the green -- a really hard jolt -- and of course I do what's instinctive after hours of real-life training: I hit the brake, which you're not supposed to do here. The car slows, and when I get back on it, I take down three or four cones -- each a tiny man with a really bad self-tan -- feeling them rattle beneath the car and slowly break free. Everyone is relieved it wasn't worse. "Not bad," someone says as I loop around for a repeat. Two tries later, I've got it: the cones stay up, and though I bungle a third try, we're on to the real action: a soaked skid pad and a red Ford Mustang. This time, we're doomed, I know, as the teenager and I cram into the back seat for a test run. It's so tough, the instructor takes us through it first -- a straight shot at about 25 miles per hour, a hard right, and a yank on the emergency brake. Don't know if you’ve ever been in a skid, but the farther back you sit, the worse it feels. It's like playing Crack the Whip on the playground again. My free lunch of hot dogs and mac and cheese is coming unglued, and my hands are white on the back of the passenger-side bucket seat. And I go first.

I take off really, really fastâ€"thinking, Will I ever do this in real life? Again? --and when I start to turn: the e-brake. The car pitches sideways and I steer left, into the skid -- but then somehow I come back right too soon and it skids again and goes totally sideways.The poor guy wetting the asphalt with a garden hose bolts, and I feel the car bucking under me, the tires jumping in a way the teacher says only happens when you're all the way sideways. Which I am: the car rolls backward in Drive, killing the engine just like outside Circle Porsche-Audi. It's wretched; I'm wretched -- all adrenalin, like the time we did a 180 on the 405 freeway (long story) -- but the instructor starts it up again, and as I start to realize I'm alive, we all go around again and I get it right. Not the good kind of right -- which would be no skid at all, avoiding the situation -- but the kind of right where I'll have to do this another three-four times until I stop sucking so bad, and then I graduate. And never use these skills exactly the same way again. Just like most of high school.

 
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