I’m not a bad driver — I swear. I actually think I’m a pretty good one. I know that 25 mph signs don’t really mean 35 mph, I never engage in races when the Mustang next to me revs their engine at the stoplight and I always check my blind spot before changing lanes.
So I wasn’t exactly thrilled when my dad told me I had to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning to take a driving class in Topeka, especially when it wasn’t required to get my license (which I already have). I can’t say I’m surprised — he’s always on the lookout for anything that can improve my driving skills.
The Saturday morning wake up call was rough, but I’m a sucker for a Starbucks bribe from my dad and since he had agreed to drive, I still had an hour to wake up before the class started.
The Tire Rack Street Survival Course at Heartland Motorsports Park was nothing like the eight hour class and six hours of driving with an instructor I already went through in Driver’s Ed. Instead of just teaching me to remember to turn my turn signal on 100 feet before the turn and how to parallel park — which, if I’m being completely honest, I still can’t do very well — the class gave me the opportunity to learn firsthand how to drive in hazardous conditions, like if there was a collision in front of me or if my car started spinning out of control.
My dad didn’t have to ask what I’d thought of the class, he could tell from the smile across my face.
The class, held twice a year — once in the spring and once in the fall — requires each student to bring their own car and costs $95, which isn’t bad in comparison to most multi-hundred dollar driving classes.
Contrary to most classes, here we were encouraged to go fast and actually try to spin out of control, which is even better than it sounds. They wanted us to learn how to handle bad situations we may face on the roads so we could be ready if we ever encountered them, which is something most classes don’t ever teach their students.
But I never would have expected to actually enjoy the class, much less walk out feeling comfortable driving my stick-shift 1992 Mazda Miata. Believe it or not, I made the 70 minute drive back from Topeka — yes, even on the terrifying Route 70 — to my house.
Even though I’ll hopefully never be in a situation where I’ll use these skills, it’s nice to know I’m prepared.
Pulling into the track, you can hear the loud revs of engines from the bright colored race cars. I was hoping that race car driving was a part of the class, but I was quickly disappointed to learn it wasn’t. I certainly felt the part, though, as my car fit right in with the sea of Mazda Miata race cars.
The course is split into two parts: a hands-on driving section and driving safety instructional classes. We were randomly divided into groups of about 15 that switch between the courses. We each had a personal instructor to be in the car with us, and I got to spend the day with my newest friend Shane.
There were four stations for the hands-on driving part. In the hard brake station we practiced gaining speed before slamming on the brakes at the last second to activate the ABS — anti-lock braking system. The slaloms station had me weaving through a set of zigzag cones at a steady speed and forced me not to look down at what’s right in front of myself but instead look up at the cones in the distance and make me anticipate what comes next. It was easily my favorite.
As for the turn and break station, we worked on gaining speed until reaching a cone where our instructor would say a direction and we’d move to that side while braking. The skidding station, which honestly felt a little bit like a game, taught us to correct our car when we spun out of control and had us drive in tight circles around a cone path over a slippery soap-like substance.
All of the stations were designed to simulate real life driving scenarios like sliding on black ice or an animal jumping in front of the car, although I’m hoping I won’t have to deal with either of these this winter.
The classroom part of the day wasn’t quite as thrilling as driving, but it’s important to learn the basics of safe driving and avoiding stupid mistakes, especially when you’re maneuvering in and out of the scariest place to drive every day — the sophomore lot.
The class helped me finally reach my Fast and Furious Brian O’Connor driving skill level, so don’t doubt next time you see a high intensity police chase that I’m the driver they’re chasing.