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Many skills fall victim to overconfidence, but few more so than driving. Go ask Joe Blow if he’s a good driver, and he’ll probably puff out his chest and proclaim that his excellent reaction time, situational awareness, and car control make him far safer than all those other incompetent jerks on the road. But if you hop in the passenger seat, you may find he’s an overly-aggressive and impatient road-rager or that he can hardly stay in his lane as he juggles his cell phone and Big Gulp cup.
True driving skill requires unwavering focus, forethought, and technique — it’s something few will pursue and even fewer will master. However, your ability behind the wheel has a tremendous impact on your emergency preparedness and your day-to-day safety. Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) told the Seattle Times, “the statistics show that getting behind the wheel of a car is probably the riskiest thing any of us do on any given day.” In the United States in 2017 alone, an estimated 4.57 million people were injured seriously enough to require medical attention, and more than 40,000 were killed in motor vehicles.
Many of us prep for assaults, home invasions, natural disasters, and other dangerous scenarios — and rightly so. But these statistics show that the average American is far more likely to be injured or killed behind the wheel than by any of those threats.
So, what have you done to improve your driving skill? If the answer is nothing, then it’s time to start. Ride along with a pro, and you’ll soon realize just how much you have to learn.
In order to brush up on our driving abilities, several members of the RECOIL and RECOIL OFFGRID staff headed to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, also known as Bondurant Racing School. The school was founded by motorsport legend Bob Bondurant in California in 1968, and after several decades of growth, moved to its current purpose-built facility in Phoenix, Arizona. It consists of more than 200 meticulously-maintained vehicles, from open-wheel race cars to full-size SUVs. The Bondurant Racing School is the largest facility of its kind in North America, and has taught more than 300,000 graduates since it opened 50 years ago.
You might assume from its name that the school only teaches driving for the race track, but that’s not the case. Instructors also offer specialized courses that include off-roading, evasion, and contact techniques such as PIT maneuvers and vehicle ramming. They’ve even worked with military and law enforcement groups to teach vehicle tactics and practice low-light driving with night vision systems.
The five of us enrolled in a 3-day Executive Protection Training Program that included the following segments:
Those of you who follow us on Instagram may have already seen snippets of our time at Bondurant, and there will be more in-depth video coverage appearing on RECOILtv in the future. In the mean time, rather than describing each of the above segments in detail, we’d like to share some of the lessons we learned by the end of the course. These are very applicable to overall road safety and bug-out preparedness.
Driving fast is undeniably a physical activity — fighting lateral G-force as you carve corners will get your heart pumping, muscles sore, and sweat dripping (especially in the triple-digit Arizona heat). But the real key to going fast is mental and visual.
While driving fast or under stress, most of us will automatically look at where we’re about to be in a split second — just over the hood or a few car lengths ahead. This produces an overwhelming feeling of speed as nearby objects whiz by and faraway objects seem to appear out of nowhere. Your brain is overwhelmed, your reaction time slows, and you make mistakes.
The solution is to consciously force yourself to look up and out, roughly 3 to 4 seconds ahead of your current position. That may not sound like a lot on paper, but when you’re transitioning from corner to corner on a track at 80 mph, it feels unnatural at first. Instead of locking your eyes on the obstacle you’re about to dodge, let it pass into your peripheral vision and look where you want to be. In many cases, this means looking out a side window as you turn instead of out the windshield.
After a few laps of practicing this technique, we were amazed at how much more manageable high-speed corners felt. The 3- to 4-second buffer reduced stress, and we began to naturally guide the car smoothly to its intended position. Soon, we were entering corner 1 while thinking about the position we wanted for corner 2, and driving the track with improved confidence.
In racing terminology, “the line” is the ideal path through a course to maximize speed and minimize lap time. Think about looking down on a top-view map of a track, and tracing the shortest possible path with a marker. This usually means starting a corner at the outside, turning in to clip the innermost edge (the apex), and sweeping back to the outside once more. The line is affected by many factors, such as the type of corner that follows, the quality of the road surface, and of course the capabilities of the vehicle you’re driving.
This may sound complicated, but it’s very applicable to real-world driving. By understanding and visualizing the line, you’ll be able to carry more speed through corners without losing control. Let’s say you’re escaping a city in an emergency — instead of abruptly jerking the wheel left and right, you’ll naturally snake through the 90-degree corners and maintain your momentum. This leads into our next point.
The old saying “slow is smooth, and smooth is fast” applies to driving. Amateur racers will often be harsh with steering, brake, and gas pedal inputs. This may look and feel fast as the vehicle leans, skids, and slides through corners with smoking tires. However, the fastest drivers are those who know how to be delicate and smooth.
To show the importance of smooth inputs, our Bondurant instructors taught us “string theory”. Envision a taut string connected to the brake pedal, looped through the steering wheel, and tied off to the gas pedal. When the gas pedal is floored, turning the wheel would cause the string to snap, sending the car skidding out of control. When the wheel is turned hard, hitting the gas would also snap the string. The same relationship applies to the brake pedal.
This “string theory” teaches drivers to ease off the brake as they begin to turn, and ease back on the accelerator as the car straightens out. When combined with the racing line, it’ll make you a substantially faster driver — although the lack of tire smoke means you’ll never land a Hollywood stuntman job.
Speed, smoothness, and awareness of your surroundings can help you evade most bad situations without a scratch. But there may come a time when making physical contact with another car is inevitable to escape danger. In these situations, you might have to grit your teeth and use your vehicle to push through.
If another driver is trying to run you off the road in a SHTF situation, it’s possible to safely incapacitate that vehicle using a PIT maneuver. By aligning the corner of your front bumper with the other car’s rear axle, gently making contact, turning and accelerating, the vehicle can be spun out of control as you make your escape. You’ve probably seen the PIT used in police chases, but we can say from experience that this is tougher than it looks on TV. Fortunately, Bondurant has a pair of Ford Crown Victorias equipped with special bumpers that make it possible to practice this skill safely — it’s certainly not something you’d be able to try on public streets.
Now imagine you turn a corner to find that the bad guys have lined up a series of cars to block the road ahead. You could try a J-turn (shown above) to quickly escape the way you came — throw the car in reverse, accelerate backwards to about 25mph, crank the wheel hard, slam it back into gear and drive away. We practiced this at Bondurant, too. While possible, it’s tricky to perform smoothly in modern cars that have limited reverse speed and traction control systems going haywire.
If your escape route is blocked in all directions, you can ram through the roadblock as a last resort. The technique for this involves lining up the corner of your car’s frame with the axle of the roadblock vehicle. This bumps the other car in such a way that it pivots around the other axle in an arc, opening a gap. Bondurant instructors also explained that lifting off the throttle briefly and then flooring it immediately before impact is helpful — the sudden weight transfer lifts the nose of your vehicle, shoving the other car more forcefully.
Of course, if you ram another vehicle, you should expect your own vehicle to be crippled shortly thereafter. However, even if your radiator is spewing coolant you should be able to get far enough from the roadblock to escape immediate danger before the engine dies.
As we mentioned at the start of this article, participating in the Bondurant Racing School event taught us just how much we have to learn. Our skills definitely improved over the three-day course thanks to the great instructors and curriculum, but it’s clear that we still have plenty of room for additional improvement.
On the street, it’s easy to develop bad habits and let your driving skill atrophy — and if you someday wind up in a life-and-death situation behind the wheel, running out of skill could be catastrophic. Taking a high-performance driving course lets you push the limits of a vehicle safely and receive instruction from experienced professionals. With enough practice, these principles will feel hard-wired and resurface naturally when you need them.
For more information on Bondurant Racing School and its programs, go to Bondurant.com.