Skid Row

At Summit Point Raceway, drivers get a crash course in safely maneuvering a high-performance car.

November 03, 2003|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN COLUMNIST

SUMMIT POINT, W.Va. - As the Audi S4 sedan screams through the straightaway at 95 mph and into a hairpin turn at 50, the smell of burning tires and brake pads fills the air.

"Everybody OK?" asks the man behind the wheel, driving instructor Nic Monterastelli.

At the moment, this is a tough question to answer.

In the front passenger seat is Andrew Chen, a 33-year-old information technology manager from Newark, Del., who is pinned to his head-rest due to a series of G-forces that have momentarily made it difficult to speak. In the back seat is a reporter, mouth contorted in a silent scream.

Monterastelli takes the lack of a response to mean that neither passenger is about to hurl his lunch, and applies the throttle.

The Audi rockets forward and again everything outside the windshield is a blur: the asphalt rolling under the wheels like a slick, black carpet, the woods racing by in green and brown blotches, the tire barriers rising at each turn, ready to stop an out-of-control car from pin-wheeling into the next area code.

A few minutes later, Monterastelli pulls off the track and guides the Audi to a stop. The car actually belongs to Chen, but if Chen is upset at how Monterastelli is frying his tires and brakes, he has a funny way of showing it.

"That was neat!" Chen says, unbuckling his racing helmet. Monterastelli smiles. The reporter attempts to restart his heart.

So that's what it's like, Chen thinks as he steps into the bright sunlight. That's driving a high-performance car as an art form.

To learn the nuances of driving a fast car without killing anyone, Andrew Chen has come here to Summit Point Raceway, in the bucolic Shenandoah Valley just outside the slots mecca of Charles Town, W.Va.

With 19 other first-timers - 16 men and three women - he has forked over $295 to attend the two-day Fall Safety and Education School sponsored by the Potomac-Chesapeake chapter of the Audi Club of North America.

The school, which draws students from all over the East, uses classroom and on-track settings to teach proper driving methods, including skid control, cornering techniques and safety procedures.

"Anything you learn here, you can pretty much apply to the street," says club president Marc Nguyen, 36.

But the school also feeds the raging speed jones of so many of its students, most of whom are using their own everyday cars. Here on the Jefferson Circuit, a 30-foot-wide, 1.1-mile track designed especially for training, you can nail that gas pedal to the floor and slam into the turns as fast as your nerves allow without the flashing lights of a police cruiser appearing in your rear-view mirror.

Yet sometimes what impresses the students most is seeing what their cars can do when driven at tremendous speeds by the driving instructors, most of whom have raced cars and motorcycles for years.

"What really shocked me was how fast we took the turns - and how fast we came out of them," says Chen after his spin with Monterastelli. "I had never been in a car that did that before."

"A lot of [students] come here, and they read the car magazines and they watch racing on TV, and they think they know how to drive," says Nguyen. "A lot of them have that ego. Then they go out with an instructor and they say: `Oh, my God, I have no idea what I'm doing!' "

It can be a humbling experience - and also a transformative one. After attending the Safety and Education School for the first time four years ago, Nguyen immediately found himself becoming a more cautious driver out on the highways.

"My friends tease me all the time: `What's happened to you? You drive like a grandmother!' " he says with a laugh. "It's because [after taking the course] you see how easy it is to lose control of your car in a controlled environment.

"And I think `Oh, my God, what if I do this on the street and take out two kids?' "

In a few moments, Chen will take the wheel of the Audi and nose it out onto a racetrack for the first time. Monterastelli will be in the passenger seat.

But when it comes to calming the butterflies in his gut and beating back his fears and finding out what he can handle when the speedometer edges into high digits and the first hairpin turn looms, Chen will be all by himself.

Knowing your vehicle

It's a few minutes past 8 in the morning when Chen and the other students meet in a classroom near the track with Miriam Schottland, chief instructor for Audi beginners.

"We're going to put you through hell today, and we hope you learn a lot," says Schottland, smiling.

Schottland is not exactly your stereotypical high-speed driving instructor, unless you've seen a lot of 68-year-old women who grew up in Manhattan, worked as commercial artists, then segued into the male-dominated world of car clubs.

Nevertheless, she's been teaching driving skills for 15 years and is universally respected by the other instructors. She has also taught a counter-terrorism course she describes as "using your car to get away from the bad guys" to Navy SEALs and FBI, CIA and Secret Service agents.

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