Learning how to crash safely

Being a racecar driver is harder than it looks

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Josie Sydnor is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. 

Emma Klein | Cavalier Daily

I consider myself to be a pretty timid driver — I have the road rage of a sweet old lady and I spend most of my time in the right lane on the highway.  I’m not a shy person, but I used to hold an irrational fear of crashing my car every time I got behind the wheel.  

It didn’t help that my first car had the handling of my childhood Barbie Jeep I got for Christmas, and an engine that smelled like smoke if you pushed it past 60 miles per hour.  

Noticing my still-lingering worries a year after I had gotten my license, my parents stepped in and signed me up for an accident avoidance course at Summit Point Motorsports Park.  This track is in a remote location but close to D.C., so people who need a private place to train for high speed chases go to this track. These classes simulate the lead up to an accident, so you can train yourself to respond automatically if one occurs in real life.  

Once I arrived, I was sweating through my shirt before I stepped into the car.  It was an old police car with scratches from previous classes — apparently police cars are harder to flip, so they’re used for classes like these.  

For the first exercise, we had to drive at top speed towards a group of cones and brake within about 20 feet. This mimicked a deer running in front of your car on an unswervable road.

The instructor said I looked nervous, so he picked me to go first. I tightened my hands around the wheel and brushed away my hair stuck to my forehead.  

I stared down the cones 300 feet down the straightaway and could almost hear the western showdown music. The sun pulsed at a steamy 90 degrees and the heat waves rose off the pavement.  

With a shaky inhale, I gently pushed down on the accelerator.

“Faster.”

“But I’m already going —”

“Faster, get to 60 miles an hour NO DON’T BRAKE YET!” 

“BUT I’M TOO CLOSE —”

The cones were annihilated. Poor Bambi. But after five tries, the tires quit locking up and the car jerked a stop completely in control.  

Over the course of eight hours, I was tested in every possible way to get in a car accident.  Sprinklers flooded the track with water, and our fishtailing cars struggled to remain in the lanes.  

At random moments the instructor snatched the wheel so we’d run off the road and have to calmly regain control. Motion sickness quickly set in as I was constantly slammed into the side of the spinning car.  

I took a break after a few more exercises, and the instructor asked why I was so nervous.  I replied that I was worried I would crash.  He answered, “So what? We’ll just get another car. It happens.”  

Being told it was all right to crash was relieving, and I realized I could challenge my anxiety in this setting.  The original fear was caused by not knowing how to drive in a dangerous situation, and the entire course was based in letting the car spin out of control. Once I realized I was safe, I had a new determination to rein in the fear by becoming as skilled at driving as possible.

I have other fears in life that aren’t as irrational, such as fears about the future.  Unfortunately, I haven’t found a class on how to conquer them.  But it didn’t help me become a better driver by avoiding my car, and worries about my future haven’t been solved by evading them.  

Taking that course reminded me that I’m capable of facing the things I’m scared of, and that it’s okay if you crash a little as you’re learning.  But in the meantime, if you need a getaway driver who can drift around corners with the best of them, I’m your girl.

Josie Sydnor is a Life Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at life@cavalierdaily.com

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