By Erik Schelzig
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 1, 2001
The sound of gunfire echoed off the rocks and tires squealed in the distance. Through the trees we could see armed escorts darting in and out of buildings and vehicles. Trying to ignore the nearby mayhem, we steadily pushed our Jeep over fallen trees, past jagged rocks and through muddy holes.
But this was no last-ditch run for the border as the city fell to the Rebels. It was a day on the off-road driving course at West Virginia's Summit Point Raceway. Summit Point is best known for the auto and motorcycle races that are run on the complex's two paved circuits. But a company called BSR also offers all sorts of driver training: basic defensive driving courses; high-speed racing; classes that teach bodyguards the finer points of vehicle ramming (forward and reverse); and evasive maneuvers (bring your own dark glasses and earphone).
If buying a cherry red Miata doesn't do it for your midlife crisis, you can come here to learn how to drag that Land Cruiser over a boulder, control a skid at 100 mph or execute a tire-squealing 180 mph in a state patrol-style sedan. Throw in the on-site tactical firearm training range (restricted to real police) for a soundtrack, and you've got the ultimate forty-something male playground.
I had signed up for the two-day off-road course with the full understanding that, like most SUV drivers, I am hardly qualified to drive on gravel roads, let alone in a real pre-paved environment. But I was almost sorry to hear instructor Don Berrick say this wasn't a "flying over sand dunes" type of course. Instead, it would be to "preserve the vehicle and see what could be accomplished with a regular SUV."
You don't have to put your own pristine SUV at risk, as the company maintains its own dedicated fleet of Jeeps. I was glad of that five minutes after my first turn at the wheel, when I got tangled in some vines and yanked off the side mirror. Other than the addition of skid plates to reinforce the undercarriage of the vehicles when they inevitably bottom out, BSR's Jeeps are stock Cherokees, well worn but carefully maintained. Nobody was too upset about the mirror.
There were only four in the course, including a software engineer from Silver Spring, a dentist from Fair Oaks and an aspiring driving instructor, so there were a comfortable two students per vehicle, along with one instructor. The usual ratio is three students per instructor and vehicle.
The course features some classroom lecture time ("Uh huh. Uh huh. Suspension variables? Got it. When do we get to drive?"). But most of it is outside, on the road -- or rather, off the road. BSR's off-road track is a 15-acre obstacle course booby-trapped with sand pits, rock climbs, mudholes, stumps and logs. On the first day, we learned the joys of left foot breaking for extra stability on rocky landscapes, and how to angle the tires to go directly over sharp rocks to avoid puncturing the vulnerable side walls. I particularly excelled at ripping off side mirrors. It was all part of what instructor Stan Beall, a retired Prince George's County firefighter, called "guided discovery," letting students make their own mistakes knowing that replacement vehicles were only a radio call away. He was right. Actually ripping off a mirror was much more effective than merely being lectured on how to rip one off.
The first day was about fundamentals: approach the rock; pick the angle least likely to slice off your oil pan; creep over. The next day was more muscular: how to keep a Jeep from sinking into soft sand; driving over rock piles; powering up and down steep hillsides.
Instructors Berrick and Beall seemed to take sadistic delight in putting us into seemingly impossible situations and standing back as we struggled to escape. Berrick gleefully drove one of the Jeeps into a specially prepared sand pit and promptly buried all four wheels up to the axles. Tossing me the keys, he and Beall went to sit in the shade while we scratched our heads. For this, I paid almost $900?
We wandered around the beached vehicle. We considered towing it out with our other Jeep, but decided this would be a surefire way of getting both SUVs stuck. Instead, we got out the shovel and started digging away sand from the tires. Next, we pulled out the four-foot-tall "high jack," propped it up on a board to keep it from sinking, and began jacking the Jeep out of the sand by the trailer hitch on the back bumper.
Sweaty, sandy and tired, three of us lined up on the right side of the Jeep, and once the wheels were about a foot off the ground, we shoved the vehicle as hard as we could, toppling the high jack and moving the back end a foot to the left. After doing the same for the front end, we were able to drive the Jeep out of the sand. Our instructors almost seemed disappointed that we got it out on the first try. They cooked up even more nefarious challenges for us.
Time for power winching. Cool! This had initially sounded like the most appealing, guy-toy oriented part of the course. Guys mount those big winches on their bumpers and spend years hoping for a chance to use them. But it turned out to be pretty tedious, and potentially lethal. The winch cables are extremely sensitive to being crushed and rendered useless -- and dangerous -- if not wound on the spool slowly and carefully. The winching process is painstakingly slow, and given the high possibility of error, should be saved for only the most desperate situations. Snapped cables, which whip about at supersonic speeds, can be deadly. "If you hear it snap, you're alive," said Beall. Now that made me winch; I mean wince.
Far easier is towing by strap, though this requires having a spare vehicle standing by. We had one, and so I got a practical lesson in towing when I planted my Jeep firmly in a muddy pit. (I had forgotten the lesson about not trying to avoid a rut -- chances are you will slide right into it. Better to plow right through, albeit slowly.) My Jeep ended up bottomed out in the mud, leaning up against a dirt embankment on the driver side. No worries; we just attached an elastic, bungeelike snatch strap to the front of my Jeep and the bumper of another. Leaving some slack in the strap allows the towing vehicle to gather momentum before the strap stretches out and then contracts like a rubber band, yanking, in one sucking swoop, the disabled vehicle from its hole.
I was pulled out on the first try, which was good luck as the towing Jeep promptly got stuck, nose first, in the mud at the other side of the pit. This was getting fun! Attempts to back that one out only dug the front in deeper, which gave the rear wheels less and less grip on the dry ground. I had the idea of four of us climbing into the back to add weight and traction. What happened instead was that the overloaded front transmission gave out and now I was at least partly responsible for damaging two Jeeps. I was emerging as something of a star pupil.
We attached the towing straps from my recovered Jeep to the backside of the stuck one, and I gunned it. All four wheels spun furiously as the Jeep crept forward inch by inch, sliding left and right as the wheels searched for grip. Finally, in a cloud of dust and flying pebbles, the stuck Jeep pulled free. Shifting back into rear-wheel drive, another student was able to limp it back up the hill and onto a grassy patch. The instructors called the mechanics on their walkie-talkie, and we were brought a replacement Jeep.
Finally, after some more fun Baja action on the hills and rocks (during which I thought the instructors were keeping an extra eye on me), we were given a diploma for passing the course.
So if you see me driving -- on the road or off -- just remember that I have been professionally trained in ways to get stuck in mud and sand that you've never even thought about. And I have the certificate to prove it.