One of my heroes of the automotive world is a wiry Scotsman, Sir Jackie Stewart. He is a little fellow with a big heart and a giving nature, especially in the matter of driving instruction, and particularly for students who are willing to keep their mouths shut, listen and learn.
He is not the least bit haughty, which is surprising, considering his global success as a Formula One racecar driver. Formula One racing, a weekend-long event climaxed by the big race on Sunday, involves high-powered, single-seat, open-cockpit, open-wheel cars roaring around a circuit for the equivalent of 180 miles (300 kilometers) at tremendous speeds.
From 1965 through 1973, Stewart ruled that sport, winning 27 races and three world championships. Britain knighted him in 2001 in honor of those and other driving-related accomplishments, including his passionate, long-running campaign for safer automobiles and better driving habits on and off the track.
So, you might expect him to be a bit of a pain when dealing with opinionated rookies, also known as automotive journalists. But on several occasions in recent years when I've had the privilege of his tutelage, I've found him to be nothing but helpful -- as long as I had the common sense to keep my opinions on driving to myself.
Stewart does not suffer fools lightly. If you come to him as a student, he expects you to behave as a student, as opposed to an instructor or ersatz expert.
There is much wisdom in that tutorial approach. A teacher does nothing to help a student by allowing the student to labor under the illusion that he or she has expertise that does not exist. That's especially true if the aim is to teach someone to better handle a car that can kill if it is allowed to run out of control. So, before he chooses to instruct you, Stewart ascertains that you have the right mind-set -- that you have come to him to learn, instead of to show off.
Once that is settled, the student is ready for the best driving instruction of his or her life.
I've remembered many of Stewart's rules, and I wish to share some of them with you in this forum. Many of them are so simple it's a wonder that so many drivers seldom follow them. Here are some of the basics:
* Pay attention. Drive with all of your brain. A car is not a nightclub, divorce court, conference room or honeymoon suite. Your entire focus should be on driving the moment you open the driver's door and sit behind the wheel.
* Get comfortable. Make sure that you are seated properly, that the seat supports your back. Make sure that your feet easily reach the accelerator, brake and (where applicable) clutch pedals. Make sure that your arms have enough leverage to comfortably handle turns without tugging at the steering wheel or engaging in other needless motions.
* Buckle your seat belt. It is your primary safety system and a key element in assuring seat comfort. It is a matter of literally becoming one with the car.
* Caress the steering wheel. Do not grab or strangle it. The steering wheel isn't your enemy. It's your friend. Hold it as you would hold a loved one -- gently but firmly, with affection. This makes sense. Have you ever checked the condition of your hands after squeezing a steering wheel, as if you were trying to kill it, after a long trip? Those hands hurt. They're cramped and, if the weather is hot, even with air conditioning, they're hot and sweaty. Caress. Don't grab.
* Keep your thumbs above the steering wheel. That's as opposed to wrapped around them, or somehow tucked underneath or in between openings in the steering wheel. This is a thumb/hand protection measure. If your thumbs are out of place on the wheel, the wheel can become their enemy in an emergency maneuver or a crash -- jamming and twisting them and causing considerable damage. Thumbs above the wheel, please.
* Keep your hands at 9 o'clock and 3 o'clock on the steering wheel. Doing so gives you better control over the car, essentially by reducing fatiguing hand-steering motions. Learn how to shuffle-steer, how to let the steering wheel move left to right, in a sliding motion, under the gentle pressure of your caress.
* Driving is not about jiving. It's not about cutting in front of the other motorist, bullying your way to the front of the line, tailgating, giving people the ignoble digital salute or engaging in other aggressive foolishness. It's all about smoothness and being cool -- and alert.
Nothing looks dumber than a dude in a high-powered car tailgating someone in a little Toyota Corolla in a motorized show of force. Remember that and chill out, and you and everyone else will be a lot happier and safer on the road.