It's a common phobia, even among otherwise tough-minded adults- but can flinging your car around a racetrack really be the cure?

I'M HEADING NORTH ON THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE, ON MY way to Lime Rock, Conn. My fingers are curled tightly -- maybe permanently -- around the steering wheel. I've just been passed by a red sports car going 80 and a pickup doing 55. Up ahead is a low-flying jet. At least I think it's still flying. If it starts falling, I wonder, will it drop like a brick onto the turnpike, or will it circle madly for a minute and then drop? If it starts to circle, which way should I drive? And if that propane truck in front of me stops suddenly, I'm a goner, even in my Volvo station wagon, the top-rated car in the one standardized test in which I believe -- the Consumer Reports crash test.

Does everyone on the Jersey Turnpike dream up these encounters with the angel of death? It may be just those of us who grew up in Manhattan and didn't learn to drive until we were well into adulthood -- those of us who feel at one with Woody Allen in "Annie Hall" when he confesses to Diane Keaton, "I've got a problem with driving." He later uses that line on the cops who show up after he's smashed into three cars on his way out of a parking space. The three parked cars I hit in one year I took to be nature's little warning signs that I wasn't paying enough attention. If I survive this drive, I expect to pick up some lifesaving pointers from the pros. I'm not going to watch the races at Lime Rock Park -- where Paul Newman hangs out when he isn't making salad dressing -- but to attend a two-day course in precision driving and accident avoidance at the BMW/Skip Barber Advanced Driving School. BMW provides the cars, and the Canaan, Conn.-based Skip Barber Racing School, one of the country's largest, provides the instructors. "If they can't help you," my husband has said to me on more than one occasion, "no one can." "WHY DO RACE CAR DRIVERS TEACH ADVANCED DRIVING?" asks instructor Simon Kirkby, a British, slightly built former stock car racer. No hands pop up. There are 11 of us -- nine men and two women -- in a modern, one-room meetinghouse with floor-to-ceiling windows on three sides, perched on a hill overlooking the racetrack straightaway, the pit and the rolling green foothills of the Berkshires. It's a bright, sunny morning, and I'm psyched to take on my driving demons. "Because," says Simon, "race car drivers are always testing the limits of their cars." I write this down, though I'm not here to test my limits, just to find out what to do if I hit a patch of ice, or a 747, on the Whitehurst Freeway.

"Tell me your names, where you're from and what kind of car you drive," Simon says. The man on my right wipes his brow. This may be his moment of truth. He may have to admit that he owns the rusting Chevette in the parking lot. "And don't tell me you drive a Porsche 959," Simon adds lightly. "Five hundred students have told me that. And only 400 of them were ever made."

"I'm from Wilkes-Barre," says the man to my right, "and I drive a Porsche 944."

"Do you really?" Simon asks.

"Yeah." He sounds wounded. I would too if I'd spent $40,000 on a car and people didn't believe it was mine. "It's out there in the lot."

The fellow next to him: "I'm from Stratford, Connecticut. I drive a Porsche 928. Just kidding. I've got an Acura."

So it goes until we get to Evalyn, who looks to be in her early twenties. "I live in New York," she says. "I take the subway. Actually, I don't really know how to drive that well." I give her a sidelong glance. She shelled out $800 for advanced driving and barely knows the basics? "My father races up here and he wanted me to take the course." That makes a little more sense.

"The only time you'll need to test the limits of your car," Simon tells us, standing by a blackboard, "is in an accident or an accident-potential situation." I jot this down. "If a deer jumps out, if a barrel falls off a truck, are you going to be prepared to fling your car across the highway?"

Fling my car across the highway? My station wagon, my crash-resistant mobile home? It must be a figure of speech, a bit of hyperbole. You probably can't be much of a race car driver if you're afraid to exaggerate now and then.

Dan's hand pops up. He drives a Honda Civic. He might have some car-flinging experience to share with us. "Will I have time to tell you about the Triumph Spitfire I had when I was 20 and I had radial tires on the front and straight tires on the back?" All he wants to share with us, of course, is that he used to drive a much sexier car than a Honda.

"Maybe later," Simon says kindly. "Now, let's talk about . . ."

"What's the correct way to turn?" Dan interrupts.

"Wait until you can see through the turn," Simon answers.

"That's no fun," Dan says.

Simon draws a diagram to illustrate the theory: Basically it's common sense -- don't turn too early just to gain speed.

"I'm just playing devil's advocate," Dan says, "but wouldn't it make more sense, particularly if you were feeling competitive that day, to get into the turn faster, turn harder and accelerate out of it before you . . ."

Simon cuts him off. "You should never accelerate when you're turning, most particularly when you're turning sharply."

"That's no fun at all."

That's when I realize not all of us are here to learn how to drive through a patch of ice on the highway. Dan, for instance, is here because he is a maniac.

"As you all know," Simon reminds us, "weight shifts in a car from front to back as you accelerate and decelerate." This is news to me. He goes on, "Let's talk about oversteer."

He does a lot of talking. I do a lot of note taking. There's oversteer, which refers to a loss of traction on the back wheels; understeer, a loss of traction on the front wheels; "correction -- pause -- recovery," which has something to do with skidding; and "trailing throttle overdrive," but I have no idea what it has to do with anything.

"In the next two days," says Simon, "I will not tell you anything more important than this: Look where you want to go when you're driving, not where you're coming from, not where your car is pointing when you're in a skid, but where you want to go." I write this in big letters and highlight it with stars in the margin. At last, a lesson that makes sense. "Now, ladies and gentlemen, it's time to start your engines. Team B" -- that's my team of four students -- "will go out to the skid pad with Alan {another instructor}. Grab a helmet. And don't worry. You can't flip over."

"I'm not worried about that," I say cockily and pull a helmet from the shelf by the front door. It's no flimsy bicycle helmet. More like astronaut gear. Maybe this is part of being a good driver, a helmet at all times. As for the skid pad, what's to worry? A skid pad is probably a small rubber mat that goes under an office chair to keep it from rolling, and the exercise probably involves wetting down one of these mats and running the car over it until it shimmies. After a few minutes on the old skid pad, I'll know what to do when my car hits that nasty ice patch.

ALAN INVITES MANIAC DAN AND ME INTO THE BMW 325i parked in the lot and drives 100 yards down a road onto a very small round track where sprinklers spraying water all over the asphalt are just being turned off.

Dan's in the back seat, I'm in the front. I keep a sharp eye out for the rubber mats -- for about three seconds. Then Alan steps on the gas and we go flying around the track at what feels like 120 mph. I press one palm against the window and grip the dash with the other. My breakfast is being pureed. My heart is somewhere around my ankles. There's a wide, deep puddle on the outer edge of the track. Alan plows right into it. All of a sudden the car is spinning. I don't mean shimmying. I mean spinning like a top. Two or three times around. Or four or five. Then it screeches to a halt. "Wow!" Dan shouts from the back seat. "That was fabulous."

Maybe I should have read the course brochure more carefully.

"What happened when I went into my skid?" Alan asks as calmly as if he'd just washed the windshield.

"You spun out," Dan says.

"How could I have kept from spinning out?"

"Turn the steering wheel harder and sooner."

"Yes, that's right. Let's try it again."

"How fast were you going?" Dan asks.

"Just 40."

"Again?" I say, surprised that my voice still works. "We're going to do that again?"

"Before you know it, Liz, you'll be doing this yourself."

Off we go, roaring around the track. Dan leans forward. "Liz, think of this as the best roller coaster you've ever been on." It occurs to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who like roller coasters and those of us who don't. Suddenly, we're plowing into that puddle and spinning again -- once, twice, or half a dozen times? Who's counting?

"Liz, hop in the driver's seat," Alan says.

"I'd prefer to relive my adolescence. In Bangladesh."

"Would you rather Dan went first?"

I want to say, like the old-fashioned teenage girl on a date gone sour, "Take me home right now," but I just nod.

Dan and I trade seats. I buckle up. He puts the car into gear. "Remember," Alan says, "stay in second and don't go over 40. I'm going to tell you to lift and kick. When you go into the skid, turn the steering wheel into the skid, pause and then away from the skid. That's the essense of correction, pause, recovery." This rings a faint bell. "Work your hands fast. Keep your foot off the brake and off the accelerator." I notice Alan's hand poised to yank the emergency brake, a real vote of confidence in Dan's driving. "Okay, Dan, let's go around the track a few times." Dan floors the gas. "Now, lift and kick."

Suddenly, we're sliding, spinning, and now we're backward, standing still. "What did you do wrong there?" Alan asks.

"I didn't turn fast enough."

"Good. Try again. Pick up speed. Good, good. There you go. Now lift and kick." Lift, I will soon discover, means lift your foot from the gas for a millisecond, and kick means floor the gas pedal until you start to go into a skid. When Dan kicks, we start twirling again and end up perpendicular to the inside edge of the track.

"That time," Alan says, "you turned the wheel fast enough, but you put your foot on the accelerator."

"Yeah, I know," Dan says with a big grin. "I wanted to have some fun."

I've had it. "Dan," I say, "why don't you go to Coney Island. I think they still run the bumper cars. Or wouldn't that be enough fun for you?"

Fearless Dan blanches. I've won my point, and maybe saved my life. Then Alan turns to me. "Liz, people are here to test their skills and their limits in a safe environment. It's all right for Dan to do things that wouldn't be safe on the road."

If it's so safe, how come we're wearing 30-pound helmets? Dan is a maniac, and Alan, it's becoming clear, is a professional maniac.

"Dan, pull over." Alan hops out, opens the door to another BMW and motions to Evalyn, my sister in struggle, to get out. "Dan," he says, "switch cars."

Once Evalyn and I are buckled in, with me now in the driver's seat, Alan explains his move. "I didn't want to say anything in front of Dan, but men have much more ego involved in all this than women do. Are you ready, Liz?"

If the men suffer from an excess of ego, I'm afflicted with none at all; I'm ready to call it a day. "I've never been in a skid," I confess. "I'm going to panic."

"Put the car in gear and take it around the track a few times." So far so good. "If you've never been in a skid, you don't know what you'll do. Step on it." I step gently. "A little harder." I press a little harder. "Now, lift and kick." That huge puddle is coming up.

"What does kick mean?"

"Press the gas hard." Fortunately, I've managed to drive past the puddle without lifting or kicking. "Try again," Alan says. "Pick up speed. Keep going around the track. Faster, faster. Now lift and kick."

I slide into the puddle and hold my breath. The car starts to spin. Which way? I have no idea. But I don't panic. I turn the wheel hard. I think I'm turning it the right way. The car lurches in the other direction. My heart surges. Quick now, I turn the wheel the other way and, bam! I've straightened out the wheels. I'm going in the same direction I was before this nightmare began. "Pull over," Alan says. I pull over. He's smiling, his big blues are twinkling. "Tell me that wasn't fun," he says mischievously.

I feel myself start to smile. "It was okay," I allow. Of course I'm lying. It was more than okay. It was a blast. NONE OF THE OTHER EXERCISES IS AS TERRIFYING OR AS

exhilarating as the skid pad. There is threshold braking (braking quickly without locking the brakes); a session in which we learn how to heel-and-toe (shift down two gears at once); an exercise in braking and turning into a tight space, to better negotiate a circular off-ramp on a highway; a slalom course (sharp turns around a row of orange cones); and lane changing at high speeds.

For this last exercise, Alan sets up three short lanes with rows of orange cone markers. Our task, alone in individual cars, is to drive 40 mph down the pavement toward the cones, in the middle lane. Seconds before we reach the spot where the cones begin, Alan will point left or right with a red flag, to indicate which lane we must turn sharply into. Evalyn is in the car ahead of me. Standing well behind the cones, Alan waves her on. Evalyn floors it and surges ahead. An instant before she reaches the cones, Alan points the flag to the right. She turns right and plows into the row of cones, knocking them down like bowling pins. She slams on the brakes, burns rubber, skids off the pavement onto the dirt parking lot and almost runs over Alan.

It's my turn. I give it the gas and head for the cones. But when is Alan going to point left or right? I'm almost there. The flag is hard at his side. Finally, he points right. But it's too late for me. If I turn now, I'll knock down the cones. I keep going straight, down the center lane of cones. I fail in my first attempt at lane changing at high speed -- 35 mph.

Evalyn, who barely knows how to drive, keeps turning and plowing into the cones. Me, I don't have the nerve to turn so sharply -- and it offends my sense of order to knock down a single cone.

At dinner that night, she and I have a heart-to-heart. "How do you do it?" I ask. "Doesn't it bother you to keep hitting the cones?"

"They're just cones. It's not like they're children. That's why we're here, so we can be out of control without any consequences."

Is that why we're here? The place is full of them -- maniacs and closet maniacs -- and it isn't just the guys. And I, not exactly the shy, retiring type, am the local schoolmarm. I do the exercises, or most of them, but I never get over the feeling of imminent death, even though, as my classmates remind me, there's nothing we can hit out on the empty track, no trees, no unchaperoned cars, no people. Now and then there's a plastic cone. That's as dicey as it gets. Still, it's scary for me to gun the gas and hit the brakes hard, to do what you're never supposed to do when you drive: to let go, to push myself and my car, as they keep saying around here, "to the limit." BEFORE WE RECEIVE OUR "GRADUATION PRESENT" -- LAP driving on the autocross -- Alan gives us a lecture on the "360-degree envelope of safety" and the "seven-second rule." To best avoid accidents, he explains, the driver should constantly plan responses and "escape routes" in case the unexpected happens. He tells us to collect information every seven seconds on everything going on around our car -- the 360-degree picture -- so that if we need to change lanes suddenly, we will know in advance which lane we can slip into. He also implores us to check our tire pressure once a month, and keep it at the level recommended by the manufacturer.

"I know this sounds like real driver's ed stuff," he apologizes, "but it makes good sense." It does sound like driver's ed, but I take copious notes anyway.

Then it's off to the autocross, a curvy, irregularly shaped mini-track, two-fifths of a mile long, that's been set with cones at various spots to make it even curvier. We're supposed to go around it as fast as we can, accelerating and turning at the most efficient points. At certain turns, if we accelerate and cut too sharply, it will be difficult to make the next turn in the opposite direction with any precision. We each get 15 around the track, five with an instructor, five alone and five in our own cars with an instructor.

I've taken the plunge and driven my Volvo out to the autocross. Once he sees it, Alan, who owns one himself, volunteers to do a few laps with me and show me "what it can do." When it's my turn, I hand him the keys and tighten the strap on my helmet. "I won't go very fast," he assures me. Very fast, at Lime Rock, is 175 mph. "I won't take it out of second."

He zips onto the track in first gear, now second, pushing 30 mph, 35, 40. I grip the handle over the passenger window and try to breathe deeply. I've been hanging around with these maniacs long enough to know that we probably won't die, but we could. It's entirely possible that we'll skid off the track -- and here we go, pedal to the metal. We may be in second, but we're doing 50. Alan turns and twists in and out of cones -- without, I can't help noticing, knocking down a single one -- and roars ahead. My life, my car -- all of a sudden I'm in an outtake from "Bullitt," screeching and squealing, the car wobbling wildly. At this turn, we're going to spin out. But we don't. Are we doing another lap? We are. I close my eyes. The good news, I'll tell my husband, is that I'm a much better driver. The bad news is that the Volvo is history.

But it isn't. Alan finishes the lap, pulls over to the grassy knoll and brakes. I exhale, for the first time in three laps. "See what your car can do, Liz? Isn't it terrific?"


"It handled beautifully."

"You really think so?"


He leaves the key in the ignition and hops out. I crawl to the picnic table, where there are cold drinks. I pop the top of a Diet Coke. "That looked great," says my Porsche-owning classmate. "Your car really moves. Very impressive."

Suddenly, in a flash, I get it. I get what they've been yammering about for the last two days. Testing the limits of the car. If I ever need to drive my car like a maniac, to fling it across the highway, the car will move. It won't tip, it won't roll over, it won't somehow collapse in my hands. As long as I know what to do, it won't fling me anywhere I don't want to go. Alan showed me the limits of the car. Now, somehow, I have to find out what my own are. That's what all these maniacs have been doing here. I DRIVE HOME THAT NIGHT, 340 MILES, MOST OF IT AFTER dark. I miss all the rush-hour traffic. It's just me and the open road and a lot of trucks and 35-cent tolls. Does it feel different, I keep asking myself. Has anything changed?

On the Garden State Parkway, the answer comes to me. It's like the distinction between living with someone and being married; the difference is subtle yet profound. I have buckled myself in and adjusted my seat for comfort and my mirrors for safety. My hands are in perfect position -- at 3 o'clock and 9 o'clock -- on the steering wheel. When I need to stop, I know to brake early and never to pump my brakes. Instead of sweating over my certain crash into the semi in front of me, I move to another lane where there is much better visibility. And every seven seconds, just as Alan instructed, I monitor the action up ahead and in all three of my mirrors -- the rearview, and both sides -- so that I know exactly, at all times, where there is room on the road for me to fling my car.

Elizabeth Benedict is the author of the novels Slow Dancing and The Beginner's Book of Dreams.