"Control," says Cpl. Robert W. Muehlenhort, "is everything. This is a deadly weapon."
Eight cylinders rippling, Muehlenhort's deadly weapon surged out of Suckers' Corner and headed for a big left bend in the Emergency Driving Reaction Course. Centrifugal force flattened Muehlenhort against the driver's seat, and as the car hurtled into the curve radial tires screeching, his hands curled more tightly on the wheel, and his head bowed slightly.
"Are we in control?" asked a slack-jawed passenger, braced against the shotgun mount. The stench of rubber filled the interior of the car.
"Oh sure, 100 percent," said Muehlenhort, who teaches Montgomery County police and a number of state and federal law enforcement officers how to survive the high-speed chase.
The cruiser swept smartly around the big bend, accelerated to almost 50 miles per hour through the s-curces, then braked for Suckers' Corner, where ruts 30 feet off in the grass attested to the road's deceptive bank.
For Robert Muehlenhort another lap flat out around the half-mile track at Montgomery County's Public Service Training Academy in Rockville doesn't race the pulse in quite the same way as a quarter-mile drag did when he steered his brother's racing cars around Maryland's dirt tracks when he was growing up.
Before 1970, Montgomery County police cruised streets eight to 10 hours a day, 20,000 to 30,000 miles a year, with no drive training at all. But after a rash of on duty accidents, including one in which a pedestrian was killed by a police car during a high-speed chase across the county line into the District of Columbia, the police driving course was established.
By the time the county opened its $200,000 pear-shaped driving track in July 1978, the program had developed into a 40-hour session of classes and field training for veteran officers and an even longer course for recruits.
More than 300 county police officers have completed Muehlenhort's classes, in which he teaches such skills as skid control, pursuit and precision maneuvering.
Two hundred trainees from the Northern Virginia Criminal Justice Academy and the federal Drug Enforcement Administration have also taken classes on the Montgomery track.
County statisticians credit the course with a 17-percent reduction in the number of accidents involving police in the last year. There have been 219 accidents involving police officers in 1979, compared with 264 last year.
One of the first things Muehlenhort tries to teach rookies is not to emulate the popular television chase scene in which the pursuit of criminals leaves a wake of overturned vegetable carts, flattened signposts and smashed-up cars.
"Starsky and Hutch are extremely reckless," says Muehlenhort. "They go over curbs and trash cans. You go over a curb and you disable the car. We emphasize safety and control of the car of all times."
The greatest problem, especially for recruits, Muehlenhort says, is too much zeal for speed.
"Their first reaction is, 'This is a police car; it's powerful,'" he says. "The siren makes them go faster. Recruits get so drawn up in the chase sometimes that they want the guy so bad they could just kill him."
It's impossible to go more than 55 miles per hour on the track with the department's fleet of mid-sized Pontiacs and Buicks, but officers say the stresses created by the curves simulate chase conditions at 80 miles per hour. Students get sick, and some hyperventilate.
"They get real white in the face," Muehlenhort says, "and their teeth bite their lips. This is the closest thing to reality a recruit has."
To teach new police officers to control their emotions in moments of extreme stress, Muehlenhort lets his students chase him in cars specially outfitted with roll bars and heavy seat belts. To aggravate them, he often laps the trainees or eludes them with a "bootleg," a quick pivot turn made while backing up at high speed.
"We want to embarrass them," he says. "We want to show them their inner problems."
Most high-speed chases in the county occur at night, and few last more than five minutes. Officer Richard Svertesky said many start with "kids who've stolen a car. They panic and step on the gas."
Mueholenhort says his technical instructions can only go so far.
"I can teach an officer to handle and control a car," he says, "but I can't prepare him for when he should break off the chase. It's a split-second decision. You have to ask, 'Am I pushing this person beyond the breaking point?'"
"You're supposed to break off when you risk the lives of others, but there's a lot of operator discretion."