Paul Wogaman's wheel of fortune turned into the steering wheel of a Dodge this month when his driving won him a $2,000 scholarship, a new truck and the distinction of being the safest teen-age driver on the road.
Wogaman, a 17-year-old senior at Woodrow Wilson High School, said he wasn't always. "Before I took driver education, I was a maniac on the road," he said. The course made all the difference.
His transformation is so complete that after winning a local competition sponsored by American Veterans of World War II (AMVETS), he went on to St. Louis to drive against 37 other high school students from across the country in the 14th Annual Operation Excellence program, a driving skills test intended to promote safe driving among teen-agers.
Sponsored by AMVETS and the Dodge Division of the Chrysler Corporation, the competition pits more than 250,000 students in local contests for the chance to win scholarships and, of course, the grand prize -- the Dodge of their choice.
Apart from the hazards of the serpentine obstacle course and the expertise of the other student drivers, Wogaman had to overcome another obstacle.
An accident in March (he was trying to escape birthday whacks from his friends when he ran -- on foot -- into a tree branch) damaged his left eye and made it painful for him to look to the extreme left. It hindered him in one test which required driving in reverse.
The hardest event, Wogaman recalls, was driving the straight line -- a precision drive forward and backwards through a narrow piece of roadway marked by baseball-sized spheres.
He attributes his success there to a fundamental driving rule. "I remembered not to use the brakes. I think that cost other people."
Wogaman says he believes the contest would accomplish its goal to promote safe driving if it reached more people. Preventive driving is important, he says, adding that the D.C. school board "made a dumb mistake" when they recently voted to drastically reduce the city's high school driver education programs.
"I don't want to be on the road with people who don't know how to drive," he said.
Donning a red blazer with the Dodge-AMVETS insignia, Wogaman looked at his four-foot-trophy which he jokingly calls "a nice little hood ornament." But it is obviously more than that to him. It is a chance to go to the college of his choice -- Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio -- to study engineering.
And the Dodge of his choice? Wogaman selected a 1980 Dodge Ram-Charger as his prize. He will use it for profit, to plow snow in Ohio.
Paul is the son of Reverend Paul Phillip Wogaman, dean of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, and Carolyn Wogaman, a preschool teacher in McLean, Va. They live in the American University Park area.