Susanna Buckley began driving just in February, but April 21, she drove around the orange cones set up at Old Dominion Speedway in Manassas, determined to make her aunt’s Toyota Prius skid.
With the wind blowing through the car, Buckley, 16, let it rip on the wet, soapy course in a dizzying counter-clockwise circle.
Jimmy Bost, a volunteer instructor at the Northern Virginia Corvette Club’s Teen Driving School, calmly sat in the passenger seat with one hand near the steering wheel, guiding Buckley until she could feel the tires slide.
At 20 miles per hour, the tires lost traction. Although it’s counterintuitive, Buckley turned the wheel ever-so-slightly to the right to correct the skid.
“The coolest thing was turning right and going left,” Buckley said.
“We want you to get the car to skid and feel what it’s like so you can react. What we want you to do is react correctly,” Bost told Buckley.
After several runs through the anti-lock braking exercise — students brake hard to activate the ABS — Buckley said, “I feel like James Bond.”
Experiencing real-life situations in a safe, controlled environment is the goal of the driving school, now in its eighth year.
The class — held twice a year, right before winter and prom season — is one of the Northern Virginia Corvette Club’s community service projects, said Stewart Fox, co-chairman of the Teen Driving School.
The timing is intentional. According to police and transportation officials, prom season, graduation and summer vacation are the deadliest times for teen drivers. Nationwide, car accidents remain the leading cause of death for teens, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“You guys are taking the right step to learn to control your car,” instructor and former law enforcement officer Ahsan Sheikh told his first group of students.
About 30 teenagers and their parents arrived at the speedway before 8 a.m. for a full day of instruction that included a classroom session, skid and slalom courses, car care and an anti-lock braking exercise. Four groups rotated through the sessions, driving in their own cars often with a parent in the back seat.
What sets the driving school apart from others is that it’s free. Everyone involved is a volunteer. It has also become the template for other Corvette Clubs across the region.
Club members who serve as driving instructors, teachers and facilitators are as passionate about teaching about safety as they are about their sports cars.
John Palmgren volunteered his blue 2006 Corvette for the car-care rotation. Paul Benish, head technician for the Corvette Club, showed the group how to check vehicle fluids and tire treads, change a flat and properly adjust their mirrors.
“Every kid should have an idea of what to do if they’re stuck on the side of the road. They should know why their car is steaming,” Benish said.
Will Britt, 16, whose parents, Steve and Cari, own Old Dominion Speedway, is going through the program for a second time to see how his driving has progressed. This time, he brought along members of his soccer team.
“It’s experience for the real world,” Britt said.
His teammate Marshall Pittman, 16, said the school “takes the shock out of extreme events. When you’re driving, you could very possibly save your life or someone else’s life.”
That lesson was especially meaningful for Cassidy Nolen, the club’s chief driving instructor, who was involved in a car accident two days before the class.
Nolen’s accident “reinforces the importance of safety,” Fox said. Nolen could not prevent the other driver from running a red light, but he knew how to react.
For these teen drivers, “they can leave at the end of the day, educated, informed and in a defensive posture,” Fox said.