MOSSVILLE, Ill. — Driving often poses all kinds of unexpected challenges — icy roads, sharp turns, a deer running out in front of your car.
That’s why Tire Rack Street Survival Teen Driving School was conceived: to help young motorists meet and conquer those challenges before those challenges conquer them.
But simulating those situations even in a controlled environment can leave one in a cold sweat, with a beating heart, and a newfound sense of control. On May 5, a vast parking lot at Caterpillar Inc. in Mossville was converted into an obstacle course mapped out using neon cones. The teen drivers navigate the course in their own cars, with an instructor in the passenger seat.
“We give the kids the opportunity to push the car beyond its limits and teach them how to get it back into control, so that this is the first time they may experience some of these maneuvers, but we want it to be here in a controlled area with an instructor versus out on a highway trying to avoid an accident,” said instructor Jim Roal, a member of the Porsche Club, and its former regional vice president.
Students are taught how to effectively maneuver their vehicle through often dangerous and tricky situations — the air ringing with screeching tires.
Street Survival is in its fourth year in central Illinois. With 93 schools in more than 60 locations last year, it was formed in 2002 by the BMW Car Club of America Foundation, with corporate sponsors, The Tire Rack and BMW of North America.
“In driver’s ed, they learn laws, they learn rules of the road,” Roal said.
“They learn not to do these sorts of things. We take them through what the car feels like when these things happen and how to get it back in control.”
That involves driving to a reasonably fast speed before being told to change lanes with a split second of reaction time.
“This simulates driving in congested traffic on the freeway and finding an obstacle in front of you like a stalled car or a ladder or other things that might fall in front of your car,” Roal said. “I teach you how the car feels when you have to make that split-second decision and how to get the car into control and get it safely into the other lane.”
The course also involves accelerating to a reasonably fast speed before slamming down on the brake in a sharp turn, which requires a clever use of braking and steering so as to swing through the turn. An obstacle that required driving fast in a tight circular path slick with soap suds and water was an exercise that taught effective turning under less-than-optimal conditions.
“You feel like you’re gonna like spin out or something, but really if you just keep a good speed and stay on the brake then you’re fine,” said Breck Gamble, 15.
She said she approached the course with much trepidation. However, the activity was just as much about conquering one’s fears as it was safe driving.
“I feel like I conquered a lot of what I didn’t think I could do,” Gamble said.
PHOTO: In this May 5, 2013 photo, Colin Flaherty, 17, of Peoria talks with driving instructor Steve Smart, right, before maneuvering his car through cones at the Tire Rack Street Survival teen driving program at Caterpillar's Mossville, Ill., plant. With the assistance of in-car instructors, student drivers navigated an advanced driving course, which simulates real driving situations. (AP Photo/Journal Star, Nick Schnelle)