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The fickle finger of fate deals a blow to the myth of invincibility

Vile Gossip

Try as you might, you just can’t hold back all the awful out there waiting to knock you down and stomp you flat.

You can fool yourself. You can believe that you are actually in charge of your destiny, that if you do things just so, that if you train and plan and prepare diligently for a certain outcome, that outcome is ensured. You can believe, for instance, that if you’re a very good driver, you’ll be able to drive your way out of trouble.

As stupid as it sounds, I secretly believed that very thing. And then last week happened.

The centerpiece of the week was our annual driving school. Every year, Automobile Magazine rents a track and hires professional high-performance driving instructors so the entire staff can spend a good chunk of time in a safe environment, fine-tuning and building driving skills. The art department, the production team, our receptionist and office manager, the motor gophers, and even our publisher spend the day getting the sort of driver’s ed you wish every kid in America could get before being handed the keys to the highway.

Kelley Coleman holds cars till track clears

The idea of Track Day began several years ago, when we realized that the performance level of the average new car had outstripped the driving ability of the average automotive journalist. We were not racing the way we used to, not spending as much quality time on closed circuits, while the number of high-performance cars had dramatically increased. In addition, we needed our entire staff, not just the editors, to roll the odometers on our Four Seasons test cars high enough to be able to make solid judgments about their reliability and operating costs. Ten or twelve Four Seasons cars a year times 30,000 miles each equals the need for all hands on deck. And all those hands need to know what they’re doing. Hence Track Day.

Fowle, Bradley, and Phenix love their jobs

Our instructors this year were Rick Bye and David Empringham, both racing drivers from Toronto who are also wonderfully capable teachers. They began the day taking our least experienced drivers around the track in sedans, explaining the basic physics of the course and of the cars. The rest of the time was devoted to individual instruction, car by car, driver by driver, from motor gopher to editor-in-chief.

We resisted the urge to bring every hot car we can think of, but we salted the mix of more sedate training wheels (Saturn ION Red Line, Dodge SRT-4, MINI Cooper S, Chrysler 300C) with a Mazda RX-8, a Honda S2000, a Mitsubishi Evo RS, a Porsche Boxster S, and the runaway hit of the day, a Viper-engined Dodge Ram SRT-10 pickup that executive editor Mark Gillies had sideways for most of the course.

Joe DeMatio cools hot heels in the paddock

Every one of us gets something from Track Day. Gillies, our most experienced racing driver, was looking for an extra edge for the coming season’s vintage racing. Two members of our group had never driven fast on a closed course and learned for the first time how to heel-and-toe downshift. Our new production manager learned in a snap how to operate a manual transmission. Several crucial behind-the-scenes production and art people showed an amazing level of car control at speed.

We’re not preparing our staff to be little Fangios. We’re helping our writers achieve a level of skill that will make their evaluations unquestionably accurate. We’re preparing all of our staff to be able to control a car in extreme situations, to be better able to avoid the circumstances that conspire to get them into trouble on the road.

Track Day used to make me feel better about our invincibility on the road. That would, of course, be stupid. You can be the best driver in the world and find yourself a witless tool of fate.

You could, for instance, be my husband, Tim. Tim got a ticket once in the early 1980s for going 30 mph in a 25-mph zone. He claims it was a crooked cop who was later exposed and thrown off the force. That’s it for Tim. He frequently drives slightly under the speed limit, which makes me totally insane and ties my stomach in knots. To make up for not speeding, he always leaves the house with extra time to spare. We often arrive at the airport three hours before our flight is due to leave. He makes sure taillamps, headlamps, and trailer lights are all functioning. He signals when he changes lanes. He leaves lots of following room. He drives 50,000 to 100,000 miles a year. He is perfect in every way.

Ain't what she used to beThe Jennings Suburban rolled three times, taking the brunt of the trauma for a mighty lucky Mr. Jennings.

Or he was until he was in an accident that shut down both sides of the freeway and made the six o’clock news.

Traffic was heavy and moving fast on U.S. 127 south of Lansing. Suddenly, a delivery van that had been parked on the side of the freeway pulled into the stream of traffic, with no signal and no preamble. The driver in front of my husband slammed on his brakes. Tim slammed on his brakes. The car behind Tim rammed the family Suburban and knocked it sideways into the left lane, where it was center-punched in the door by a fast-moving Saturn sedan and sent barrel-rolling across the median. Luckily, it was a wide, grassy median that heavy rains had softened.

The spongy earth pulled the Suburban to a wheels-down halt after three rolls, up against the shoulder of the oncoming traffic. (How would you like to have been in that oncoming traffic, seeing that rolling truck barreling toward you?)

The minute he crawled out, Tim called me on the cell phone before it was taken away from him by swiftly arriving paramedics. I had to put a producer from CNN on hold to take his call. CNN and I had been discussing the new government-proposed safety regulation that includes side-air-bag protection for front- and rear-seat passengers. The producer had just asked me if I was in favor of the legislation. “You have such a dark sense of humor,” she said. “I can’t tell.”

I am in favor of side-impact protection, and the new Suburban we bought a week later (thank you, GM and your zero percent financing) has side air bags. The government did not mandate them, but they are made available because that’s what the market wants. As it should be.

The first Suburban was totaled, and the paramedics told us later that they hadn’t expected to find a live person inside when they came upon its battered shell. Tim had a couple of glass shards poked in his cranium and one little gouge that made him bleed like a stuck pig. The emergency-room nurse thanked him for pre-shaving his skull as she cleaned away all traces of the violent accident. His neck and shoulder still hurt. That’s it.

So, at Track Day two days later, I knew that this fine and productive training wouldn’t be enough. It would not wrap us all in a magic cocoon that would protect us and our test cars from harm. It would give us a leg up on the danger swirling around us out there. I hoped it would give us enough of an edge to ensure, at least, that none of us would cause such a disaster.

Later that week, our wonderful instructor Rick Bye was struck head-on in the rain by a hydroplaning car. There was nothing he could do to avoid it, nowhere to go. He is in the hospital and will be there for some time to come, both knees crushed, both ankles pulverized.

You can believe that if you’re a very good driver, you can drive your way out of anything.

It’s just not true.

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