With a nearly impeccable driving record that spans 41 years, I hardly needed to be shown up by some teenage whippersnapper with a learner's permit.
But that's pretty much what went down on Tuesday at Pittsburgh International Race Complex in Beaver County, home to an unusual teen driving academy that focuses on reacting to emergencies.
Settling behind the wheel of a retired Ford Crown Victoria police cruiser, Peter Savchik, 16, of Franklin Park steered his way through a slalom course at a brisk pace several times without a flaw.
Peter, a rising senior at North Allegheny High School with all of nine months' driving experience, also took part in drills involving sudden braking, steering out of skids and evasive swerves. He was coached by three seasoned driving instructors. He easily held his own against the assembled press corps that came out to the track for a media day.
The Pitt Race Driving Academy strives to give teen drivers what it calls the "88-foot advantage," or the distance a vehicle covers in one second at 60 mph. It combines classroom learning about physics and stopping distances with hands-on practice on a 6-acre Vehicle Dynamics Area.
"This is an opportunity for teens to experience ... accident avoidance, panic stops, the kind of things they never get to practice on the highway until it happens the first time," chief driving instructor Jack Neff said.
"This is like driving school on steroids," said Michael Schindel of Bradford Woods, who's been teaching high-performance driving for 25 years. Think debris falling from the back of a pickup truck and into your path on the interstate, or a deer darting out onto the road, or a drifting driver more absorbed by his cell phone than your presence.
A four-hour session costs $249. An more intensive all-day session runs $400.
"A kid comes out of here a better-prepared driver," said Mr. Neff.
One of the drills took place on a sand-coated oval called the "skid pad." Drivers make tight circles at high speeds, learning how to steer out of the inevitable skids and fishtails. I asked Mr. Schindel how fast he wanted me to go.
"I'm going to have MY foot on the gas," he advised.
In the final drill, called "swerve and avoid," we drove at high speed into a gauntlet of cones, with one smack dab in the middle. At the last possible instant, the instructors ordered us to swerve either left or right, steer back to the center and slam the anti-lock brakes.
Peter finally got his comeuppance in his final run through the "swerve and avoid," but only because his instructor turned off the anti-lock braking system to illustrate a point. As the young man completed the swerve maneuver, the car skidded right, nailing a pair of helpless pylons.
Anti-lock braking systems don't stop cars any faster, Mr. Neff had said in the classroom. They preserve the driver's ability to steer.
"Driver's education today is kind of sad," he said later. "The biggest pass-fail on a driver's education program is can they parallel park. That's kind of a shame."
"Parallel parking's something you can avoid," he said. With a gesture toward the obstacle course, he added: "You can't avoid this. This is the real world."
Pittsburgh International Race Complex, formerly BeaveRun, is just off Route 18 in Wampum. More information is available at www.pittrace.com or 724-535-1000.
Jon Schmitz: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1868. Visit the PG's transportation blog, The Roundabout, at www.post-gazette.com/Roundabout. Twitter: @pgtraffic. First Published July 10, 2013 4:00 AM