Trauma 143-Part2 by Guest Writer and Martial Artist Tim Simons

Part 1 of Tim Simons’ story can be found here: 143 - photo 2

The master in the desert

For the final stage of my accident recovery, and to grow beyond it, I began searching for a driving school where I could learn some specific accident avoidance techniques. Specifically, I wanted to learn skid and spin recovery techniques, but more importantly, to actually experience being in a skidding or spinning car in a safe and controlled environment, and to get some concentrated practice in these new skills and techniques. I wanted a lot of what racing drivers call “seat time.” I felt that the combination of these things would help me face and alleviate my fears about driving (and potential accidents), and would restore and build upon the confidence I had lost in my driving ability.

After a lot of research, I decided to enroll in the two-day High Performance Driving course at the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Chandler, Arizona. Just as my Grandmaster, Doc-Fai Wong, is a Kung Fu master, Bob Bondurant is a master of speed and car control. He was a successful racer in the 60s, who discovered his talents for teaching driving in 1966 when he was hired as a consultant for a movie called “Grand Prix.”

When his own racing career ended due to a severe accident, Bondurant founded his driving school, and has been at it ever since. As I write this, the school is celebrating its 47th anniversary at its 60 acre facility in the desert outside Phoenix. Similar to Grandmaster Wong’s lineage of Sifus and instructors, Bondurant has passed his methods down to a new generation of driving instructors.

Look ahead-Be smooth-Be accurate

The High Performance Driving course is serious, practical knowledge you can use every day on the road. I felt like a little bit of an “outsider” at first-most of the class were serious car enthusiasts, who owned high performance vehicles of their own. But when I stood up in class and explained why I was there, it was clear to everyone how serious I was about improving my skills, and the entire group gave me a warm welcome. After a tour of the school and a brief classroom session, I climbed into the driver’s seat of a Camaro which would by my “office” and rolling classroom for the next two days-it was time to go to work.

We began with a simple (or so we thought) slalom between traffic cones, and moved on very quickly from that to other exercises, including Bondurant’s famous “Skid Car” (a specially modified sedan, which the instructor can put into a skid from their spot in the passenger seat while you’re driving). The desert air and sky may have felt wintry, but out on the 8 acre asphalt practice area, engines, brakes, and tires were heating up as we practiced our new skills over and over again under the watchful eye of our instructors.

Occasionally they would hop in the car and ride along with us, to provide comments and corrections as we drove through the different exercises. The pace of the instruction was intense, and I loved it-I wanted to absorb as much as I possibly could.

We ended the day with a 20 minute “Lead and Follow” session around the school’s 1.6 mile, 15-turn road race course. The instructors pointed out that this was driving practice, not a race, and we were to stay in line, watch the instructor in the lead car closely, and follow his line through every corner. This was a challenging and demanding exercise, mentally and physically-imagine driving on a mountain road, where you have to steer a car through over 200 turns in 20 minutes.

As the first day ended, I was worn out, but excited and motivated at the same time. The specific instruction and positive coaching was great, but on a deeper level I realized that I’d found exactly what I needed. During the day, I became aware that it wasn’t just the instructors encouraging and challenging me – I was “coaching” myself as well. The methods and culture of the school had created an atmosphere where I felt motivated to challenge and push myself, and that would ultimately do more to restore my confidence than anything else we did in the class.

Tai Chi in the Skid Car

As our classroom instruction and in-car practice went on, I began to see similarities between what I was doing in the car, and my martial arts training. The instructors talked a lot about “vehicle dynamics”- how a car under acceleration will shift more weight to the rear wheels, while a car under braking will shift weight to the front wheels. As we tried different exercises, and practiced cornering and braking techniques, the instructors would quiz us afterward-“Where is the weight?” “What do you want the car to do?” Just as being aware of my stance and staying rooted helps my martial arts forms, this awareness of vehicle dynamics and weight distribution began to help my driving.

After my first session in the Skid Car, it hit me that skid recovery has some similarities to Push Hands practice in Tai Chi. You must sense the energy and direction of the car, then redirect it in the direction you want to go, in order to recover from the skid and regain control of the car. Visualizing this helped me to stay focused during these exercises.

Final Laps

The second day included another Skid Car session, plus some emergency braking exercises, and a lot of work on the track to refine our shifting and braking techniques. The emergency braking exercise began with a rather exciting demonstration ride in a Chevy Tahoe with our instructor-even a vehicle that large can safely come to a stop in a VERY short distance!

We also did an autocross exercise, which is a solo timed run on a marked road course. Nature provided some additional challenges with a midday thunderstorm, so we had to chart a different line through some of the turns to avoid the puddles. I was pleased to see my times improve with every run.

Then it was on to our last session on the track, which was even more enjoyable than the first, thanks to my newly acquired cornering and braking skills. The track session took on something of a serene, Zen-like quality, even with the noise and motion of the car. It was one of those times where you find peace in the midst of a lot of sound and action.

The world narrowed down to the track and the car-I was aware of other cars on the track, but my senses were all tuned to the spot on the track the car would be in the next six seconds, and being consistent in my technique: Scan the corner. Hard brake. Turn in and trail brake. Steer to the apex of the corner and release. Downshift. Look ahead to exit point and upshift. Let out the steering and accelerate out. And so it went, corner after corner.

I was a bit sad as we pulled off the track at the end of the day, because I knew this great experience was coming to an end. I would miss the fun of learning, and comparing notes with my classmates about how we each dealt with the challenges in the car. But I also felt really uplifted and confident- any trauma remaining from the accident was released, and my skill and confidence had risen to a new level. I was a different driver, and a different person, than the one who had walked into the school just the day before.


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