Ice King of the Road

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I learned to drive under elevated train tracks in the stop-and-go traffic of Bronx, N.Y. In the neighborhood where I took lessons, steering and braking were considered secondary to cursing and obscene hand gestures.

Skip Meier grew up on a ranch in Wyoming. When he was still a youngster, he and his friends would take a Honda Civic out on a dirt road, gun the engine until the dust flew out behind them and then pull the parking brake, sending the car into a 360-degree spin.

"We would see how many times we could get it to spin around," he said.

At Steamboat's Bridgestone Winter Driving School, Skip and I were paired up in a Ford Explorer to test out our driving skills on an icy track under the tutelage of a cadre of professional race car drivers.

Morgan Cavanaugh, one of the driving instructors, refers to driving as a "sport." If winter driving is a sport, then I'm the San Diego Chargers. The simple five-mile drive to work, most of which runs along U.S. 40, has been an unnerving challenge for me since the snow began to fall.

Luckily, the winter driving school is designed not only for aspiring race car drivers but also for impatient displaced city boys with poor coordination.

At the driving school, instructors guide the participants through a winding mile-long course just north of the tennis center. The driving school dumped 80,000 gallons of water on the track, which soon froze into an icy sheet. On Tuesday morning, a recently fallen layer of snow hid the slick surface.

The purpose of the driving school is to re-create extreme winter conditions in a closed-in environment so participants can test their limits without endangering others (or themselves, for that matter), said School Director Mark Cox.

"The importance of it is to have a place to go challenge the grip limit and experience drastic conditions that you couldn't regularly test on the public roads," Mark said.

The grip limit ends at the point where the wheels fail to continue to grip the road. Skip, it seems, was constantly challenging the grip limit. As he drove, I challenged my own grip limit, squeezing the inside door handle until my knuckles went white.

The driving school takes participants through a few different challenging exercises. The first of those tests is a braking exercise, learning to stop short on ice using both anti-lock brakes and a brake-pumping method. The second test consisted of speeding around a short, circular track while attempting to correct over-steering and under-steering, two of the most serious errors people make on the roads. Under-steering, when a car refuses to complete a turn, can send a driver across the center line of the road, while over-steering can spin a car entirely around, its tail end in the way of oncoming traffic.

"I like to pretend that there's a cliff on the other side of the road," Morgan said.

Skip flew around the banked curve, sending the back end of the car toward the ever-present imaginary cliff, while he corrected the skid by turning the wheel in the direction of the sliding back wheels.

I was impressed. I was also nauseous.

By testing extremes, the school allows the students to understand where boundaries exist and how to correct mistakes. Techniques to fix mistakes, however, can never replace slow, cautious driving, Morgan said. While reining in a spin may make a driver look good as he sails across the road, he will still end up in a ditch, he said.

In that interest, much of the most important instruction focuses on teaching drivers to navigate turns slowly and sensibly.

The school, which is the only one of its kind in the country, Mark said, attracts everyone from aspiring race car drivers to nervous warm-weather emigres. The company also gets much business from Fortune 500 companies and governmental agencies such as the FBI who require that their workers learn to drive in bad conditions, Cox said.

City Police Chief J.D. Hays said he makes every new city police officer attend the school. He himself has taken the course twice and has also sent his sons.

"The only one who hasn't taken it is my wife, and that's not for a lack of trying," he said. "I firmly believe in it. That course reinforces to you how to drive when your vehicle does things that you wouldn't anticipate it doing."

The course costs $145 for a half-day and $275 for a full day. A special two-day lesson can be purchased for $1,475, though this year's two-day lessons are fully booked. High school students can take the course for 10 percent off the regular price and up to 25 percent off if they call the night before and find a space, Cox said.

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