On a wide stretch of pavement at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 93 teenagers take turns driving rental cars like they stole them. They slap pedals to the floor, whip steering wheels, slam on brakes and spin out on wet asphalt. The only difference between this and a high school parking lot after a football game was the crowd of smiling parents. I was one of them, as my daughters tore up the track six years ago.
It’s late April, and we’re amid the engine roar, youthful energy and parental anxiety of the Driver’s Edge program. For young drivers, it’s a four-hour crash course in avoiding crashes. It’s free, thanks to a tankful of largesse that includes a Nevada Office of Traffic Safety grant, help with rooms from the Plaza Hotel and donation of space by the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Jeff Payne, who founded the program in Las Vegas in 2002, runs four Driver’s Edge weekends a year here; he also takes the show on the road to eight other cities across the U.S., from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. More than 100,000 drivers and would-be drivers have participated nationwide.
For my daughters, the best part of Driver’s Edge may have been that I was relegated to the cheering section. My younger daughter, Naomi, is now 21, and when I asked what it was like having me as her driving instructor, she replied, “Oh my God. It was really stressful, because you freaked out all the time. We’d come to a stoplight and you’d be like, ‘Stop, Stop, Stop! And I’m like, I am stopping, it takes a second to stop!’”
For Naomi, obviously, Driver’s Edge was a welcome respite from Dad. And, uh, Naomi: It was a welcome respite for Dad, too.
As Daphne Skordas, 16, waits to try the skid exercise at Drivers Edge, she glances at her dad, Rob. He’s been her driving teacher up to this point. “It was stressful,” she says, “I would think I was doing something right, and then he would tell me it wasn’t.” Rob, meanwhile, doesn’t mind passing the keys over to the Edge. “In just the first couple of hours,” he says, “I’ve already learned several things I didn’t know.”
The Driver’s Edge staff is made up of motor-sport competitors and instructors. “This isn’t your mom or dad teaching you,” Payne says. “I get parents who say, ‘I don’t want my kids being taught how to drive by a race car driver.’ That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. On a scale of 1 to 10, most of you parents think you are driving at 9 or 10. C’mon, Mario Andretti, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon … and you? At best, you’re a 4 or 5.”
Daphne and I are matched with Dominic Cicero, who won his first national competition at 16, went on to drive Formula 1 and now uses his skills as a Hollywood stunt driver. Steely-eyed and dark haired, Cicero chats as he whips through the course. “Keep your eyes on where you want to go,” he says. “Let off the throttle. Use your Jackie Chan hands. Don’t touch the brake.”
Daphne manages three runs with little truncated fishtails and keeps the car headed in the right direction. “I was pretty calm until we got to the starting line,” she says. “Then I could feel my heart rate go up. But after I went through it, I calmed down.”
I, on the other hand, end up with the ass-end of the car where the nose should have been. My “Jackie Chan hands” fail to materialize, and I hit the brakes at least once. A 16-year-old girl has destroyed me.
“It was definitely good to feel that loss of control,” Daphne muses.
“That’s one thing Driver’s Edge did really well,” my eldest daughter, Fiona, tells me. “You feel losing control of the car and how terrifying that is.”
So maybe I should have pushed the envelope a little more. Except, as Daphne proved, I can’t even keep a car going in the right direction.
It’s best to leave the training to the guys with race car driver skills and naturally dark hair.