CHP Academy article on-line

My recent article on the California Highway Patrol Academy in West Sacramento, California is now on-line. Photographs by Steve Marschke, Editor of the News-Ledger. Click here to go there.

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Blog extra! I wrote the following shortly after my drive on the CHP skid pad:

I was doing everything you’re not supposed to do on a wet road. On purpose. In a police car.

What’s the best way to teach high-speed emergency maneuvers? Start a person out on a low speed track. A flooded one. Using a car with bald tires. Oh, and you’re supposed to dive into each turn as fast as you can. Sound crazy? Hardly. This approach lets a potential officer know how their cars will act with violent movement at speed.  But for now, we are going slow. Sort of.

The CHP Academy let me pilot one of their cars around their skid pad, a course of ‘S’ curves, one after another, in a complete loop. After each loop you try to go faster, for each turn you try for more control. All the while the instructor is telling you to “Gun it!” as you slam into each curve. But I had some instruction first.

I was introduced to Officer Julie Saravia, one of CHP’s most expert driving instructors. She walked me over to our black and white steed, a long-retired machine that was now helping cadets learn the wiles of mad motoring. Throwing it into first, to keep the speed down to a somewhat controllable level, Julie headed us out on to the track. A hundred or more sprinklers sprayed water around the entire circuit, even though it had just rained. (Can’t have enough water when you are trying to get sideways.)

As each turn approached, Julie accelerated, then broke hard, letting the back come around in a slide. Taking pressure off the wheel, ever so precisely, she straightened out the car and pointed it into the next turn. Accelerate, brake, let off, repeat. It reminded me of the fun I used to have in a pickup on gravel roads. After two laps she finished, parking the car in front of the CHP Academy Commander and my editor. I looked at them, thought of this chance, and in a quiet voice, trying to hide my excitement, I said, “I’ll take it around.”

I was surprisingly relaxed. Although I didn’t want to take up the time of the Commander or my editor, I was here. If I wanted to write a longer story for a national magazine it was incumbent on me to take this opportunity. Motoring into the first turn, the instructor yelled “Gun it”, precisely at the time most sane people would be braking. I did as I was told, then slammed on the brakes to keep from going over the course outline. Predictably, the car wheeled around in very quick fashion, to which I responded by letting off on the wheel.

I managed the first two or three turns, somewhat, but on the fourth I spun the car completely around, almost in a 360 degree turn. Facing the wrong way, Julie encouragingly said, “You can go back that way.” Good. Let’s go that way. More blasting into turns, more outrageous spinning. Returning to the start, Julie pronounced me a natural. She said that with four or five more laps I would have it down. Perhaps. She said that most cadets were, by comparison, pretty tense and high strung. My editor pointed out that they would be tested. Good point. For them, it’s their careers. For me, it’s a story. But a fun one.

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