Highway Survival Coaching: Fear vs Car

It was another working weekend at the track, this time coaching new and experienced drivers how to drive better and safer at Simraceway. Today was different though, as a very worried mother approached me first thing in the morning and explained that her teen daughter got into a major accident, which was why her daughter was attending the program. I could tell there was a lot of emotion attached to her explanation, her eyes said it all—this accident could have taken her little girl away. I told the woman I would go talk with her daughter and see what I could do to help her get more comfortable driving again. What I soon discovered was a shy 17-year old who clearly learned a hard lesson.

The girl explained to me in private that her accident involved a triple roll-over down a hill off a windy country road, where a tree ultimately ended her momentum. The result was a terrified 17-year old girl and a completely totaled car. It goes without saying that this experience instilled quite a bit of fear.

I was her first in-car instructor and during our first drill I quickly discovered that tire noise was not her friend. In our skidding/under-steer demo I explained what we were trying to do in terms of understanding vehicle balance and what can be achieved by adjusting our steering and throttle inputs. In short, there was a lot of circling around coupled with a lot of tire and engine noise.

About three rotations in I noticed that she suddenly started crying while sitting in the right seat. I have to say I’ve had a lot of folks laugh, shout and squirm in the right seat, but this was the first time anyone has ever cried! Looking at her sad watery eyes I could see that she was going to burst in a all-out sob if I didn’t take action quickly. I slowed the car to a stop, framing my approach and addressing her fears directly. She was very concerned about flipping over again. The experience of going around in circles with all the tire noise only brought back those terrifying memories, which were obviously still very fresh in her mind. Between the sensation of the lateral load in the car, tire squealing and the lack of control sitting right-seat, she was presented face to face with her fear.

I can’t say I’m the most maternal gal out there, but I certainly have a keen nurturing side and I wasn’t by any means going to let this girl feel like she couldn’t overcome her fears and feel inadequate in the process. I carefully reassured her that we weren’t going to flip over and that I knew first hand as a race car driver flipping over isn’t fun—sadly many racers and drivers on the road know what it’s like to take a hard tumble.

When someone goes through a bad accident and subsequently experiences some form of emotional trauma, whether it be a high-speed impact, going air-borne (in my case), or in the case of this young girl a severe roll-over, there can be high emotional intensities that prevent further progression of skill behind the wheel.  While the time required to recover from such trauma varies from person to person, it’s perfectly normal to have some hesitation when being reintroduced into a car. Throughout the day, I was able to help this girl realize that her fear wasn’t something that she should try to eliminate by force, but rather acknowledge that her fear existed and find ways to overcome it, one piece at a time.

After a full day in our program which consisted of skid-cars, a slalom course, high/low speed lane change drills and ABS braking exercises, she was able to go from 100%-fear to asserting the gas and the brakes. This girl drove more confidently and deliberately, each time with more smiles. While she was still being fairly conservative with her inputs, this was no doubt a drastic improvement from when I first met her in the morning.

After the paddock was cleared away of cones, radios stored in the Simraceway facility and before I headed home, I found the girl and her mother in the parking lot just before they loaded into their car. With such great progress I had to share my observations with the mother. I explained that her daughter made wonderful improvements throughout the day and offered up my observations that might help moving forward.

The expression on her face will forever be remembered as this driving course was not just something for her daughter to do on a lazy Sunday. Looking as if the mother might cry, she expressed much gratitude and was so happy with her girl. The very process of her daughter going through this experience meant that she will ultimately have a better chance keeping safe on the road. Any mother would fear the worst receiving a phone call where “your daughter had a roll-over accident” as the main topic. Without a doubt that call was the scariest thing on the planet for this woman, needing no further explanation.

I consider myself quite lucky that I’m able to witness transformations take place in peoples driving while doing work that I enjoy. Long days like this can be pretty tiring, but they can also be impeccably rewarding like today. In the case of this young girl, offering a bit of empathy, support and faith was what it took to bring her out of her shell. As a woman who races cars and got wrecked bad enough where my drive evolved into a flight test, I knew I needed to make this learning environment safe emotionally for this girl if any learning was going to happen at all. Overcoming such fear is not easy, but I have proved that overcoming fear like this is not impossible, and certainly not impossible for girls. Considering the amount of determination this girl has deep down in her soul, I think its safe to say that she is probably going to do just fine in her driving future.

Posted on 01/13

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