The man behind the wheel is confident, casual even. He talks while he drives, describing his actions in words that lack neither depth nor precision. Everything he has said thus far makes sense. He stops talking for a while to let you digest.
"Right, so I turn the wheel, give it lots of power, let off the power, and catch the back end?" you ask cautiously.
"Exactly. Once you've caught the drift you have to start feeding the power back in though. Once you get a feel for the throttle response you should be able to tell how much grip you've got left and..." you tune out his monotonous voice and try to go over the procedure again in your head. It seems simple enough.
"Okay, we're here." The driver pulls the car into what seems like a deserted parking lot. It is surrounded on three sides by a grassy field, and the fourth side faces the road. There are 4 street lights lining the extreme edges of the lot. A small building, seemingly abandoned, sits in a distant corner. Aside from a few small stones, the lot is completely empty. "This place used to be a DMV, I know the guy who owns it now. He said we could use it for today." Upon closer inspection, you see the faded white and yellow lines of a safety course now long gone.
"I'm going to show you what we're doing, then you can have a go." Your pulse rises, and your palms begin to sweat. The car you're riding in is a classic yellow Porsche Boxster S. It sports a 300-some horsepower engine which sits in the middle of the car for better weight distribution and it handles like a dream. Or so you've been told.
He drives to the center of the empty lot, puts the car in first gear, and lowers the top for added effect. The sky is a brilliant shade of blue and there isn't a cloud in sight. A gentle breeze kisses your face.
"You can start off by rolling very slowly. It's important to keep the RPM's low at this point." The car starts moving again. He turns the wheel to the left and you start to move in circles.
"Now once you've got the car moving in a circle you have to start the slide, like this." Without warning, all hell breaks loose. Tires are screaming, the sky is spinning, and you're holding on for dear life, thrown against the passenger side door and completely unaware of which direction you're moving in. To your left the driver is chuckling slightly, still relaxed and confident. He hits the brakes and the car stops.
"Are you okay?" He's still smiling widely. You feel slightly nauseous, but decide to keep this to yourself.
"Yeah, I'm good."
"It's always worse from the passenger seat. Did you see what I was doing though?"
"Okay, once more then, this time pay attention."
He gives you a second to recover before starting over. Again, the car starts rolling in a massive left-hand circle. You sit up straight and brace yourself.
"Okay, now that we're moving, I'm going to hit the power." Again, the car throws you violently against the door, though this time you're ready for it. You feel the weight of the car swinging somewhere behind you. The wheels don't seem to be doing anything as mundane as driving on the road, rather they seem to be almost floating, skating on a thin layer of invisible ice. You note the driver's careful balance of the wheel and the way his right leg feathers the throttle. "You have to balance both the steering and the throttle to keep the slide going!" he yells over the scream of the tires and the whine of the engine. You nod, still gripping the door handle with all your might. You feel the driver let off the gas and the slide corrects itself. The smell of burning rubber lingers.
"Think you're ready for a go?" He doesn't wait for you to answer to get out of the car. You climb into the drivers seat and buckle up. The dark leather of the steering wheel is cool to touch. You dip the clutch and engage first gear. "Okay, now start us off in a slow circle." You give the car power while letting off the clutch. The car starts to roll. The bright yellow rev counter reads 1500 RPM's. "Okay, now give it a boot, and be ready to catch it!" With a courageous stomp, you floor the accelerator while turning the wheel completely. The engine roars as the back end whips out of line. The steering wheel moves on its own, your hands desperately trying to stay with it. Before you know it you're at a standstill and facing the cloud of smoke your rear tires just made. The car jerks a bit and the engine sputters off. You've spun out.
"Okay, a few mistakes here. First, way too much gas initially. This car has a good bit of torque so you don't need to floor it to get it to slide. Secondly, you didn't let off the gas once the back end started coming around. You also couldn't keep up with the steering wheel. Lastly, once you noticed you were spinning, you let off the gas entirely and stalled out." You hadn't really taken notice of what your right foot was doing during that whole ordeal. "Remember, when you're at the limits of adhesion, you have to drive the car with your right foot. Now try it again."
Slightly frustrated, you start the car back up and begin another left handed circle. Cautiously this time, you push the accelerator. The car lurches forward, moving in faster and tighter circles, but nothing happens. You give it more gas and turn the wheel harder. You hear the sound of tire squeal but it doesn't sound quite right. When your teacher had done this the tires had seemed to be screaming in joy; now they seem to be screaming in agony. Suddenly the steering seems unresponsive and the car starts running wide. You begin to panic.
"Stop." You hit the brakes and the car comes to an abrupt stop amidst a small cloud of smoke. Your teacher still hasn't lost his composure. His gentle tone makes you think he expected you to mess up the first few times. Your heart sinks a little. "What did you do wrong?"
You think back to what just happened. You had run wide, the steering was unresponsive....
"Understeer. I didn't give it enough power so the rear wheels didn't lose traction. We gained speed and went in faster circles. The front wheels were turning the car so they had less grip to begin with - the increased speed made them let go and we ran wide."
"Excellent. Do you get what I was saying about how rear-wheel drive cars can also understeer now? Try it again." Your teacher is beaming. He has taught you well.
You take a moment to think before starting your third attempt. It's all finally starting to come together; all of the seemingly useless theory he made you endure is starting to make sense. You're beginning to understand the language of the car, though you can't speak it quite yet. You are confident, and eager to get it right.
Once the last of the smoke has cleared, you start your third attempt. The car starts moving in slow circles. You anticipate your next few actions, testing the feel of the throttle. You go around once, then twice...on the third circle you go for it. You hit the gas hard for a second, feel the weight of the car move to the rear, and turn to the left. Again, the back end flies out of line, but this time you're ready for it. You feel the lack of grip through the suspension, something you have only felt before whilst hydroplaning. Though that was a scary experience, this one is not. The slide is manageable all of a sudden; you can feel everything. The car is talking to you through the suspension and through the steering and for the first time in your life, you are listening.
Adrenaline courses through your veins, heightening your senses and quickening your reaction times. You are weightless. Behind you a massive cloud of white tire smoke rises from the worn asphalt that used to comprise a safety course. You lift off the gas and feel the front wheels start to turn on their own. The steering wheel is sliding through your fingers, the once cool dark leather now warm and sweaty. In two quick hand-over-hand motions you help it complete the turn and hold the opposite lock. As you start to feel the grip kick in, you gently hit the accelerator to maintain the slide. The back end struggles to break loose, but your opposite lock is firm. Before you know it you've made a complete circle and are flying through a cloud of thick tire smoke, sideways. It's all over far too quickly.
As you come to a stop, you notice you are smiling. You have the tamed the beast. "This isn't a car," you tell your teacher, "it's an adrenaline pump."