Hot Wheels

The Spike slides into the driver's seat

The Spike is in love. Batty, crazy, deeply in love.

With speed.

No, not the kind of speed that comes in a little white pill, but the kind that comes in a well-oiled, fine-tuned machine made for going as fast as possible in the fewest number of seconds. Yes, The Spike has had an encounter with a racecar, and the open road will never be the same.

Former racecar driver Jeff Payne demonstrates the proper method for burning rubber.
Quetta Carpenter
Former racecar driver Jeff Payne demonstrates the proper method for burning rubber.

Normally, going five miles over the speed limit would have made The Spike's pulse quicken, and even the thought of screeching tires would have put a virginal blush on The Spike's cherubic cheeks. But this was before racecar driver-cum-driving instructor Jeff Payne taught The Spike how to burn rubber. The Spike didn't even know rubber could burn like that, but now The Spike is going full-on pyro.

The best part was that the rubber-burning was part of a safety program. Spinning, skidding, racing like a bat out of hell – and it's good for you. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Payne, a former professional racecar driver who has taught Hollywood types like Tom Cruise, Charlie Sheen and Emilio Estevez, is now the president of Driver's Edge, a hands-on driving school based in Las Vegas. Payne is touring the nation, starting in Phoenix, to give free racing-style driving lessons to young drivers, thanks to sponsor Bridgestone/Firestone. The class, on February 8, is open to the first 200 teens who sign up (www.driversedge.org).

The Spike got a special preview at Firebird International Raceway with just Payne, The Spike . . . and the car.

The Spike wasn't sure what to expect from Payne when he showed up in a Kia. That did not exactly promise an exhilarating day at the racetrack. The Spike suddenly had visions of weaving in and out of orange cones in the death-gray Kia. And parallel-parking lessons.

Much to The Spike's unbridled delight, the Kia was a rental. For the lesson, Firebird Raceway had lent Payne an official Ford Racing Mustang GT pace car (and a convertible, no less). The Spike fought the urge to turn around and impersonate that creepy Mazda "zoom zoom" kid.

With this car, The Spike could get down to business.

At first, going even a piddly 20 mph while turning seemed too risky for The Spike. Payne kept insisting that more pedal be put to the metal, but The Spike resisted. Visions of Driver's Ed videos danced in The Spike's pointy little head while Payne kept prodding for more speed. Payne finally had to take matters into his own hands.

Actually, he took The Spike's knee into his own hands, pushing down on the gas and sending the car into a skid reminiscent of car commercials that warn "Professional driver – closed course." After seeing a lifetime flash in front of the spinning car, The Spike realized that instead of flipping over, the car began to make a larger turning radius for itself, skipping laterally like it was a Disneyland Autopia car jumping the tracks.

Turns out that it's close to impossible to flip a car while on a flat surface. Good to know.

The point of the skidding exercise was to teach The Spike how to steer out of one without lurching into oncoming traffic, flying off a mountain or causing some other similarly unpleasant outcome. After a few embarrassing tries, The Spike was able to do it with a degree of confidence.

The Spike doesn't want to insinuate that this course is about dangerous driving or breaking laws. It's about safety – not about the thrill when squealing tires make dark, thick skids on the pavement as the beguiling smell of vaporized tire tread fills the nostrils with a superpower-inducing miasma. But that helps – a lot.

At this point, the car actually started making the moves – seducing The Spike. The Spike drives a Ford Contour named Lucy, and she has never failed. But suddenly, The Spike felt as though it was cheating on poor, faithful Lucy with a younger, faster, prettier catch, sinking into the Mustang's leather seats, feeling its rumbling engine from head to tingling toe, and taking more than one turn around the block.

But The Spike actually learned something while cheating on Lucy. "It used to piss me off that no one is taught to drive anymore. They're just taught to pass the test," says Payne.

He started the program in 1999 because he figured that if teens were actually taught how to handle a vehicle well, and get out of trouble situations without panicking, it might make a difference in how many end up dead every year. And The Spike doesn't buy that teens are all irresponsible drivers – they're just inexperienced. Hell, who isn't at 16?

The only "hands on" driving instruction The Spike received before getting a license was in a simulator. But a skilled student (like The Spike's sister who repeated Driver's Ed three times) could memorize the film and get an "A" without having a clue how to drive an actual car. The Spike still isn't sure how circling the Scottsdale Airpark on a Saturday afternoon was enough to test its driving, but The Spike passed on the first try. The Spike's real road tests came the hard way, and only luck prevented those "tests" from making The Spike a skid mark on Highway 89.

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