For 15 years I mostly managed to put the terrifying notion out of my mind, and whenever unsettling thoughts of what lay ahead did manage to creep into my brain, usually I could kill them with an extra Jack Daniel’s in the evening easy chair. But now the moment is at hand, and I have no choice but to face what is undoubtedly the scariest yet most important task of my life
I’m teaching my teenage daughter how to drive.
“Oh, great,” said my soon-to-be student, eyes rolling upward to accentuate the agony of hearing the news. “My friends are learning how to drive from their mothers or, you know, normal dads. I have to learn from you.”
I laughed, but I knew what she was thinking: double-declutching practice on Day 1, in-depth analyses of the friction circle (maybe with homework). Perhaps the lesson plan might even require her to join me for another full-length screening of “Grand Prix.” Then again, she shouldn’t have worried. As any father of a teenage girl will tell you, Daddy never has the upper hand.
With help from Google Earth, I found a big, empty, secluded parking lot (no mean feat in Los Angeles). I pulled into the center of it, switched off the ignition, and looked over at my daughter, suddenly looking even younger in the passenger seat. “OK,” I said. “Time to switch places.” She shook her head, opened the door, and as we passed each other rounding the front bumper I picked up a Doppler-shifting “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
Of course people already know how to sit in the driver’s seat. Or do they really? I had my daughter adjust the seat as I talked. You want to sit close enough that you can rest your hands at 9 and 3 on the wheel, elbows slightly bent, and then be able turn the wheel without lifting your shoulders from the seat back—but not closer than that. Check. Next—and something many drivers overlook—are you sitting low enough? Some drivers like sitting up high, but sitting low is key to feeling the car through the seat of your pants (a Formula 1 driver sits so low in the car you couldn’t slide a copy of “Inexpensive Michael Bay Movies” between his ass and the ground). So, yeah, drop the seat as low as you can while still being able to see clearly over the dash and the hood. Check. Now this is important: See that pedal way over on the very left, stuck to the floorboard? That’s the dead pedal. It doesn’t move, and not all cars have one, but most sporting cars do. (We were driving in my VW GTI.) You want to plant your left foot squarely on the dead pedal, and then use your left leg to brace yourself in the seat as the car pitches and rolls. “It’s just like balancing on a rocking sailboat at sea,” three-time world champion Jackie Stewart once told me. Forget this part, and you’ll end up using the steering wheel as a grab handle. Big no-no. The steering wheel is your direct connection to the front tires, and to assimilate all the info it can broadcast from them you want a light touch. Think “reading Braille.”
I opened the glove box. “This,” I said as I picked up my daughter’s iPhone from the center console, “goes in here and stays in here. I don’t care if it rings, chirps, squeaks, or screams to be set free. If it’s in the car and you can see it, the engine better not be running. This part comes with a zero-tolerance policy.”
After instructing my daughter how to start the car, I had one last word before she put it in drive. “Smoothness is king. Ease on and off the gas pedal, squeeze down on the brakes and breathe off them as the car comes to a stop, gently roll the steering wheel from side to side. Give the tires a chance to do their job. Buzzsaw steering and a pitching chassis are telltales of the clueless and Hollywood action stars. If you do it right, I should be able to eat a bowl of soup in the passenger seat without spilling a drop.”
I don’t care if it rings, chirps, squeaks, or screams to be set free. If it’s in the car and you can see it, the engine better not be running.
It was time. My daughter put the GTI into gear, and with a little encouragement she released the brakes and let her right foot settle onto the throttle. We rolled forward and gathered a little speed. “What do I do now?” I guess I heard my daughter, but for a moment I couldn’t react. Here I was, after three decades of driving, reviewing, testing, racing, eating, sleeping, and breathing cars, and now my own daughter was making one move by her own commands. I tried to reply, but as I watched her my throat caught. A fence was approaching. Then: “Dad!”
“OK, ease off the gas, move your foot to the brake—take your time—and then when you’ve found it press down gently.” My daughter did as ordered and we came to a smooth, safe stop. “Congratulations,” I said, beaming. “You’ve just driven a car.”
Within 15 minutes of additional practice, my daughter was already better than 50 percent of the drivers in L.A.—that is, she was looking through the windshield instead of checking her WhatsApp, and she was stopping when she was supposed to stop. And that brought us to the day’s most important lesson.
“It’s called a panic stop,” I said. “Remember everything I said about being smooth? Well, when the shinola hits the fan and you absolutely must stop right now, skip smooth. Your job is to kill the brake pedal. I mean it: Slam on that sucker like you’re trying to break it right off. The tires are gonna squeal, the car is gonna bang down on its nose, but it’s essential that you hit the pedal as hard as you can and keep it there. It’s how we do it in brake testing. Most people don’t panic brake hard enough, and it can make the difference between stopping in time or ending up in somebody’s back seat.”
My daughter drove in lazy figure eights, and every now and then I’d yell, “Stop!” She got this part down on the first try, crushed that pedal like an approaching scorpion. “Wow! That was cool!” she exclaimed as the GTI lurched back to level. “I didn’t know a car could do that!”
Later, as I drove us home, my daughter asked, “Now what happens if eventually I want to ride with one of my girlfriends, or one of them knows a boy who can drive us?”
I paused, took a deep breath. “Honey, uh, we might have to wait on that a while. Have you ever heard of autonomous cars?”