Cutting To The Chase: A How To For Cops

I'm piloting 4,120 pounds of metal at 94 mph through a zigzag turn. Although the tires are screaming and my arms are aching, I'm ecstatic. I'm speeding.

Then, in the rearview mirror looms the familiar shape of a police car. No siren or flashing lights, but he's gaining on me. In about four seconds, I will be in a 60-degree turn and, I hope, out of sight. Elbows bent and hands clenched on the wheel, I push the pedal harder, coaxing more speed out of the 5.7-liter, V-8 engine in my Chevrolet Caprice. Twenty feet or so outside the turn, I stand on the antilock brakes and feel the unsettling computer-controlled pulses vibrate through the car and up my leg.

I'm in the turn. The sudden deceleration is shifting my car's weight forward, causing the back end to lift and robbing the rear tires of desperately needed traction. I can feel the rear end start to skid. Little rivers of sweat slide off the wrinkles of my forehead as the car begins a precarious dance on the edge of a dandelion bed. Fighting the instinct to continue braking, I gently push down on the accelerator, forcing the weight backward. The reward is twofold: The slide stops, and control returns. The cop car recedes from view.

Relief. Not that I was in any danger of getting a speeding ticket or an overnight stay in the pokey. I'm one of 20 students in Bobby Rahal's Track Time Police Performance Driving School at Nelson Ledges Road Course in Garrettsville, Ohio, just outside Youngstown. All the other drivers on the course are cops.

For many police officers, jamming the pedal to the metal is a daily, if not hourly, experience. But amazingly, most cops never get training in the kind of high-speed maneuvers that can make for breathtaking scenes in action movies but countless crashes in real life. Last year, there were 305 fatalities during high-speed chases conducted by police across the country. Most of the casualties were of those being pursued, but 51 of the victims were innocent bystanders.

`HOT LAPS.' Worried about lawsuits and the danger to the public, many city governments are rethinking their go-get-'em policies. They're writing rules against chases, except in special circumstances. Still, these cops say, sometimes speed is the only way to nab a suspected felon.

This two-day course is designed to teach police how to give chase without deadly consequences. It is the only high-speed-performance driving school in the country at which officers learn theory from professional drivers and get to test their skills on an enclosed racetrack.

My classmates, drawn from police departments in Ohio and Virginia, are expected to go home and teach fellow officers the techniques they're learning. One of the key lessons, even for old hands, is how to stop, steer, and change lanes at high speeds in cars with the new antilock brake systems. The course does not include instruction in doing a 180--a skill seldom required outside of Hollywood action flicks.

Right now, after hours of classes in cornering and vehicle-weight dynamics, we're doing "hot laps"--practice at high speeds. Feeling like Al Unser at the Indianapolis 500, I switch to the inside lane on the curve, then jam the accelerator, gliding back outside onto the straightaway. I recall the booming voice of instructor Jack Layne: "There is no magic wand to driving, guys. Everything is weight transfer and smoothness."

I start to relax. But my short dance with the devil on that last curve is about to be repeated as I head down the front straight with the electronic speedometer running triple digits. At this speed, the thousands of worn tires stacked along the side of the road as a crash barrier blur into a solid black wall. Behind that, the spotter's shacks and waiting ambulance serve as constant reminders that this is not a game. Ahead, the road bends--and my worry wrinkles return.

AIRBORNE. "Good, good," says the soothing voice of Chip Holtz, the instructor riding shotgun with me. Holtz, a 37-year-old Detroit Edison engineer and a weekend race driver and instructor, guides me through the turn. A pattern emerges: Look for the curve's entry point, brake, glide inside the turn, add speed, and track out.

After my turn at driving, I join others sitting by the track. My classmates, big-city and small-town officers, have shed their uniforms for Levis and sneakers. After a bit, natural inhibitions slip, too, and the chase stories start to flow.

A tall, rangy Ohio cop recalls flipping on his gumball light to pull over a 15-year-old kid on a motorcycle who zipped past him in a residential neighborhood. Instead of stopping, the biker poured on the speed. The chase ended with the kid sprawled on the street, looking up at the police car barreling down on him. "Can you believe that, after I almost hit him," the cop says, between pulls on his cigarette, "the stupid kid actually got up and was trying to start the bike again?"

Heads nod, and another story is told. This time, a speeder who tries to outrun the law misses a hairpin turn over a gulch, goes airborne, and winds up taking the tops off a couple of trees. "I thought the guy got away," the cop quips. As is often the case, the drunken speeder emerged unhurt.

SHOOTING MARBLES. Most everyone agreed that speed driving is one of the most dangerous aspects of their jobs. Some younger cops were gung ho about chases, but the more experienced officers said they tried to avoid them. They're here to learn how to give pursuit when they have no choice.

Back on the track, I'm reminded of the car-turned-airplane story as my Caprice rockets into a turn marked on my map simply as "the carousel." It's a mild name for the course's worst bend, a long sloping curve strewn with "marbles"--small rocks and pebbles. We had been warned about one especially dangerous turn, but like cops pursuing a suspect, we don't know what lies around any curve. I've ignored warnings to stay within the limits of my own driving skills and am traveling too fast for comfort. Suddenly, I'm tempted to jam on the brakes, but I remember Layne's precaution about sliding: "You might as well take that steering wheel and give it to the guy next to you, for all the good that you could do with it."

Meanwhile, I'm into the turn, with marbles flying. I'm in a cold sweat, but Chip's voice drones evenly: "We're in this one a little hot. Take off a little speed and get inside. That's it--good."

I'm out of the turn and onto the back straight, kissin' the high end of 90 mph and loving it into the zigzag again. Feeling just a little cocky, I start fantasizing about what I may do the next time I get pegged by Adam-12 on the open road. Then, like a reality check, that familiar shape I thought I dusted slides in behind me again. This time, I let him pass.