Outside magazine, February 1994
Angel tells us that if we don't have the nerve to explore our automotive limits, the bad guys will nail us at the choke point and pop us on the X. They'll stop us, box us, then smoke us like cheap cigars.
"Ka-ba-OOHM!" emphasizes Angel, a man who delights in imagery as well as interpretive sound effects.
As we have already learned, a choke point is an unavoidable route that one's car must travel. The X is a spot where one is most likely to be shot, rocketed, or (Angel's favorite) bombed by terrorists or similar scum. "Sputnik City," Angel explains. "We're talking roadkill."
I don't doubt that he is correct--and if I did doubt him, I wouldn't admit it. Angel, though likable and articulate, resembles a Tasmanian devil reanimated as a descendent of Pancho Villa. When Angel talks, people interested in avoiding death by terrorism listen. He is an expert on explosives, tactical weaponry, evasive driving, and other oddments useful if one is planning to invade a small country.
"Or if you're planning to leave the house," insists Angel. "These days, no matter where you go, there's a threat of terrorism or criminal attack. You could be whacked at any time. Like the people pulled from their cars and beaten during the L.A. riots. Or the German tourists in Miami. In country or out. If you travel, you're at risk."
A desire not to be whacked is why I have enrolled in BSR Inc.'s Executive Security Training course, held in Summit Point, West Virginia. I travel a lot. I spend an inordinate amount of time driving foreign cars, lost in foreign cities. True, it has been my experience that people around the world are uniformly pleasant, if not downright hospitable. But there are exceptions, and BSR Inc. has the slide show to prove it: image after image of human carrion created by politically dysfunctional terrorist groups such as the Red Brigades and the Shining Path.
"You never know," joked Matthew Croke, director of training, prior to his colorful introductory lecture on assassinations. "Terrorists could mistake you for someone important."
If they do, the bastards will have only themselves to blame: The experts at BSR don't graduate pantywaists. In my four days at this school, I will learn how to use an automobile as a weapon. I will learn how to execute forward and reverse emergency turns. I will learn how to analyze surveillance operations and detect car bombs. I will learn how to keep my car on the highway during high-speed pursuit scenarios, while being fired upon by attackers. This is no namby-pamby theorist's school, either--though classroom work is part of it. At BSR, students experience situations not suitable for the faint of heart.
In short, here I will learn to survive rush hour or assault by terrorists in places like Chicago and Baghdad. If James Bond had to choose a driving school, this would be it. It is the real-life choice of the U.S. Department of Defense, various specialized military teams, and assorted clandestine organizations, many of which are conveniently located an hour and a half away in Washington, D.C.
Where else can you sit in a room decorated with framed quotations from international murderers and learn how easy it is to make a car bomb using a Ping-Pong ball, a dab of superglue, and a third ingredient that Angel is judicious enough not to reveal?
"The point is," he says, standing in front of a display case of homemade bombs, "that it is easy to blow up a car. What we want to teach you is attack recognition--how to be a tough target."
Angel refers us to a Baader-Meinhof slogan on the wall: When you are hungry, it is foolish to hunt a tiger when there are plenty of sheep to be had. "That's one of the keys," he says. "Don't be passive. Be a tiger. If you're attacked, outrun them. If you can't outrun them, we'll teach you how to lay a little Goodyear on them."
The thought of that obviously pleases Angel, for he grins before summarizing: "In other words, make the bastards pick on somebody weaker than you."
I'm all for bad guys picking on somebody weaker than me; the nobility of mankind has been reduced by crime and terrorism and, in a tight spot, my own nobility puckers accordingly. The problem, unfortunately, is that it is unlikely that terrorists will be able to find someone--anyone--who is an easier automotive target than me. This is not a play for sympathy; I'm proud of it. I think fast drivers are dopes. Squealing tires and revving engines are the pubescent cries of mullocks desperate for attention. Cars scare me; I admit it. Indeed, I have a bedrock horror of ending up the victim in some roadside tableau: plasma bags and hubcaps amid the ditch weeds, all because of some pimply-headed geek or a bored taxi driver in a fast car. Is there a more adolescent way to die? Is there a dumber way?
But as Brent, my own personal driving instructor, tells me, "Any idiot can press a gas pedal to the floor. That's not what this school is about. There is craftsmanship to high-speed evasive driving. That's what we're here to teach you."
BSR has reduced the craft to a science. Ten to 12 hours a day, students shuttle between classroom lectures on automotive theory and the thrills and chills of driving the school's Chevy Caprice police cruisers, which our instructors urge us to use to their full 350-horsepower advantage.
For me, there are more chills than thrills. The first time Brent demonstrates a high-speed lap around BSR's two-mile, ten-turn road course, I climb out of the car with my teeth clicking like dice on a Reno craps table. Had we really approached that 90-degree turn doing 115 miles per hour?
"You'll be doing the same thing in a few days," Brent assures me. "In a life-or-death situation, you need to know how to get all you can out of your vehicle. Don't worry--you'll learn all the necessary skills a step at a time."
According to instructors, no student has been so much as scratched at the school. But I'm no fool--they make us wear helmets for a reason.
When it comes to cars, understand, I was born worried. But Brent is determined to teach me, regardless.
Set off by itself in the scenic wooded hills of eastern West Virginia, the BSR training center is a fascinating place. Along with the road track, the 472-acre facility offers a small skid pad, nine shooting ranges, an explosives range, a 40-foot rappelling tower, and three drop zones for parachute jumps. It doesn't surprise me that several of my fellow students, though thoroughly pleasant, do not wear name tags. ("It's best not to ask about my occupation," more than one has told me.) Nor is it surprising that most of them perform better than I do on the skid pad. Though BSR now welcomes students from the private sector, all of whom must pass a screening process, I am the only nonprofessional in this course. Two pupils and one instructor per car, we wheel out onto the asphalt doughnut soaked by sprinklers and give our respective vehicles the gas until they begin to spin crazily. At least, that's what the other students do. Brent finally loses patience with my tentativeness and puts his foot on the accelerator while I steer.
"When the car begins to slide," he tells me over and over, "shift your eyes to a positive goal and steer toward it. Remember: Steering takes priority over braking! If you look at only what you don't want to hit, you almost certainly will hit it."
The technique is called Positive Ocular Response Driving--the validity of which I no longer doubt, having rammed many objects that couldn't move and a couple that should have.
I do better in the threshold-braking exercises. At 100 miles per hour, Brent suddenly yells, "Brake right!" and I mash the left pedal with enthusiasm, all the while trying to weave my way through a maze of plastic cones.
However, the high-speed pursuit exercises (an "evolution," as the instructors call each drill) thrust my bumbling amateur personality back to the fore. "You have to force yourself to go faster," Brent keeps telling me. "The only way you can learn a vehicle's limits is to explore the envelope. Remember, this is a life-or-death situation. You're running for your life."
Running for my life is something I've always believed I would be good at. But when I get behind the wheel of a car, I just naturally take my foot off the accelerator when approaching a series of hairpin turns. Same with a hill--who the hell knows for certain what's waiting on the other side? By steeling myself, I can manage 110 mph on the straightaway; I can skid into the first turn and drift through it bravely enough. But when confronted by a hill and a series of S-turns, I just can't make myself hold the pedal to the floor.
"You have to push the limits," Brent repeats. "Yours and the car's."
But this course is not just about driving fast, and I find the lectures on the analysis of attacks by terrorists and criminals riveting. Daily, we study how targets are selected, how attacks are planned, practiced, and deployed. By scrutinizing the details of well-known attacks, we learn how the attacks might have been avoided or how victims might have saved themselves. Our instructors refer obliquely--never openly--to certain antiterrorist teams of which they seem to have some knowledge. And they also make inside jokes about their love of rental cars. ("Don't wear a BSR hat to the Hertz desk--they'll kick you out.")
Our "evolution" on Vehicular Evasive Tactics effectively demonstrates why that is so. After driving us to an open stretch of track, Brent tells a fellow student and me, "Attacks are commonly initiated by a ruse: a faked accident or a broken-down car, some kind of roadblock that forces the target to stop on the X. Today, you'll learn three very effective ways to get off the X and flee the killing zone." Brent then shifts the car into drive, accelerates to about 40 mph... and then locks the emergency brake while turning the wheel a quarter turn. Tires shriek, and the car revolves sickeningly before Brent releases the brake and hits the gas: amazingly, we are already traveling at speed in the opposite direction.
"That's sometimes called a boot turn," Brent explains, "named after the bootleggers who used it to outrun police. Think of it as a forward 180-degree turn."
Brent then shifts into reverse and floors the accelerator, counting aloud, "Thousand one, thousand two, thousand three, thousand four," before removing his foot from the gas and spinning the steering wheel toward the empty lane. Just as quickly, the front end of the car swings around and we are traveling in the opposite direction. "That," he says, "is a J turn. Think of it as a reverse 180-degree turn."
We spend the next hour practicing the turns. When I finally start to get the hang of it, I too find myself eager to sign my next rental-car contract. But we are not done for the day. We have one more evasive tactic to learn: Barricade Breaching. ("Think of it as ramming," says Brent.)
Angel takes charge of this evolution, in which, student by student, we crash through a wrecked car that blocks the road. The key, says Angel, is to fake a stop by slowing to 10 or 15 mph, then accelerating through the barricade. "Hit their tire with your tire! Make their car absorb the impact. Never brake!"
Intentionally crashing into another car goes against all instincts, and that's doubly true of keeping one's foot on the gas throughout the collision. But with Angel looking on, yelling like some demented Sergeant Carter--"Move it! Move it! Move it!"--it's not as hard as one might think.
We wrap up the course with two graduate-level evolutions. The first, held on the road track, consists of instructors chasing us, banging our bumpers at crazed speeds, and firing blanks at us while herding our cars toward roadblocks, where those not delirious with fear are expected to react with the proper boot turn, J turn, or ram. The second requires students to pile into a van and drive peacefully through the streets of nearby Winchester, Virginia, pinpointing surveillants and the spots where terrorists are likely to transform us into roadkill.
Guess which of the two evolutions I prefer.
Being spied upon is exciting. We spend four hours driving to and from our fictional workplaces, ever alert while passing choke points, dutifully logging the physical description and license-plate numbers of suspicious-looking people. (Surprisingly, sleepy little Winchester is awash with them.) We note suspected terrorists in Volvos and Cadillacs, jogging and guzzling wine, pushing baby carriages (one of the oldest terrorist tricks in the book), and rummaging through dumpsters. The bastards are everywhere--or so it seems to our paranoid group.
Actually, most of our suspicions are wasted on "ghosts" (code for "innocent citizenry"), but we aren't always wrong. Agents (I think) are working in concert with us as a proactive antisurveillant squad, and once we have eliminated them from the list of suspects tailing us, zoning in on the terrorists becomes easier. Feeling bad about my performance on the road track, I decide to try to demonstrate to my fellow students that I'm not a total putz by carefully analyzing the four pages of data in our log. My prediction: We will be attacked at the corner of Whittier and Amherst streets by two women and three men.
One hour later, that's exactly what happens: At the corner of Whittier and Amherst, a car pulls out as a roadblock, and we are attacked by two women and three men.
Impressed only slightly, Brent will later comment, "Observation is a critical part of the game--but just be glad they didn't try to chase you.