When I was a teenager, my stepdad tried to teach me to drive his 1978 Toyota Corolla.
“You need to know how to drive a stick shift,” he’d say.
My teenage self did not heed this wisdom because I didn’t want to be associated with his little green monstrosity. It was dented, the paint was faded, and the car was prone to break down on a whim. I was unwilling to give up cool points in exchange for a valuable life skill.
Twenty-five years later, my youthful folly came back to haunt me.
For my 40th birthday, my wife was going to buy me a dream racing experience. I would have had the opportunity to live a life-long dream of driving fast cars around a race track. However, there was one big problem. All of the cars had manual transmissions.
My heart broke into a thousand pieces when I realized that I’d have to miss this chance of a lifetime. After this huge disappointment, I decided to remedy this situation. I considered buying a used car to practice with, but more pressing financial issues such as eating, paying the mortgage, and not being naked took precedent.
I also thought about asking my neighbor, who owns race cars, if I could borrow one of his vehicles. Considering I’ve hardly spoken to him in the 7 years we’ve been neighbors, my wife encouraged me to abandon that plan.
All of this leads us to my most recent dilemma. I accepted an invitation to a Ford Eco-boost Challenge. As a car enthusiast, I like to participate in car-related events. I figured that I’d drive a few hybrids, talk about cars, and hang out with a few local gear heads.
But this event had another component that took me by surprise – the opportunity to race the new 2014 Ford Focus ST.
There was one big problem. All of the cars had manual transmissions.
My heart broke again as a looked longingly at the race track. But I would not be denied another opportunity to drive fast cars around a race track. I decided that this was the day I would learn how to drive a stick shift.
I marched over to the racing instructor and explained my dilemma. She was sympathetic and promised to have me zipping around the track in no time.
We commandeered a blue Focus ST and hit the road. The driver took me for a few “hot laps” before giving me my driving lessons. Riding with a professional driver is an exhilarating experience. She drove the car to it’s limits and gave me some practical tips along the way:
1. Pull the seat up so that your knees are slightly bent when you press the brake all the way down.
2. Keep your hands at 9 and 3 for maximum control of the steering wheel.
3. Keep your elbows close your body.
4. Hold the steering wheel gently. People have a tendency to hold on too tight.
5. Maximize your vision by using all of your windows.
I was champing at the bit to get behind wheel.
“Are you ready to give it a try?” asked the driver as she pulled into the pit.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” I said.
The track was designed for maximum performance in second gear. All I had to do was get the car from Park to second. That was easier said than done.
I struggled to shift smoothly on my first couple of laps. My instructor was patient and helped me to make smooth transitions. By the fifth lap, I was shifting like a pro (in my mind at least). My confidence increased with each lap and I drove faster each time. I’d probably still be driving laps if the pro hadn’t decided to shut it down after about a dozen.
It was an unforgettable moment. I walked away from that experience with a not only a new skill, but also an understanding that it’s never too late to live your dreams.