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School puts speedsters on snow

Scott Condon
Cars perform on the course of the Aspen Winter Driving Experience in Woody Creek on Wednesday. Aspen Times photo/Mark Fox.
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The fastest woman in Aspen is now making her services available.Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, is one of the instructors at a new winter driving school based at the Woody Creek raceway.She is working with Tom Dalessandri and Grady Olson, who launched the Aspen Winter Driving Experience this month. They dream of turning it into the pre-eminent school on the Western Slope for people who want to get better at driving on snow and ice.And if you think you don’t have anything to learn, think again.Dalessandri demonstrated his mastery of winter driving while whipping around the snaking, snow-packed 1.1-mile course in a Volvo S40 sports car then in a Land Rover Discovery. Both vehicles were loaned by the school’s prime sponsor, the Roaring Fork Centre of the Rockies.

Dalessandri guided the Discovery through some S-curves with the ease of a jewel thief working a convention of drunken heiresses. As the rear end of the vehicle started to slide, Dalessandri steadily turned the wheel the opposite direction of the curve – showing how that counter-intuitive maneuver actually straightened the vehicle quicker.While screaming along the track in the front-wheel-drive Volvo, Dalessandri goosed the gas enough to make the rear end slide out while negotiating a broad 180-degree curve, then he pulled up just enough on the hand emergency brake to straighten out the sporty car.When this reporter got behind the wheel for a brief lesson, it was enough to show a self-proclaimed “good” driver how much he could benefit from Dalessandri’s expertise. Sure he could putz around a corner safely, but when Dalessandri had him hit the gas, it was like throwing an Amish person in front of a PlayStation.Dalessandri didn’t want me to just make it around the track, he wanted me to recognize when to approach different types of curves in different ways in order to maintain speed as well as control on the ice. I entered one curve too tight and too fast, forcing the Discovery out into the snow on the outside and spurring the teacher to crank up on the emergency break to bring us out of a skid. The episode produced snickers from the otherwise quiet riders in the back.Dalessandri said the most common mistakes drivers make during winter are overcorrecting steering in a crisis and applying the brakes too hard to maintain control. Students work on both problems and additional issues at the Aspen Winter Driving Experience, which has a motto of “Thrills for a day, skills for a lifetime.”The school offers a half-day safety program for $250 and a full-day program for $450. Both will be offered through March 30.

While they are useful for all drivers, they could be ideal for youngsters just learning how to handle icy and snow-packed roads.In addition to the safety courses, the school offers half- and full-day performance programs that focus on skills used by world-class rally car drivers. In other words, those classes can be really fun. They can also be used as part of corporate team-building exercises. Students in the safety classes get to practice in front-wheel, rear-wheel and four-wheel drive vehicles to learn about their different handling characteristics. Then they will bring their own vehicles out to the track to apply their lessons.Dalessandri said the Woody Creek track, on a bench above the tavern, is a perfect place to practice because it mimics real road conditions so well. It has a straightaway and 10 or so curves of varying tightness.All three instructors have impressive résumés. Guthrie broke the gender barrier in 1976 by becoming the first woman to compete in a NASCAR super-speedway race. The next year she became the first woman to qualify and compete in the Indianapolis 500, the granddaddy of open cockpit racing. That same year she became the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500, where she was named the top rookie.Guthrie, a full-time Aspen resident, said the highest speed she ever traveled was 190 mph.



Dalessandri is the former Aspen assistant police chief and former sheriff of Garfield County. He’s taught numerous classes since 1987, including police pursuit and high-speed driving.Grady Olson is a 12-year sportsman racer and member of the Woody Creek track. He came up with the idea of leasing the track during winters and setting up the school.The Aspen Winter Driving Experience can be contacted at 970-433-9320 or through http://www.aspenwinterdriving.com.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com