Hagerty Driving Experience at COTA

Last weekend, Austin’s Circuit of the America (COTA) hosted the Hagerty Driving Experience. This event is a unique one that on paper would make people question the very nature of it. What the Hagerty Driving Experience does is give young drivers ages 15-25 a chance to learn how to drive a manual transmission in a vintage vehicle. To not only teach a skill that is rapidly fading away in this country, but also spark interest in the antique collector car hobby. To pass the keys on to the next generation of caretakers.

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Hagerty started doing these events in 2011, and has since helped over 1,500 young drivers learn the basics of driving a manual transmission. Doing their part to save the manuals! Future plans for the Hagerty Driving Experience is to branch out to Canada and UK-based offices.
I first saw this event on an episode of Chasing Classic Cars with Wayne Carini and thought it was a great idea. Getting a chance to see it in person (and drive some dream cars) felt like a great way to spend a Saturday morning.

Old Cars, Young Drivers

The cars that attended this event were some real beauties:
– 1968 Ford Mustang 289, 3-speed manual.
– 1967 Shelby Mustang GT350, 4-speed manual.
– 1959 Chevrolet Apache, 3-speed column shift.
– 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396, 4-speed manual.


Young drivers had a chance to get behind the wheel of each one and take it for a spin around the parking lot track. (How many of us can remember learning how to drive stick in an empty parking lot?) Before we got a chance to drive we had to go through a beginner’s course on the fundamentals of operating a manual transmission. Starting with what a clutch is and what it does. Then going through the procedures of starting a vehicle, pulling away in first gear, coming to a complete stop, and turning it off.
I was there as a journalist but I couldn’t help being excited about the cars. I had never driven an original Shelby or a big block Chevelle before. They didn’t disappoint. Even at parking lot speeds I was able to switch on these time machines by shifting down into second gear. My only desire was to use these former kings of the road and turn the parking lot into a Krispy Kreme conveyer belt.


When I explain this event to friends and family they all have the same reaction. “What? Kids learning stick in vintage cars? Those poor machines!” But there was no gear grinding at this event. Sure people stalled out. I stalled out the Chevelle because I didn’t give the big block enough gas. But there was no torturing of vintage iron at this Hagerty Driving Experience. Just the sound of push-rod V8’s with a faint smell of gasoline in the air.

 

The Keys to Freedom, App?

A study done by AAA in 2013 stated that less than 50% of new of age drivers got their license within 12 months of being eligible. In the survey, 29% of teens said they are “Just not very interested in driving”, and that one in three teenagers are waiting until they are 18 to get their license.
It’s easy for one to look at smart phones as a factor to the results of this study. Because now anyone with a smart phone, and internet access, can: order food, shop, find a date, watch TV, and order a car to take them anywhere. Growing up with that technology makes it easier for young people to see driving as just another part of adulthood, like shopping for health insurance or paying taxes.

Do Safer Cars Makes Worst Drivers?

Driving the 1959 Apache with its 235 straight six and 3-on-the-tree shifter was a thrill. Especially when I thought about how my father’s 2016 GMC Sierra drove in comparison. The evolution is the automobile over the last few decades is astounding. The Apache drove like a farm tractor that required my full attention and focus. My father’s truck rides like a leather sofa with a wheel in front of it.

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Technology has made cars and trucks safer than ever and incredibly intelligent. I’ve driven new vehicles that do all the hard work like braking and accelerating for you. Vehicles that guide you back into your own lane if you start to sway, and can parallel park themselves. Even ones that remind you to look in your backseat to make sure you aren’t forgetting something like groceries, a pet, or you know, a baby in a car seat. All great features that promote safety and innovation, but if you grow up driving these kinds of cars what kind of driver will you be?
One learns to be a good driver through experience. How to drive in bad weather, how to counter steer when the car loses grip, parallel park, maintain speed, etc. If all you know is safety features what’s going to happen if you need to drive without them?

The Future of Driving

My generation could witness the end of driving for necessity. However, it won’t be anytime soon. It’ll be decades before we see a world of completely autonomous vehicles that require no human dependencies to navigate traffic. Hopefully, when that day arrives  driving for leisure will take on an entire life of its own for those who want to partake. If fully autonomous vehicles are the future then maybe that’ll leave the open road free for anyone who still finds a thrill in pressing down pedals and turning a wheel.
I’m just grateful for programs like the Hagerty Driving Experience that keep on fighting the good fight to keep the art of driving alive.

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