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Hell on Wheels: Combat Driving
If you want to find out exactly what a car is capable of, there’s a breaking point your brain must get past. You’ve got to get the car going faster than your brain wants it to go. That breaking point is where I am, thanks to the combat driving instructor sitting next to me. I want the beat-up ’90s-era Ford Crown Victoria I’m driving to go faster, yet somehow I’m not making it happen.
“Press the gas pedal harder,” one part of my brain is saying.
“We’re going to die a fiery death!” says another part. “Why are you doing this? Don’t be stupid. We need to get out of here!”
But I press on. As we speed around the small, circular test track, the Ford starts to shudder and then go in the opposite direction of where I have the front wheels pointed. The instructor calmly explains that this is a result of what is called understeering. I can barely hear him over the sound of my brain screaming at me how dumb of an idea this is.
My instructor and I are at a civilian-run schoolhouse called Tier 1 Group (T1G), a huge facility in Arkansas just outside of Memphis, TN, that provides highly specialized training in combat driving and other special combat skills for the kinds of tactical units that go special places and do special things. The facility, which stretches across nearly 800 acres, is state of the art in every way, with top-of-the-line ranges, shoot houses, simulator complexes, sniper ranges and one stunningly challenging small-arms range that pushes shooters to their quick-fire limits.
The staff of instructors is filled with former elite operators, and the students who pass through include National Guard Special Forces personnel. Other attendees are often members of units attached to agencies that use letters instead of names.
The driving school portion of T1G, which teaches combat skills like high-speed maneuvering, close proximity driving and evasive driving techniques, is like a “Dukes of Hazzard” episode come to life, only with fewer Daisy Dukes and more guns. This is not your average convoy driving. The select Guard Soldiers who get the chance to come to a school like this come away with a unique set of tools in their tool belt—the kind of skills that can make a difference in environments that elite units like Guard Special Forces find themselves in. One of those tools is the ability to get your brain to accept—and embrace—split-second actions that would seem illogical and even insane to the average person.
Like all of the training at T1G, the driving school courses are customized for each unit and feature scenario-based events. In this case, examples include evading ambushes, responding to contact, or running motorcades to and from high-value target operations.
“Each [course] is individually tailored for the client,” says Chad Morman, the driving school program manager. “So if somebody wants to do a specific type of shooting, we’ll put that into a course. If they want to do driving in [to an objective area], we can put that in. Before clients come here, we sit down with them and say, ‘Here’s what we can do,’ and then they pick and choose bits and pieces of our training to tailor their time here.”
Chad has a military background, but like many of the instructors here, he can’t tell me exactly what he did. “I was in the Marines for a while, and then I did something else,” he says. When pressed for even some general info, he adds, “It was something overseas.” And his unit? “It was one of the ones that has an acronym.”
BEYOND THE EDGE
Combat driving is an extraordinarily specialized skill. The average Soldier might not ever have the need (or privilege, really) to fly around a corner at 45 miles an hour with tires screaming. But in today’s asymmetrical battlefield, units like the Green Berets are performing missions far from what we used to call “front lines,” often in civilian vehicles, and usually in urban environments. The Soldiers in those roles need to be able to react to any situation.
To train for that here, they must practice ignoring that mental breaking point, which is the same self-preservation feeling you get standing in the door about to jump out of a perfectly good airplane. Same with Army combatives, or survival school—part of the benefit of these schools is that you get the chance to learn what it takes to convince your brain to make the jump, or fight off the choke, or mash the gas pedal, even when your instincts are screaming at you to stop.
My instructor, who I’ll call Bob, long ago mastered that mindset. He doesn’t just know driving—he also knows what it takes to succeed as a Green Beret. He’s been here at T1G since 2007, and before that was in the Guard’s 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne). “I originally joined the Reserves to get into SF,” he says. “But back then you couldn’t go straight into it.” Instead, he joined as a tank turret repairer, deployed to the Persian Gulf War, and then joined SF when he had the required rank, spending 15 years as an 18B weapons sergeant.
I’m calling him Bob because he gave me three different names while I was at the school, and I’m not convinced any was his real one. Bob is probably in his mid-40s but is thin and fit enough in his tactical pants and T1G windbreaker that his age is hard to nail down. Like lots of other SF Soldiers I’ve met, he’s also the kind of guy who is comfortable living in a world of misinformation.
I get the feeling sometimes when I’m dealing with guys like him that they lie (well, let’s say . . . mislead) on purpose as a kind of exercise. Doing their job well, after all, requires them to be good at maintaining informational superiority, and that’s a skill that’s sharpened with practice. I think you can take Bob out of the Special Forces, but you can’t take the Special Forces out of Bob.
You can tell he likes his job by the way he talks about it. “My favorite part of being an instructor here,” he says, “is being able to pass on a lot of the things I’ve learned, both from my experiences and from being here at T1G that I didn’t know when I was in [the military]. There are a lot of things I learned after I got out that would’ve been good to know. So it’s nice to be able to pass those things on.”
Morman says the staff’s backgrounds are important. “Our instructors range from Marines, to U.S. Army Soldiers, to even Coast Guard. But they were all in specific units like infantry, SF, or units with even more specialized skills.”
RUBBER MEETS ROAD
Before I got behind the wheel of one of T1G’s cars myself, I strap myself into a beater car (they have dozens of them here) with Morman at the wheel for an exercise called close proximity driving. “Usually this is the culminating exercise after several days of training. It’s pretty demanding,” he says, which turns out to be a wild understatement. Students going through the course would use this exercise to test out all the skills they’d learned together.
There are five cars on the track including ours, all driven expertly by T1G instructors and staff. We start out in a formation with three cars straight across in one line, with the remaining two tucked behind the right side of the front line. We start around 35 mph, and as we drive, Morman calls “Rotate!” over the radio every few seconds. When he does, all of the cars reposition themselves counter-clockwise in our formation.
The car on the far left of the front line brakes hard, the two remaining front-line cars shift left, and the car in the right position of the back line accelerates sharply to take the empty first-line slot. Sometimes Morman calls “Rotate!” right in the middle of a curve. As we drive, the speed increases and the break between rotations shortens. Eventually, rotations are almost constant, occasionally being called out even before the last one is complete.
At 35 mph, this is fun. By the time we get to 50 mph, the cars are skidding wildly around corners (yet surprisingly always in control), producing the noticeable odor of actual burning rubber. Upping the pucker factor is the fact that the purpose of this exercise is close proximity driving. That means this all happens with the cars between 6 and 12 inches apart. And by that I mean, “Sometimes zero inches apart,” as our car careens off the one next to us several times. No big deal. About every other lap, one of the cars gets pushed into the dirt surrounding the track and has to recover.
“That’s one of the skills we teach—it’s called an off-road recovery,” Morman says. Then, with a chuckle, he adds: “That’s one of the reasons you’re sitting there and I’m sitting here.”
A perfect example of what sets T1G apart—and makes it all the more effective—develops when Bob gets a flat tire. We can all hear the thump-thump of the deflated rubber beating itself to death on the rim and wheel well, so Morman radios to say we could stop the exercise.
“No, it’s fine—let’s go another lap,” Bob radios back. By the time his car rolls to a stop a few minutes later, with sparks flying from the meeting of pavement and rim metal, there is nothing left of the tire but flapping scraps of rubber, and a rim bent to hell. Bob is unfazed. “Well,” he says, “it kind of wanted to drift on me when I was going around corners. But only when I was trying to turn right.”
No big deal. T1G’s full-time mechanic, who was one of the drivers for our exercise, jumps in the vehicle, limps it back to the nearby maintenance yard and returns about 10 minutes later with a replacement beater car.
These are the same kinds of exercises that T1G students experience. While Bob is waiting on his new vehicle, Morman (right) describes how a regular group of students going through a T1G program would be taken through several days of instruction and a series of exercises, each adding skills building on the last. They start with the easy stuff, like how to handle vehicles at high speed, and build up to things like what to do when you’re completely missing a front tire.
Many of the exercises take place on the 2.6-mile improved track we used for our close proximity exercise. The track is like a full-sized go-kart track—just over three cars wide, with winding turns over and around small, manmade hills. Its 2,800-foot straightaway doubles as a runway for small aircraft (many agencies send air support as part of their training teams). The track can also be used as a live-fire range, with berms placed strategically around the perimeter. On one side of the track is a small, circular track that we’d use later to practice steering around turns.
For off-road driving instruction, T1G has a 10-acre live-fire wadi, which is basically just an open sand pit playground for off-road vehicles that also can be used for live-fire exercises; a 1.6-mile rally-style dirt track; and a 6-mile off-road track with multiple manufactured obstacles designed to put SUVs and HUMVEEs to their ultimate test.
After a few more laps, we head to the rally track so Morman could show me what an off-road vehicle can do in the hands of a highly trained professional. After having spent the last half-hour hoping not to die during the high-speed rubbing and racing, the rally mode of transportation was a relief. Here, we are in full “Dukes of Hazzard” mode. It had rained in the morning, so when the back end of the car swings around the curves and Morman guns the stock Jeep Cherokee engine, we sling mud at least 15 feet in the air behind us.
Morman explains the mechanics of what he’s doing, but the subtleties of how vibration affects steering and acceleration are lost on me. It’s just fun. I did hear him say something about how we could easily flip the vehicle if we drifted too hard into one of the ruts that dot the course, but my life had been in his hands all morning and he came through for me, so I mostly just shut up and geek out as we spin around each hairpin turn.
Morman removes any doubt about the fun factor of the training they do here when he lets out a huge laugh after we catch a little bit of air at about 35 mph over a hill and splash into a puddle that was growing larger the more times we slid through it. “I’ve probably run this course a million times,” he says. “But it’s never stopped being fun.” We run a couple of more laps. Just’a good ol’ boys, never meanin’ no harm ... No Boss Hog to be found. Yeehaw.
EMBRACING THE CHAOS
After the dirt track demo, we head back across the T1G complex to the slick track where I got my aforementioned chance behind the wheel. As we make the five-minute drive, it isn’t hard to imagine the best of the best training here, as the wide-open landscape is dotted with just about every training environment you can think of. A huge sniper tower rises above the horizon in the distance. An obstacle course stretches out along a half-mile or so of the range road.
We drive by the 15,000-square-foot barracks complex, which houses over 300 personnel. That streamlines logistics for units that would rather spend their time shooting stuff than driving to and from a hotel.
All these on-site facilities give T1G a huge array of training possibilities, and the op-tempo that units get with the plug-and-play, customizable training plans helps T1G attract top-level units. “There’s no hurry up and wait here,” Morman tells me as we pull up to the slick track. “Because we have so many different capabilities in-house, we can throw so many things at these guys and keep a higher tempo than any regular military training.”
About 10 minutes into my driving exercise, I finally break through my self-preservation instincts, and we are spinning around the tight, circular track. The sprinklers they use to wet down the track leave a few large puddles that regularly splash enough water to blot out my whole windshield. My head drips with sweat from clinging to the steering wheel while centrifugal force presses me against the door.
Bob has me spin the car out on purpose a few times to get a feel for it, then we practice listening to what the car is telling me. When it starts going a different way than where I’m pointing the wheel, I take out some of the turn angle and we point back in the right direction. When the back end starts swinging toward the outside of the turn, I put in even more counter steer, which puts us in drifting mode. By now, the feeling of terror has been replaced by extreme concentration and sheer adrenaline rush.
Just when I’m getting the hang of it, Bob has me stop so he can slide to his left on the bench seat and throw his leg over the transmission shifter and onto the gas pedal. Now I can’t cheat by letting off the gas when the car starts to shiver. He would work the gas, and I would do my best to keep us on the pavement. After that, for every four or five laps I make it around the track successfully, we spin off out of control on one. Despite my sweaty head, I’m sad when it’s over.
The whole thing is an exercise in vehicle awareness and muscle memory. I walk away from the experience having a much better feel for what it’s like to be in and out of control of a vehicle—and if I’m ever in a high-speed chase, I’ll be much better prepared.
Bob says having a wide range of tools like the kind they teach here makes an effective Green Beret. These skills, combined with the wide range of knowledge Guard Soldiers bring to the fight, make them exceptionally capable.
“What Guard Soldiers have is that they bring skills outside of the normal SF Soldier,” Bob says. “You have [people who] in their civilian life get law enforcement training, or fire department training, or they’re a banker—they are a little more versatile in what they can do.”
The Guard SF banker he references is a real Soldier Bob deployed with during a humanitarian mission to Haiti. “At the time, the whole country’s financial structure was pretty much destroyed,” he says, “and 20th Group happened to have a bank president who was one of our SF guys. He pretty much set back up [the whole country’s] banking system. Nobody else would’ve had any idea how to do that.”
Training opportunities like combat driving here at T1G give the new generation of Bobs another specific skill that makes them a more well-rounded Soldier. Like banking, it’s one that might not be used often, but when it is, it can be a difference maker. Guard Green Berets bring these tools with them wherever they go, at home and around the world.
Just don’t expect them to tell you about it if you ask them.
What is T1G?
T1G is a multidiscipline training site that provides world-class facilities and instruction to some of the most elite military and law enforcement units in the world. It’s available for rental or as a fully staffed, turnkey training facility with instruction included. For more information, go to T1G.com, or call 866-496-9916. It offers units the following features:
Military training modes:
+ On- and off-road driving
+ Pre-deployment and pre-mission training
+ Weapons and tactics training
+ Operational medicine
+ Convoy operations
+ Urban assaults
+ Personal security detail
+ Direct action
+ Sniper operations
Driving tracks: Improved road high performance track, off-road obstacle track, off-road rally track
Ranges: 8—indoor and outdoor, not including shoot houses
Middle Eastern Military Operations Urban Terrain (MOUT) site: 30 live-fire acres, with 15 buildings complete with breachable entrances
Noise avoidance: 24-hour operations available, with no noise or aviation restrictions
Simulated large munitions for training
On-site medical staff for training and treatment needs
All necessary support functions available on site: laundry, dining, convenience store, Wi-Fi, etc.
Lodging: barracks facilities to house and support 300-plus personnel
T1G DRIVING PROGRAM
What it is: Operating motor vehicles at their maximum speed, maneuverability, and/or off-road capability.
Who does it: Special Forces (including Guard) operators, U.S. Army Rangers, private security details, Department of State contractors, Tier 1 units like Navy SEALs and Army Delta Force
T1G driving courses:
• Mobile Force Protection—maneuvering and responding to threats in transit
• Tactical Operators Course (TOC)—vehicle operation for security personnel, including barricade breaching
• Executive Protection Driver—builds on the TOC course, adding close proximity and formation driving
• Motorcade Operators Course—communications skills, high-speed convoy and escape procedures
• Off-road Techniques—learn and practice traversing obstacles in a Humvee or civilian vehicles
• SOF Protection and High Risk Driver Course—a demanding course with multiple training events focused on special ops tasks like vehicle commandeering, personal force protection and counterterrorist operations