His seat was upright, the mirrors were properly adjusted and the radio was turned off.
The 14-year-old Tracy resident gripped the steering wheel poised to navigate the track at Altamont Speedway, 17001 Midway Road, as one of the nearly 50 teen drivers who participated in the Get Real Behind the Wheel teen driver awareness event Sunday, Jan. 27.
“It’s definitely interesting, and I like it so far,” said Jack, who is also a student at Traina School. “I didn’t know how sensitive the pedals were until I pushed them for the first time.”
The awareness program was started in Tracy by Ken Ucci in the aftermath of his son, Michael, being killed in a car crash six years ago to the date Sunday. The 17-year-old was the passenger of his best friend, Bret Clifton, who was reportedly speeding on Lowell Avenue and crashed his parents’ BMW into the traffic signal pole in front of West High.
Michael was a junior at the school.
The crash also left Ucci’s daughter, Marie, paralyzed for several months. Clifton lost both of his legs.
On Sunday, teenagers ages 14 to 19 were allowed to drive around the speedway track through obstacles such as stop signs, merge lanes, four-way intersections and a standing pool of water.
These obstacles, according to Ken Ucci, are all designed to “increase the awareness of a teen driver and to teach them that driving is a responsibility, not a privilege.”
“This is great exposure for that young driver to experience the dangers of driving while they’re in a controlled environment,” he said. “It’s a good chance to get a feel for what kind of driver your teenager is going to become.”
Vehicles were permitted to drive up to 45 mph on the track. A parallel parking course and braking course — where cars speed up then brake suddenly — were also set up for teen drivers. Unlicensed teenagers as young as 14 years old are permitted to drive because the track is on private property.
Jack Petrin had just finished the braking course before he waited in the long line of cars to enter the track.
“Jerking forward was kind of a shock,” he said about braking. “There is really a lot of power in a car, and I didn’t expect that.”
Jack’s parents, Jim and Joan Petrin, rode with their son on Sunday, and dad was pleased with what he saw from the teen.
“He’s getting some of the good fundamentals down,” Jim Petrin said. “We wanted to teach him about driver awareness and make him understand that he needs to watch out for everything around him — even stuff coming up from behind. This is a good place to start teaching that, I think.”
Libby Brownrigg traveled from Brentwood to give her son, 14-year-old Evan, his first opportunity to drive.
The teen was “nervous” and “anxious” before entering the track. He had just completed the braking course
“I feel like it’s pretty fun, but the controls are really sensitive, that’s what I’ve learned,” he said. “This thing can stop pretty fast, and it’s a lot of power that’s pretty tough to handle.”
Evan Brownrigg hoped the practice and experience would benefit him during the test for a leaner’s permit, which is available to California residents at age 15 years and 6 months.
“I’ll know what to do, and I think this will make me better equipped to handle everything,” he said.
The teenager understood that Sunday’s program was about remembering Michael Ucci and learning from his tragedy.
“It will make me think more carefully and not give in to peer pressure,” he said. “I want to try and be safe when I’m out here.”
Prior to drivers taking to the track, a memorial service and moment of silence was observed by Ken Ucci for his son. The traffic pole that killed Michael was also present.
He emphasized that the driving program is also a chance for parents to enjoy time with their kids.
“Look around right now, there are kids and parents talking and laughing and having a good time with each other, good family time,” Ken Ucci said. “Yes, this program is about teaching teen driver awareness, but it’s also about bringing parents together with their kids in a place where they can spend quality time together.”
Get Real Behind the Wheel hosts the driving program on the third Sunday of each month at the Altamont Speedway.
• Contact Joel Danoy at 830-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.