Top Fuel Drag Racer Teaches Teens How to Drive Safely in Memory of His Two Sons
"We are trying to do something good to make sure another parent doesn’t get that call that I got."
A few years ago, I was at the Austin airport headed out for a work trip and I met Tony Schumacher, the winningest Top Fuel driver in NHRA history. He lives in Austin too, as it turns out, and was traveling with his kids.
We were talking about cars (of course) and he told me the story about how one of his fellow drivers lost his two sons in a car crash and how B.R.A.K.E.S., a national proactive teen defensive driving program, was born.
In 2008, Schumacher was at the track in Phoenix getting ready for a race when his friend and fellow drag racer Doug Herbert got a phone call. Schumacher remembers seeing Herbert fall to his knees as he absorbed the news that his two sons Jon (17) and James (12) had been killed in a car crash.
The crash happened because Jon was driving too fast (police estimated that Jon was driving 80 mph in a 45-mph zone) and he lost control. He slid across four lanes of traffic and hit a Hummer, injuring the driver and passenger inside. Jon and James died instantly, only a mile from home.
Once Herbert could process the loss of his boys and start moving forward again, he decided to start a program that would help teach teens how to be better drivers. And in the process, prevent other parents from receiving a similar phone call.
He started with Jon’s and James’ schoolmates as a way to connect with kids in his circle of friends, teaching them defensive driving techniques he wished his boys had learned. Teens even without a dad who drag races for a living often drive faster than they should, not understanding the ramifications of a bad decision and not having the crash-avoidance skills they need to prevent their own (and others’) demise. The kids came up with an acronym that stuck: B.R.A.K.E.S. (Be Responsible And Keep Everyone Safe).
“I started the program to teach my boys’ friends about being better drivers,” Herbert told me. “The sincerity and level of focus that we have built on this have made the difference. Other programs are businesses that are out there to make a profit. We are trying to do something good to make sure another parent doesn’t get that call that I got. That sincerity comes through.”
Herbert was determined for this to be a no-cost class for teen drivers so that anyone can participate, and that no one would ever be restricted from participating because of costs. “That’s why it is and will always be free,” he says.
He established B.R.A.K.E.S. as a GuideStar Platinum-rated 501(c)(3) non-profit, supported by Kia Motors America (which gives vehicles and support to the program) and several other corporate sponsors, donors, and grant providers like General Motors. Notably, 14-time NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle champion Terry Vance donated $1 million to Herbert's program in 2019. Herbert started out in his home state of North Carolina, and as of June, B.R.A.K.E.S. has taught more than 45,000 young drivers (and their parents get to join them) at sessions across the country. That's 10,000 more kids since the program's last milestone reported in 2019.
The instructors are pros, including current and former members of law enforcement, professional racers, and stunt drivers and the student-to-teacher ratio is three to one to keep a sharp focus. Herbert stresses that this is not a driver's ed class; it’s a hands-on advanced driver training program. The now-retired drag racer is committed to making the roads a safer place for everyone, updating the curriculum to adjust to ever-changing DOT statistics that provide detail on the causes of crashes. The current offering includes distracted driving awareness, panic braking, drop-wheel/off-road recovery, crash avoidance, and car control/skid recovery.
If you have a teen driver in your house, I’d highly recommend this course. There is a $99 deposit to keep the number of no-shows to a minimum, but that $99 will be returned upon request. What the organization has found is that many people, if they have the means, will donate the $99 to B.R.A.K.E.S. at completion. For those who can't get to one of the courses listed on the putonthebrakes.org site, there are a few others out there with similar goals, like Tire Rack's Street Survival program and Ford's Driving Skills for Life.
Whetever you do, don't rely on straight driver's ed classes to teach your kids strong defensive driving skills. A course like this could absolutely save their lives, along with others on the road.
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