WAMPUM, Pa. – At a racetrack north of Pittsburgh (search), the air is thick with the smell of burning rubber and overheated brake pads. Cars hit speeds of 100 mph, then execute 180-degree, sliding turns.
But the drivers squealing around the BeaveRun Motorsports Complex (search) aren't risking lives in the name of speed — instead, they're speeding to save lives, teaching people leaving for Iraq the skills they may need while driving in a war zone.
As government agencies and private security teams prepare people for deployment, business is booming at racetracks offering instruction on driving through roadblocks, past roadside bombs and away from fiery ambushes.
Analysts say it became clear early in the conflict that U.S. troops, contractors and members of the Coalition Provisional Authority (search) are most vulnerable while on the road.
That's increased the demand for training facilities that can teach drivers how to drive fast, drive hard and "Get off the X" — an imaginary box where insurgents have trained their most devastating fire.
"If not unique to Iraq, it is much more important" to have highly trained drivers, said Jack Stradley, managing director at the security firm Kroll Inc. "The insurgency has realized there are so many contractors and so many Western personnel moving around Iraq, it is easy and efficient to attack them as they move."
At BeaveRun, about 30 men, identified only as operators under the control of the U.S. State Department, were in the midst of an intense, three-day program in which mock attacks will be sprung and explosions detonated.
Later in the afternoon, they smashed through cars blocking a road — or, in the words of Don Barrack, the chief of training at BeaveRun, they "became the hammer on the nail."
All of the men training Monday will depart for Iraq this summer.
BeaveRun began high-risk driving instruction in the past year as classes reached capacity at Summit Point Motorsports Park of West Virginia, about 50 miles outside of Washington, D.C. Summit Point had offered about eight high-risk classes per month but now offers as many as 22 classes.
There have been spikes in enrollment during past conflicts, but the perception among many trainers is that classes will be full for the foreseeable future, reflecting a new reality.
"Given the conflict we have now, it's going to get worse, not better. That is the nature of this war on terrorism," said Cal Frye, chief operating officer at Virginia International Raceway.
Business at Crossroads Training Academy, which operates at tracks in Florida, Texas and Michigan, is up 40 percent this year and is expected to get better, said Jerry Yoakum, director of operations.
"We're definitely seeing a big influx as a result of the conflict," he said. "And the business is shifting from corporate to government and government contractors."
Virginia International opened its Safety and Security Institute in 2003. It features miles of different road configurations — gravel, off-road and paved — and also has a 360-degree firing range that allows students to jump from cars, fire a barrage and escape.
The biggest challenge is changing the mind-set of soldiers and security agents, both armed to the teeth, encouraging them to get out of an ambush site as quickly as possible instead of fighting it out, Barrack said.
BeaveRun and other facilities stage mock ambushes as part of the training, filling vehicles driven by CIA and special operations soldiers with a barrage of pellets from paintball guns.
Students get an idea of what can happen to anyone in a stationary vehicle under attack by assailants using even rudimentary weapons, Barrack said.
"You can get a bigger car, and they'll get a bigger gun — you'll always be the loser," he said as he accelerated out of a turn at more than 100 mph. "We're building a better driver, not a better car."