Tires were stacked floor-to-ceiling in an open trailer at Monterey County’s Marina airport, standing by for the several police cars weaving through cones on the tarmac.
Screeching could be heard in the distance. It was a slow-speed day, but there was still the chance of burning through a tire or two.
It was nothing compared to a high-speed day, when a class of around 40 recruits could wear out 50 tires practicing pursuit with Scot Smithee, driving instructor and captain.
“You figure about a tire a person, and that’s running them all the way down,” the 47-year-old captain said with a laugh.
Twenty-two years after successfully lobbying the city to add Ford Mustangs to its police fleet, Smithee has developed an international reputation as an ace driver. He has taught more than 7,000 students the basics of driving for law enforcement, including many Gilroy officers, but it’s his high-speed drift into a parallel parking space that has recruits clamoring for a spot in the passenger seat.
“That’s what people take videos of and tell their friends about,” he said, “You see a lot of this stuff in television and movies now, but you rarely see it in real life.”
Smithee, a captain for the past 10 years, fell in love with the high-performance driving he learned in police academy and became a Gilroy police traffic officer in 1987.
His patrol car, a Dodge Diplomat, was equipped with a high-tech radar system that could identify speeders moving in any direction. Yet, while the car featured some of the era’s best technology, Smithee said that the pedal-to-the-metal performance when catching traffic violators was disheartening.
“The horsepower of the car was such that, by the time I could get up to the speed the people were going, I couldn’t see them anymore,” he said.
After several disappointing experiences with the Diplomat, Smithee asked then-patrol commander Vern Gardner if the traffic unit could be beefed up with the faster Ford Mustang that was increasingly popular within law enforcement. The upgrade wasn’t immediately approved, but the traffic officer was allowed to experiment with a little help from the neighboring Morgan Hill Police Department.
“I don’t know how I convinced them to do this, but they lent me their Mustang for a week,” he said. “I actually worked traffic enforcement here in the city of Gilroy in a Morgan Hill Police Department Mustang.”
After listening to his presentation on the car’s benefits, the Gilroy City Council in 1989 approved the purchase of two Mustangs—and additional training. Smithee returned from that training with both an enhanced interest in driving and his certification as a driving instructor. He got a teaching credential soon after, returning to Gavilan as an instructor and attending even more advanced training sessions.
When the South Bay Regional Training Consortium, a network of public safety academies and instructors across five counties, started in 1994, Smithee went on board to help coordinate its driving programs.
A fellow consortium instructor, 49-year-old Dave Storton, readily admits that he and Smithee have reached a level of skill that few drivers will ever accomplish.
“When Scot and I teach together, we have this sort of non-verbal communication,” Storton, a police commander in San Jose, said. “I know what he’s going to do, and he knows what I’m going to do. We think alike.”
Smithee recalled one demonstration when he and Storton both executed high-speed drifts into adjacent parking spaces, stopping within inches of each other.
“We can pretty much reach the physical limit of a car,” Storton said.
Yet under the dazzling displays and smoking tires, Smithee, who has taught driving for 21 years, said each maneuver draws from the same fundamental understanding of traction management that students learn from the beginning.
At the Marina airport, aspiring SWAT officer and academy student Nick Ceresa said there are subtle components within even a simple technique.
“Some of this stuff is pretty hard, actually,” he said, pointing out the rows of cars practicing how to pull quickly into a narrow driveway.
“A car only does three things," said Smithee. "You can hit the gas pedal, you can hit the brake pedal and you can turn the steering wheel. But it’s the combination of those three things you’re doing that can cause the car to do what you want it to do—or what you don’t want it to do.”
Despite all of the practice, many of the maneuvers used during his classes will rarely make it to the street, Smithee said. Rather, learning to drive under extreme circumstances gives officers room to react in an emergency.
“When we’re on the track, I push people. But when it’s time to come back to work, we back way off,” said the captain. “If anything happens, I have all this skill left to respond to a problem.”
As Storton said, “When students come back to us and say, ‘Well, I was with my family, and the techniques you taught me saved them from some horrendous accident,’ that’s what makes it worth it to us.”