BRAKES brings teen hands-on driving school to East County

In November, Lakewood Ranch junior Aidan Kelly was preparing to secure his Florida driver's permit.

A gifted student who is "serious" when it comes to learning the qualities necessary to operate a several thousand pound vehicle at high rates of speed, Kelly made one very important decision.

He decided he doesn't know it all.

While car shopping, Kelly saw an advertisement for the group, BRAKES (Be Responsible and Keep Everyone Safe), which teaches teens advanced driving skills. He went home, researched the group and then sat down with his father, Ed Kelly.

In the wake of a terrible tragedy, the one-car accident on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard on Oct 10 resulting in the deaths of Lakewood Ranch High students Brendan Shreve, 17, and Jared Duran, 15, Aiden Kelly wondered if those who ran BRAKES could be convinced to make a stop in the Lakewood Ranch area.

"We talked about it," Ed Kelly said. "We thought, 'Why not?' So I contacted them and they immediately committed."

Getting BRAKES, which has its headquarters in Concord, North Carolina, to clear a spot on the schedule was one task. Raising the $40,000 necessary to fund the two-day seminar was another. Ed Kelly began recruiting help.

Early in March, Kelly had received enough support to announce BRAKES would begin accepting sign-ups for four sessions of its driving school on May 21-22 at Bradenton Motorsports Park.

The four-hour instructional course is for teens, ages 15-19 who have a valid permit or driver's license. They need to have 30 hours driving time behind the wheel and at least one parent needs to take the course with them. The class is free, but a $99 deposit, which will be refunded upon arrival at the track, is required.

BRAKES founder Doug Herbert, a former NHRA Top Fuel driver, started the non-profit organization in 2008 after his sons, Jon (17) and James (12), died in an auto accident due to unsafe speed by Jon, who was driving. Doug Herbert vowed to bring education to teenagers in an attempt to stop similar tragedies.

"I wanted to teach teenagers about being more responsible," Herbert said. "I wanted to give them more skills. You know, teenagers really aren't scared of anything. They are smart, and they think they know everything. I wanted to make them realize there is a lot to learn about something that is a big deal."

Aidan Kelly might not have thought about additional training if his high school hadn't been jolted by such a terrible incident. But it was.

He was getting ready to take a trip with the school's color guard when he heard the news of the terrible accident on Lakewood Ranch Boulevard. "We were shellshocked when it happened," he said.

"Unfortunately, we get called to action because of tragedies," Herbert said. "Everyone is devastated. We want to do something to see if we can't keep another tragedy from happening. The biggest crime is not doing anything."

BRAKES will bring 25 staff members and 20 cars when it stages its hands-on driving courses.

"Everywhere we go, we see tragedy," said Matt Reilly, the BRAKES' head instructor who is a former NASCAR West Coast and Southwest Tour Series driver along with being a former instructor at the Bob Bondurant, Skip Barber and Jim Russell racing schools. "Every community across the country has some kind of story."

Reilly's story involved the death of his mother-in-law, Janet Bush, who was struck while walking across the street by a teen who was driving while texting. Reilly heard about Herbert's push to start a driving school and the two got together.

"We cried over hamburgers, and then said, 'Let's get this thing going,' Reilly said.

The goal was to take teen drivers above and beyond any kind of instruction they had received.

"Typically, kids don't want to be there because they've gone through some kind of driver ed program," Reilly said. "But after an hour, they are kind of overwhelmed, and at the end, we can't get the kids out of the cars. We're hands on and we put them behind the wheel. We simulate emergency panic situations.

"If they make a mistake, who cares? They spin out and hit a cone. In real life, they would be hitting someone."

The first hour of the four-hour course is classroom type instruction followed by three hours of hands-on driving. The program uses one instructor for every three students and also puts the parents in the car to drive as well.

"We've discovered the parents aren't as good (of drivers) as they think they are," Reilly said. "A lot of them don't know how today's cars work, and about the systems on board."

Reilly, who has instructed top NASCAR drivers such as Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Sr., and Bill Elliott on road course driving skills, said some of the students are nervous and apprehensive while others believe they are the next Jeff Gordon.

"They find they are not as good as they think they are," he said. "When they start, they are not tuned up to learn car control or what to do in emergency situations. We pop their bubble and it humbles them."

Aidan Kelly, who is 16, doesn't need to be humbled, but he understands he has a lot to learn, even though he has been practicing more than 30 hours with his dad while preparing to take his driver's test.

"There are a lot of things I haven't experienced that are dangerous," he said. "Like how to get out of a hydroplane.

"I think I make good decisions and my friends are pretty good drivers, but you can be as prepared as you like and if your brakes give out ... it doesn't matter."

In talking to his classmates about signing up for the course, Aidan Kelly said he has seen mixed reactions. Some think the class could be cool while others think it could be a waste of time.

Alan Chervitz, the co-owner of Bradenton Motorsports Park, doesn't think the program is a waste of time.

"We've had a few tragedies here," Chervitz said of the East County area. "So we're donating the facility. I know Doug Herbert is a first-class guy and this program is not just driving, but decision making. It will be fantastic for our community."

Chervitz noted the Christmas Day accident that claimed the lives of 18-year-olds Brett Wagner and Josh Rogers on State Road 64 in 2011.

"Our area is a lot more densely populated now and there are more distractions than ever," Chervitz said. "This is world-class education. I love what BRAKES is doing, making the parents be involved."

A parent of three himself, the 54-year-old Chervitz said he has a feeling every parent can understand.

"It's a gnawing feeling in your stomach every time one of your kids gets into a car," he said.

Reilly said parents have to get involved.

"I have three daughters who play sports and their coaches tell me by the time they are seniors, they will have 2,000 hours of training to kick a soccer ball. With (50 hours of supervised training in Florida) you can get a driver's license. Our message to parents is 'Give up the wheel and let your kids practice.'"

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