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Driving safely in dangerous locales

Dave Gengenbach runs a driving school, but the Grass Valley man’s clientele doesn’t include nervous teenagers learning how to handle a car while they master the rules of the road.

Instead, Gengenbach and the four other members of SODI Tactical teach Navy SEALS, Army Special Forces and other military personnel how to navigate their Humvees in potentially dangerous places, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. military fights its desert wars from Humvees instead of on foot, and SODI Tactical teaches military personnel everything from the mechanics of a Humvee to how to use it as a weapon.

The courses SODI conducts for the Defense Department at military bases and in remote areas of the West can run up to six weeks, depending on the size of the unit and the nature of its assignment.

Whatever the length of the course, the training will be realistic.

“We take them out of their comfort zone and push it to the limits,” Gengenbach said.

He has military veterans on his team to handle the live fire and tactical aspects of the training, but Gengenbach and his partner, Paul Patenaude, are the resident experts when it comes to driving a military four-wheeler with no interstate highway in sight.

“I’m really blessed,” he said at his south county home. “I get to do what I really love to do.”

He’s been preparing for the job since the age of 3, when, he said, he first dreamed of being an auto racer while growing up near Alta Sierra. He entered his first race a week after his 16th birthday and has experience on the NASCAR and SCCA Pro-Rally circuits.

Gengenbach got into the training aspects of driving when he attended the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving, then in Sonoma, and eventually became a senior instructor at the school.

While at the school, he trained executive chauffeurs, movie stunt drivers, and agents from the U.S. Border Patrol, FBI and CIA in high-speed driving tactics.

“There really is an art to teaching racing and high-performance driving,” he said. “You can be a really good race driver and a very poor teacher.”

Gengenbach got his graduate degree at the Rod Hall Off-Road Driving School. Hall, a well-known racer, eventually hired him as the school’s director of driver training.

He started SODI (Security and Operator Driving Instruction) Tactical two years ago because budget cuts had reached the point where, Gengenbach said, “the military doesn’t have people to teach these skills. The Humvee is an excellent four-wheel vehicle, but you have to learn how to drive it.”

While their base of operations is the Naval Air Station in Fallon, Nev., SODI personnel will travel wherever the military needs them.

Training includes all aspects of driving, including climbing and descending hills, avoiding getting stuck and how to extricate the vehicle if you are.

Because the troops will be driving in battle zones, there’s also plenty of training in skidding and ramming techniques, 180-degree turns, and escape and evasion.

Gengenbach also offers off-road driving instruction and tours for civilians, but his heart is in military work. “They are the best and brightest at what they do,” he said. “I feel honored to work with these guys.”

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Information on Dave Gengenbach’s off-road driver training and touring programs for civilians is available online at http://www.highmobilityinc.com.