LAUREL, MARYLAND — Protecting the president of the United States involves far more than being willing to step into the path of gunfire.
As part of their extensive training — ranging from firearms to first aid — all of the several thousand Secret Service agents and officers also have to learn how to drive.
The training, which takes place at a 550-meter (546-yard) track in the state of Maryland, goes way beyond the fundamentals of defensive driving. Among the techniques is the J-turn, in which the driver spins a reversing vehicle 180 degrees and quickly continues, facing forward, with brisk acceleration.
WATCH: ‘Beast,’ Bus, Motorcycles — Secret Service Has to Drive it All
For the Secret Service, this is part of “protective driving,” which has one goal: “Safely get the protectee out of the area — the ‘kill zone’ — and to move them to a safe location as quickly and expeditiously as possible,” according to Thomas Murach, Secret Service assistant to the special agent-in-charge.
Even after the completion of that five-day training, Secret Service personnel are not ready to get behind the wheel of the 9,000-kilogram (9.9-ton) armored presidential stretch limousine known as Cadillac One, or The Beast.
Anyone driving the president or vice president must have passed a separate, advanced five-day training known as the Protective Operations Driving Course, which has about a 60 percent pass rate.
“If an agent doesn’t pass the advanced course, they would continue normal duty and can try again at a later date,” according to Secret Service Public Affairs Specialist Julia McMurray. She added, “It’s not a never-ending cycle of attempts and fails. They can only go a few times.”
Motorcycles, mountain bikes
Another special course, considered just as challenging as limousine driving, is for the motorcycles, which roll with sidecars in better weather.
“It’s heavy. It’s almost like 900 pounds (400 kilograms),” explained motorcyclist and Secret Service Technical Office Lloyd Llamas about the agency’s big bikes. “And you’re running with two wheels. And they make you do things that you can’t imagine that you could possibly do with that.”
Those are not the Secret Service’s only two-wheelers. Agents and officers must also learn special techniques to ride bicycles.
They also are instructed in special techniques for all-terrain vehicles and even battery-powered golf carts.
Another unique Secret Service vehicle — and the only one the president is likely to ride that is bigger than The Beast — is a bus known as Ground Force One, last seen on the road during Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.
The roomy $1 million black bus, with 47 square meters of interior space, has a twin that was also used by the Secret Service to drive Obama’s unsuccessful general election opponent, Mitt Romney.
Different street types
Driving the president not only means getting behind the wheel in different types of executive transportation, but also different kinds of streets.
For example, different countries have various curb designs. So the Secret Service, at its training facility in Laurel, had part of one street built with two different types of curbs so that drivers of full-sized utility vehicles could learn how to properly run over them.
All of this drilling is meant to prevent a repeat of the Secret Service’s worst moment on Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas by a sniper’s bullet as he sat in the back seat of a Lincoln Continental open convertible.
That compelled a hardening of titanium plating, as well as a permanent bullet-proof roof for the car, which was used by Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, until 1967.
Formal training for Secret Service drivers didn’t begin until 1970.
The training techniques have changed as the vehicles have evolved — going all the way back to the 1939 Lincoln K-Series car, which was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s favorite ride.
Roosevelt’s 12-cylinder-engine vehicle had a retractable roof, allowing the polio-stricken president to appear before crowds without leaving the car. It also was the first to be significantly modified for the protection of a president, equipped with armor-plated doors, bulletproof tires, thick windows and storage compartments for weapons for the agents who rode along standing on extra-wide running boards and gripping exterior handles.
“In the past, we taught what’s called threshold-breaking. Or if your car didn’t have anti-lock brakes, you would bring the wheels to the point they’re almost locked up but not quite,” Murach said.
Some elements dealing with stability control were removed from the training, as modern vehicles are more stable. And tire technology has evolved with the rubber gripping much better nowadays on slick surfaces.
The Secret Service, which is under the Department of Homeland Security, protects not only the president and vice president, their immediate family members, and former presidents and first ladies, but also visiting foreign leaders and major candidates in U.S. presidential campaigns.
Successful candidates who end up getting a ride to the White House driveway quickly find out they can get anything they want as president — except the keys to the car.