Portrait: Drive, he said.

Hieu Tran teaches kids to navigate the streets of Sacramento.

By Bob Sylva - Bee Columnist
Published Sunday, October 29, 2006.

There are all sorts of places to learn how to drive in traffic-crazed Sacramento. Hieu Tran, who owns and chauffeurs a one-man company immodestly called Absolute Best Driving School, puts his kids through what is incontestably the toughest track in town.

The snarling south area.

Florin Road. Stockton Boulevard. Power Inn Road. Laguna Creek Boulevard. A pulsing, volatile molecule of sometimes mean streets, riven by the nightmare of Highway 99, whose crawling sea of vehicles jostling for any advantage can reduce a poor teenage driver to a puddle of tears and melted hair gel.

"If you can learn to drive out here," says Tran, laughing, "you can learn to drive anywhere. Here, there are lots of obstacles -- cul-de-sacs, U-turns, aggressive traffic, all kinds of cars, people driving without insurance."

"You take a place like El Dorado Hills," Tran scoffs. "There's nothing there. Nothing but hills, empty spaces and Mercedes-Benzes. Nothing to it!"

Absolute Best Driving School, which operates in good standing, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles, is located in an office complex on Florin Road whose tenants include a tattoo parlor, a nail salon, an Indian sari shop, a Hmong medical clinic.

Tran's office, his home away from home, is cluttered with chairs, a wipe board, DMV texts, a sampling of road signs, a set of tires, a refrigerator and empty pizza boxes. The walls are papered with class photos of his triumphant student graduates. Tran, smiling and flashing V-signs, appears in every photo.

Hieu (pronounced "Hugh") Tran is 28 years old. He is short, stocky, with a big grin, a friendly manner. He is wearing baggy plaid shorts and a T-shirt. "A lot of kids don't want to be taught by old folks," says Tran. "They think I'm funny. I crack a lot of jokes. I'm energetic. I'm constantly talking to them."

Tran, a refugee from Vietnam, is the youngest of seven children and was raised in a teeming apartment complex in West Sacramento. His single-parent mother worked as a housekeeper. "I was a scrawny kid," he says of his growing up. "Living in the apartment complex, I got into a lot of fights. There were bullies. I got into trouble. I skipped school a lot."

He weaved in and out of life's lanes, working in a warehouse, at a Round Table Pizza and as a security guard. Then, five years ago, he got a job as a driving instructor and miraculously found his place in the world's parking structure, so to speak.

Last year, after working at four different driving schools, plus teaching at a traffic school, Tran opened up his own driving school. Today, he works seven days a week, picking up his first sleepy pupil as early as 6 a.m., dropping the last one off at 11 p.m.

Tran puts his students through their paces in a shiny black 1998 Honda Civic, which is emblazoned with enough sayings to rival a NASCAR racer or a doomsday preacher: "Only Learn From the Best," "Superior Competitor, We Beat Anyone's Training," and "No One Can Beat Our Strategies, Techniques, Coaching Ability, Dedication & Passion, Guaranteed."

Unlike the sensible compacts used by most driving academies, which are mortifying to many teenagers, Tran's low-slung Honda is tricked out with shiny, 17-inch chrome wheels. "I watch them like a hawk," says Tran of his unnicked rims. "Those are my babies!"

Welcome to the hip-hop school of driving.

"The details," he says, when asked what distinquishes his approach from other driving schools.

"I teach you when to brake, when to gas, when to steer, how to change lanes," he says. "Whatever the problem is, we will work on it until you get it right. If you are having a problem making a U-turn, we will make 60 U-turns. If you are having a problem with parallel parking, we will parallel park 40 times."

Whatever you do, just don't scratch his chrome wheels.