STUTTGART, Germany - Years ago, Soldiers here simply called it "the race track." It was an oval-shaped dirt course inside the Local Training Area, lined with old tires and enough bumps to rattle drivers from head to toe. For those stationed in Stuttgart, it was the place to learn how to off-road.

But with much of the U.S. military now deployed to the rural corners of Iraq and Afghanistan, off-road driving has become just as critical in a Soldier's toolbox as shooting a rifle.

"A lot of Soldiers have never done any off-roading before they joined the Army," said David Shaffer, Stuttgart's range manager. "Then all of the sudden they're thrown behind the wheel of a two-ton truck."

Last year, the ad hoc "race track" became the first advanced mobility driver's course in the Army. It was a project funded by Special Operations Command Europe at a cost of $1.5 million. Gone are the old tires, but the bumps still remain.

Now, Soldiers face a quarter-mile course of imposing obstacles with names such as "Florida Swamp," "Sand Box," "Lonely Hump" and "Rock Garden."

For the most part, Soldiers train on three types of vehicles: Humvees; four-wheel drive pickups, known as nonstandard tactical vehicles; and quads. Regardless of the machine, the course is hardly a Sunday drive.

"Out of all the training that we do - jumping, shooting, fast roping out of helicopters - the most injuries I've seen are on four-wheelers," said Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Whitty of 1/10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). "You got guys who overestimate their abilities real quick out here."

Last year, Whitty and his team spent seven months operating in a remote province in Afghanistan. There was one paved road in the entire region, recalled Whitty, and outside that, it was "four-wheel drive on both sides. If it rained, it was almost impossible to get anywhere."

A report published last February in the Defense Transportation Journal described driving conditions in the remote areas of Afghanistan - where many U.S. forces are currently located - as "extremely hazardous" with roads "sometimes little wider than walking tracks." In some cases, "stone riverbeds serve as roads for part of the year."

Whether it's sand, rock, mud or loose gravel, Stuttgart's off-road driving course mirrors many of the terrain features Soldiers might face while deployed. "It's better to get stuck here than downrange," said Shaffer.

For most Soldiers, learning the tricks of the wheel takes place in Mishawaka, Ind., where AM General, the company that created the Humvee, provides driver's training courses to Army personnel. A five-day class costs $1,050 per student, according to AM General's Web site. Factor in the list of TDY expenses for the week and having an advanced driver's course in your own backyard makes a lot of sense.

"It's just way more cost effective," said Whitty.

Consequently, the Army is in the process of opening five of its own driver's training courses within the next year, said Shaffer. Not only does "in-house" driver's training prove cost effective for the Army, but battle effective as well. Instead of just a five-day course, Soldiers can now spend more time in the driver's seat.

"If they are deploying to a place like Afghanistan, this is what they need to be doing," said Shaffer. "In some parts, you either go by donkey, or you drive over it." Given the two options, most Soldiers would prefer the wheel.

Overall, the Local Training Area is the primary training center for Stuttgart-based Soldiers. Besides AMC, the LTA consists of a military operations in urban terrain site; demolition range; M203 grenade launcher practice training round; a Nuclear, Biological, Chemical chamber; and various military encampments known as bivouac sites.

Stuttgart is home to several deployable units that train regularly on the 1,109-acre LTA, including the 1/10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), 554th Military Police Company and Naval Special Warfare Unit Two.