I wake up: bright light. Something is in my mouth: Food; McDonald’s; hash browns. The familiar white paper bag lying on the passenger seat with some spent ketchup’s. I see a Fire station. Camarillo Airport. OH GOD I feel nauseous. How did I get here?
Rewind back two days. 7am on the graveled lot crowded with oxidized cargo containers, here to attend the Bobby Ore Stunt Driving School. As I approach the group of men menacingly smoking cigarettes in the rain I am welcomed to the experience with a smile and a “who the fuck are you” by the man himself, stunt legend Bobby Ore.
He’s about as accomplished a driver as they come. He’s raced formula 1, Formula 2, NASCAR, Le Mans, SCCA, Pro Stock, and Funny Car dragsters. Beyond the contributions as a stunt man to numerous films, he’s trained actors including Nicholas Cage (Gone in 60 Seconds) and Johnny Knoxville (The Dukes of Hazzard). He holds thirteen world records including driving a double-decker London Bus 810 ft on two wheels. I see why this old rooster is so cocky.
We are seated in a trailer listening to Bobby run through our introductory briefing with equal measures of locker room hilarity and vulgarity. Mr. Ore would make the world’s most cantankerous father-in-law but explains the good ole boy basics of stunt driving – the car, its tires, disengaging airbags and switching off of any traction controls – with supreme confidence and informality. I’m expecting at some point to have to complete at least one task with a wild mountain lion in the car.
The group is compromised of Kris, an early thirties video gamer; Trip, a young kid from Virginia who came to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a stuntman; Michael and Todd, two middle aged actors (and best friends) who came to learn another skill they can put onto their CVs; and Gary, a Ford employee who’s mom and wife jointly bought him the course as a birthday gift. With the exception of the young kid, no one has any exceptional driving experience or the balls to tangle with Mr. Ore verbally.
We all jump into our assigned vagina-repellent stock Ford Escorts and make our way to one of the disused sections of the runway at Camarillo airport. Bobby and his very capable staff whip us through the coned course at breakneck speeds, handbrake skidding 180s through tiny gaps, driving backwards at high speeds only to be whipped around and eventually coming to a rest in a coned box with inches to spare on all sides of the car. Impressive. Bobby Ore is the Bruce Lee of precision skidding and we have just entered the dragon.
We spend most of the first day with our partners driving through a coned course training ourselves to shuffle the steering wheel through our hands at the 4 and 8 o’clock position – always looking through three cones down the course or through the turn. Shuffling the steering wheel goes against everything I’ve been taught but we’re told this is the Ore manifesto and it will work for us in the end. By sunset ‘Team Skidmark’ (Krist, the long haired gamer and I) feel extremely confident we know the course inside and out.
As I make my shaky entrance into the driver’s seat on day 2, I feel like it’s going to be unpleasant trying to get the car through the cones. Kris looks apprehensive. It’s only when Bobby announces we are to do the course “backwards” do I turn my head and start to perspire. Then the final blow: “only using your mirrors”. I faint a little. I’d love to see Bukowski try this. Sure, anyone can steal a cadaver from a morgue hung-over, but a coned course backwards with a .99 blood alcohol level is unfeasible feasible and most impractical at 30mph. The rest of the morning is a near shamble and Bobby had not given me a little tip about using your mirrors as markers, which actually made the backwards thing possible, I would have just bolted across the runway North by North style and never returned.
At lunch I restore vital boy fats with a tri trip barbeque sandwich as the group gets acquainted. Trip just moved his dreams to California via U-haul from Virginia. With a real backup plan his goal is to become a stunt driver in the movies. U have to admit he’s by far the best on the course but next month’s rent is looming. I imagine Hollywood’s food service industry will exploit his talents for a while before his blurred appearance in Fast and the Furious 9. The two actors, whom we have nicknamed “a night at the Roxbury” tell us they were watching TV one afternoon and an Audi commercial showed a car sliding sideways into a parking space. Inspired, they thought stunt experience would allow them to “cut the middleman.”
Our afternoon is spent getting very accustomed to the handbrake. Every turn is approached with speed. The handbrake is pulled and the steering is only marginally adjusted and held in the direction you want to turn. Example: left turn, pull handbrake, turn steering wheel with left hand from the 10 o’clock position to the 8 o’clock position and wait. Eventually the back of the car will feel light and slide around as if the wheels have been buttered and the car will be pointed perfectly in the direction you want to go. By the end and with the help of Bobby’s two instructors (one of which we have nicknamed ‘Sandals of Speed’) we have all had a few hours to try to master the box parking which is a complicated maneuver used to slide your car sideways into a parallel parking spot. Everyone’s elated from a day of self-regulated burnouts. I drive back to LA for the night, eternally grateful to my hangover’s midwife and team partner Kris for getting me through this grueling day.
Day Three – test day
The group spends most of the morning running through the course and surprisingly everyone seems to be getting the hang of it. Trip is making it look effortless and the rest of the crew is hitting the turn perfectly at least 8 out of 10 times. Bobby pulls his big blue SUV roadside like a volcano intently watching as we sacrifice one virgin after another before him. His style of teaching is not for the sensitive. He growls at you when you screw up. Gary, the guy from Ford said, “Bobby is one of those guys: tough and crotchety. At least, that’s what you’re supposed to think. All the lecturing and yelling was for us, not at us. If we would just listen and look at the damn cone, all would have been great. Instead we don’t trust ourselves, the cars, or even the instructors. As frustrating as it was at the time, his stern voice meant we would try harder.”
By lunchtime we are having fun with it. The Roxbury guys are bobbing their heads sideways in unison before they hit the course. We become pretty competent and are completing the reverse 180s and the box parking every time all the while laughing, and taunting the other cars.
Finally it’s test time. One of our two female stunt instructors, Olivia, confides that we have become the A team as nerves have unsettled Trip and Gary – team ‘Spaghetti and Meatballs’ who have been making us look bad the whole time. Like in tennis, it’s easy to volley the ball back and forth like Sampras but when the game is on -- your ego arrives wearing silver sequined jumpsuit and confidence becomes poisoned.
Our objective is to drive the entire course without touching one cone in less than two minutes. This includes a few 180 handbrake turns though two cones, two parallel box parks and a reverse 180 into a box. Trip is up first. We watch as he flawlessly whips his ford though the ballet. Then, in the last maneuver, disaster strikes. His car comes to a halt with the rear edge inches outside the box. He parks it and walks off with a ledge of tears in his eyes. I’m next. In my mind I visualize my victory over this young punk. All goes well until I approach the last box knowing that I’m an instant from Team Skidmark victory. There is a split second of excitement and doubt and I too manage to slide out of glory’s hole. Arghh! One by one the entire class manages to fail behind Trip and me. Just as we think we are now all going to be sent home, Bobby decides we deserve another chance. This time one by one the entire with the exception to Ford Gary and I manage to claim victory. Trip exists the car and shows me his shaking hand.
At this point everything becomes internalized as I try and cope with my profound defeat. I cannot fathom how I missed out. Me – the one with more driving experience than anyone here. I’m reminded that victory is not only performance and courage, but also the composure to remain serene under pressure. Defeat humbles all.
Lunch arrives in the form of tacos and the group is given a choice to either move on with their course after lunch or let us be tested one final time. Graciously they forgo some of the afternoon’s precious drifting lesson to give us another shot. Gary and I spend our lunch period on the track. I try to remain focused as I watch Gary repeat his mistakes and rake his hair in frustration. I’m sure he’s doing the same with me. Every run is perfect until the final reverse 180 into the box. Every time I get nervous and come off the gas too early, too late or look away from my marker and the car doesn’t stay in the box.
Finally it’s time for the re-test. Gary goes first. His driving looks nervous and slow. There is just enough momentum to slide the car around the cones before he races off toward his next target. Final box – he’s made it.
Hmm. The guy whose wife and mother chipped in for his course has just “schooled” me. I’m now referring to myself as Michael in my inner dialogue. This is it. Sink or swim. I know the rest of the course so well that I look through it to my nemesis – the final box. I breathe deep, visualize my car in the box and step down on the accelerator. I sweep through the course. The car stops once as I prepare for the reverse 180. “Take your time.”
I feel the whole class watching. OK. Select reverse. Find a marker in the right side mirror. Breathe. I accelerate to about 40mph. Throw the steering wheel three quarters of the way around instantly put the transmission into drive, all the while keeping an eye on my marker as the front of the car swings around before getting on the gas. Then my target comes into sight. I place my right hand onto the hand brake and aim the car toward the right side of the box. Ten yards away I pull the handbrake and steer the car slightly left into the box. Time freezes. I look out at the group and wait for Sandals of Speed to give the verdict – IT’S IN!
There comes a point in any night out where you have to decide either to have “one more drink” or be a good boy and go home so that you will be good for the following day’s trials. Arriving at the office of a little green behind the gills, stinking of rum, to hide your laptop watching YouTube is one thing but spending a day on a track initiating complex driving maneuvers was one of the truest tests of my life and one would not wish upon any enemy or any rambunctious frat boy. I have since learned that had Bobby known of my condition I would have also been thrown out of the course. We all make big mistakes and I’m hoping that my future holds no more tests of this magnitude. As for Bobby I would be honored to have him as a father in law and I couldn’t have asked fro a nice group of people to take the journey with. In the end I wondered out loud to Kris about where we are going to show off our skills. He replied, “I’m already impressing the hoes all over town! Not really… I don’t really think most girls would give a crap. Probably think I was a loser… Oh wait, that already happens when they find out I play and make video games.”