Wall Township, NJ -- Always ready to brush up on skills I'll almost certainly never use, and bang cars into orange traffic barrels in the process, I spent a day at the Rick Seaman Stunt Driving School.
What the experience lacked in real-world application, at least for my current job as a journalist, it more than made up for in good old-fashioned juvenile fun.
This was school, though, so I couldn't help but learn a few things. Such as:
1. Cars that do all those slides and skids in movies aren't like the ones we drive in real life. They often have special safety cages and reinforcements to withstand impacts. In the cars I tried, the emergency brakes were altered so I could easily lock up the back wheels at any time. That's undesirable in daily life, but in stunt driving it's everything.
2. To learn how to do skids and spins, I memorized a sequence: Juice, E, Lift. When approaching a skid turn, I'd press the car's "Juice" brakes -- i.e., the regular brake pedal used for ordinary driving. That would slow the car a little and shift its weight forward onto the front wheels.
At precisely the right moment, I'd slam the "E" brake (those altered emergency brakes) to lock up the back wheels.
Then I would "Lift" off the "Juice" brakes to let the front wheels roll, giving me steering control.
From there, it was all about timing. I had to flick the steering wheel to one side at the right moment, throwing the back end out. I also had to release the "E" brake at the right time so the car ended up where I wanted. If I stayed on the "E" brake too long, the car spun around too far. If I let off it too quickly, the maneuver came off looking wimpy. BTW, there's not a lot of finesse in the "E" pedal. It's either on or it's off.
3. Tires are expendable. In the middle of the training lot, there was a huge pile of blown-out, torn-up tires. Stunt driving schools go through tires the way pre-schools go through crayons. I blew three during my lesson.
4. The Crown Victoria, a model Ford ( stopped making in 2011, will be missed. All our training was done in Crown Vics. There's nothing like quite them available in America today and probably never will be again. Popular with police departments and taxi fleets, it was a car built like a truck -- big, comfortable, and able to take abuse and keep coming back for more. )
Rare for an inexpensive car, the Crown Vic also is rear-wheel-drive. That lets stunt drivers -- and wannabes like me -- push the gas and spin the back wheels while maintaining steering control with the front wheels.
5. Stunt drivers are not insane. Yes, one instructor had once done a stunt where he set off explosives inside a car he was driving so it flipped up onto its nose then crashed down onto its roof. (He showed us the video to prove it.) Another told us about the time he drove a minivan through a window and out the second story of a mall.
But really, they're pretty sane. It's all about preparation and practice. If the car is properly prepared -- and the driver is properly trained -- the rest is all vehicular theater. The stunt driver's job is to deliver an exciting effect for the director and, by extension, the audience. And to be able to get into his or her own car and drive home at the end of the day.