I’m looking out the windshield at half a dozen cars shooting trails of sparks out behind them. Like me, they’re oversteering and swerving like crazy, trying desperately to not spin out. Because, like me, they have no back wheels. I was hit so hard my helmet flew off. It’s absolute chaos. And it’s fantastic.
This is Skid Plate racing at Irwindale Speedway. I was lucky enough to be contacted by the very charming Doug Stokes, who offered me a chance to drive one of these crazy things in a race. Skid Plate racing wasn’t invented at Irwindale, but it was perfected there, largely thanks to Robert Rice, who’s the father of all this insanity out here. It’s spreading to other tracks as well, but at the moment, Irwindale is the Mecca of Skid Plate racing.
Let me just get this out first about Skid Plate racing: it’s an absolute blast, and by far the cheapest way to get into racing. It’s even cheaper than LeMons — you can come with nothing to the track, and $250 will get you in a car to race that night, and if you destroy the car, who cares. Where else can you get that kind of deal? If you have your own FWD shitbox with approved skid plates, it’s only $35. This is what everyone should be asking for their birthdays and whatever gift-taking holiday you’re sticking with your religion to take advantage of.
Here’s what makes a skid plate racecar: any crappy, end-of-life FWD car, four cylinder (you can run a six if you disable two cylinders), 1980 or newer. Nothing special there. What makes the cars interesting is that the rear wheels are replaced with these bare rims with flat plates of steel welded on them. These plates do two things well: slide around and shoot sparks. And, surprisingly, all the folks at Irwindale insisted that they’re actually good for the track. Really!
You can probably imagine what having zero grip at the rear does to a car: it makes it spin. Well, technically, it oversteers like a fish that flops out of a toilet onto a bathroom floor, but you get the idea. If you’ve ever driven on ice with spiked tires on the front and bald tires on the rear, or maybe in a car with cafeteria trays under the rear tires, you’ll sort of know what it’s like.
They’re almost impossible to drive in a straight line — the car wants to slide and crab at pretty much every speed (though those speeds are pretty low — 36 MPH or so is the track record for these), so driving these things is highly entertaining.
My particular car was a Toyota Camry, one of the XV10 series from 1991-1996. I don’t know the exact year because who gives a shit, it’s a Camry. But, this was my Camry for the night, and the first time I’ve ever been excited to drive a Camry. It was yellow, which is my car color of choice, and I was given a fat marker to give it Jalopnik livery.
I got a few practice laps in the Thursday before the race, and I’m not ashamed to tell you I was awful. I spun on pretty much every turn, and even in some of the straights. If I stopped spinning long enough to see my face, you would have seen a blurry combination of shame, disappointment, and concern.
How the hell was I going to even complete any laps on a track with 39 other sparking cars? Things didn’t look too good. Plus, to make things worse, I went to the practice session with a stunt driver friend of mine, and after a couple initial spins she was whipping around the track like it was nothing. She could have been texting and drifting all around that oval.
When I returned for pre-race practice on Saturday, something changed. I’m not really sure what happened, but somehow something clicked and I figured out how to mostly control these things. I was drifting around the track without spinning at all, feathering that throttle to let the car oversteer a bit more in the turns, and then giving it more beans to pull straight. Throttle control is the real key here — in my head I thought about it like controlling the ship in Asteroids: pulsing the thrust as needed, using the momentum. It worked.
What also helped was remembering this thing I read about some early Porsche race drivers who came up with this “sawing” method of cranking the wheel back and forth to fight terrifying oversteer in corners. I gave it a try and it actually helped a bit, and, more importantly, it opened up the idea of making a lot of little corrections with the steering to get control over the car, and it mostly worked.
That practice session was very good for me — those six or so laps let me figure out how to control the car, and, as a bonus, I got my first big hit of the night, so that took away that anticipation.
Still, driving on the banked parts of the track was like trying to shove a beanbag full of chili up the side of an empty swimming pool, and the most terrifying driving so far was coming off the track and trying not to hit any one of the line of beautifully restored Mustangs lining the narrow road to the track.
So, I felt better going into the race, but a practice session with half a dozen cars is a far cry from 40 maniacs on that track at once. Once that race got started, the view out the windshield was the sort of thing that would make any rational driver soak their clothes right through to the Earth's core. Spinning cars, sparks, cars heading right at you, sparks, car parts flying around, smoke, sparks, noise, smells, sparks sparks sparks.
You know how in Danté's Inferno he talks about there being a main city of Hell called Dis? This is what Dis' equivalent of the 405 freeway must look like at 5:30 on the Friday before Forced Labor Day weekend. It's absolute chaos.
My goal was twofold: not come in last and don't spin. I was focusing hard on keeping the car in control while going as quickly as I could manage, and all the while cars are spinning out in front of me, running into me, passing me then spinning out — it was incredible.
If someone spins right in front of you, the best bet is to spin yourself, to protect your precious front. You tap the brakes and around you go, way faster than you'd imagine. If you stalled, you have to restart and get back on and try not to get creamed on the way in. Sometimes you can accelerate your way through a spinning car by timing it sort of like a subway turnstile — I pulled this off a couple times, but mostly due to a combination of dumb luck and panic.
I got hit a bunch of times, of course. Most aren't too bad, but they usually will put you into a spin of your own. I was spun by another car once and the car behind me spun as well, slamming into me so hard my helmet flew off my head onto the floor. That moment all I could think was GET THIS GODDAMN HELMET BACK ON MY HEAD.
It felt like I was out there for hours cramming the helmet back on and getting the car to grudgingly start back up and scrambling back onto the track. It was only a few seconds, but race time is not like real time, as many of you know. I did get back out, and did manage to finish the race.
In the end, 28 out of the 40 cars managed to actually finish, and I came right smack dab in the middle — 20th place. I'm ecstatic with that result — it's far, far better than I ever hoped for, and if you asked me on Thursday how I thought I'd do, my answer would have been something between dead last and a flaming pyre/roadblock.
I loved every tense, insane minute of this inane race, and I can't recommend it enough to anyone who wants some aggressively non-serious time in a racecar. I think for the money it's more fun than karting, even, and the fundamental goofy nature of the whole thing keeps it from ever turning into a fun-sucking hyper-competitive genital-waving event.
It's just some of the most destructive, noisy, sparky fun you can have in a car. I want to do it again, and I hope to see all of you out there, spinning around, throwing sparks, and grinning like idiots.