I'd learned how to steal cars, but to survive I’d better learn a little more about driving them, which is why I was on my way to the Rick Seaman Stunt Driving School, aka the Motion Picture Driving Clinic, at Willow Springs Raceway.
I found the school, nestled into some hills on top of a giant mesa, the ground covered in scrub and sand. I drove through to the back toward a small track. A variety of vehicles littered the lawn, so I knew I was in the right place; they looked like smash-up derby contestants, with dented, colossal hoods, built in the late 1970s or early 1980s when American cars were solid.
Rick Seaman greeted us warmly, a barrel-chested man with gray hair and a ball cap. He was what a stunt driver should be: Vietnam vet, rough growling voice, deep war chest of stories, thick bristle mustache. His school was a pretty serious operation. He not only had cars for us, he had a crew of stuntmen and -women, more than one for each of the students. The crew worked quietly getting the cars ready, checking radios.
I had never been a kid who pulled donuts in the parking lot. What the hell did I know about driving fast? I was nervous because I knew that I was quickly going to be found out as a nerd, the kid with absolutely no clue as to what he was doing.
“I’ve been in this business for forty years,” Rick said, almost regretfully, “and we know what works and what doesn’t. This is about what the car can do—it’s not rocket science. You partner with the car, you dance with the car like you’re dancing with a woman. You have to lead; and some cars are easy to dance with and some are hard, just like women.” I wondered if Rick had a different version of this speech for coed classes. Probably not.
Rick admonished us to drive aggressively, to not be timid. But we also had to learn the speed limit “bracket”—what we could and couldn’t do in a particular car.
We went out to “shake down” the cars, which means familiarizing yourself with your car’s unique qualities. We drove tight slaloms and played with “understeer.” If you try to take a corner too sharply for the speed of the car, the front tires “push” and slide out from underneath you—they can’t give you what you want. The turn is too fast, or the road is wet or gritty, or your tire pressure is too low or too high.
The application for me was obvious: when you’re driving a slalom course through a zombie-infested city, you need to maintain speed so the zombies don’t catch you, but maintain control because if you lose it and crash, now you’re zombie food.
Then we each took on a stuntman driver, and they guided us through the course, talking about ways to correct for understeer: how to take a better line, how to use a technique called “pitch and pull,” taking little bites with the wheel, steering in and then out of the turn, demanding less and then taking more.
I rode with a nice guy named Harry, and he drove with both feet—one on the brake and one on the gas. For me, because I had learned to drive on a standard, with one foot for the clutch, I did everything on an automatic with my right foot, leaving my left free for a now nonexistent clutch. It made sense to learn to drive the automatic with both feet, for quicker or simultaneous inputs.
“Remember,” Rick’s gravelly voice crackled over the radio, “a skidding tire has no directional control.”
A huge part of what they do relies on “lock-up,” on getting the rear wheels to lock up with the emergency brake. This allows the back end of the car to “come loose,” which is where almost all the moves come from: the skid turns, the 180s, the 90s. The skid turn is just what it sounds like: you send the car skidding around a sharp corner, in control but with tires screeching. The 180 is when you come flying up and skid to a stop, turning through 180 degrees, to finish with your rear end right against the mark. The 90 is half of that; you come driving up hard and the skid into a ninety-degree stop, ending up broadside to the mark. All of these moves are made possible by getting the rear wheels to lock, through use of the emergency brake.
“This is not something the car is designed to do—the main brakes are hydraulic, and they have a lot of power. The e-brake is mechanical, it’s just a cable, and it can be iffy. The engineers that design cars, they don’t have stuntmen in mind.” He chuckled. “They make it harder every year.” The e-brake is designed as a backup to the hydraulic braking system.
One of the critical things to do was to make sure the e-brake catch was disabled. In every car, the e-brake is designed with a catch of some kind, so that it stays locked down when you use it, either with the foot pedal or with the handle. Rick told us the various ways to disable the catch so that you can pull and release the e-brake smoothly, as if you were applying hydraulic brakes.
We all rushed to our cars like kids, hot to try the 180s. Rick split us up in two lines around the track, and we listened to the radio and waited for our “action” call.
I was pretty nervous coming into that first turn into the straightaway that led to the 180. Rick sat against the wall, deep behind two sets of cones that were the mark, the spot our rear end was supposed to end up in. I had seen one of his stuntmen demonstrate it, and I knew I had to be aggressive with the speed, so I got on the gas and the car roared. I had no idea where to start the move, the “point of initiation,” as Rick called it, so I just went—I got lockup with the e-brake, I could feel and hear the skidding, and then a sharp quarter turn of the wheel to the left, and the car spun and shuddered to a stop.
I ended up about two-thirds of the way around, and maybe twenty feet from the mark. Rick’s dry voice crackled over the radio, “Okay, Yellow, that’s the first one, you got that out of your system. More speed, and better line of approach.”
I quickly drove out and back around the track to get back into line, switching sides so that the next 180 would be in the opposite direction. My heart was pounding.
So it went through the day. Gradually, the process became clearer, the timing of when to brake, the tightness of the quarter turn, and countersteering out of it. Once the car went past ninety degrees, the front wheels could be turned the opposite way—countersteered—which would help bring the nose straight behind the rear end.
I got a little better at it, but my nervousness rarely subsided. It was exhausting. I felt almost out of control the entire time. The need for sharp judgment and fast hands to countersteer was demandingly physical, and even though it was bitterly cold outside, inside the car it got blisteringly hot.
Getting the lockup was critical, and then I usually made too big a move. The speed got to me, and I often jerked the wheel violently and ended up unable to counter, making a mess. You had to do a lot of different things, in the right order; some of them were powerful and fast, and some of them were small and controlled. Making it all come together in a truly stressful situation would be a nightmare.
The 90, coming into the mark and skidding to a stop broadside, was actually much harder than the 180—the quarter turn was smaller, more delicate. You had to “ride the slide,” get lockup and then gently turn and guide the car into the 90. I really struggled going from the big, stamping-on-the-gas-pedal move to a small move.
I’ve never been a finesse guy. At my best, I’m a two-by-four carpenter, not a cabinetmaker. I’m good at smashing things, digging holes, and grunt work, and bad at delicate finish jobs.
Rick sent a young stuntman, Danny, into the car to hold my hand and try and get me through the moves, to nail the 90. I was the only one of the students who was struggling so hard with it.
Danny could see where I was going wrong, and he instantly helped. He had me rehearse the physical actions. While I was waiting for my turn, he made me put the car in park and run through the motions. Repetition was the key
We broke for the day, and I stumbled back to my car for the hour-and-a-half drive home. I was utterly drained from the stress, but also elated for having survived and excited for what the next days might bring.
The next morning was clearer, the sky a perfect blue wall. Without the clouds and the moisture, it was noticeably colder, too.
We started the day taking the wheels off a car and looking at the brakes, studying the differences between the disc brake and the drum brake.
“What makes a good driver is not your natural ability, but being able to connect with the machine,” Rick growled at us. “Some people don’t understand and they don’t connect. When the car starts doing weird stuff, they don’t know how to compensate or make repairs. A little bit of gearhead in you really helps.”
You’ll certainly need to embrace a little bit of your inner gearhead if the grid goes down forever. The more you know about getting technology to work, the better off you’ll be. In fact, maybe the best thing you could put in your bug-out bag would be a certified mechanic. Barring that, in a postapocalypse we’ll all become part-time mechanics. You might as well start learning something now.
We got back to work, back in our cars, flying around the track. I spun out on the first few skid turns we did; instead of making the ninety-degree turn, I came in too fast, made too big a quarter turn with the wheel, and blew it, sending poor Yellow spinning through the cones that represented a city street—smashing into parked cars, pedestrians, the hundred-thousand-dollar camera. I wasn’t alone, either; it seemed everyone was struggling to get back into the groove.
Then, slowly, things started to click, just a little bit. I started getting good results with a little less speed.
When I was in line, waiting for my turn, I would watch the other students go and think about them as they spun out or nailed it. When it was my turn, my mind filled with nonsense as I bore down on the mark. There was the stress of performance, of getting it right in front of Rick, all the stuntmen, and the other students watching. Then there was the stress of the car, the roar of the engine, the shriek of the tires, the out-of-control feeling.
But as long as I got it together and focused in the final seconds of the first move, just the exact motions required for the first move—I was okay. Time started to slow down to where I could step-by-step my way through the entire gag.
It was a paradigm shift. We were learning to drive in new ways. I felt out of control, but I wasn’t. I was steering with the e-brake and momentum, using the front wheels as pivot points. I was getting a feel for the weight of the car, something I hadn’t thought much about. When you give it gas, the weight shifts to the back wheels; when you get on the brake the weight shifts to the front; turning forces the weight onto the outside wheels. We were learning to drive in ways the car was not designed for, in directions it wasn’t meant to go.
When we next gathered at the table in the bitter cold, I asked Rick a question that was nagging me.
“What’s the real-world application for all this? Are we just learning how to make it look like we’re driving fast, or are we really learning how to drive fast?” This, of course, was hugely important to my reasons for being here.
“There’s a ton of real-world application,” said Rick. “If I was the driver for a bank robber, the first thing I’d want to do would be to fix the e-brake. Think about it: when you take a turn too fast and merely try to steer through it, you get that understeer problem, you’ll push. But if you can hit nice skid turns, you can keep up a lot of speed and zip right through a sharp turn. If you can blast a 180 out and your pursuers have to stop and do a three-point-turn, you’ll gain a half mile on them.”
So if you were going to have to drive through a zombie slalom, you’d want to fix the e-brake. If you knew that a mutant biker gang was pursuing you for cannibalistic reasons, you’d better be able to hit that 180 clean.
In the afternoon we went back out on the skid pad, and now Rick really started to hammer home “the package.”
We were all getting the physical acts of the gag; we could do skid turns and 180s. But now we had to learn control, how to land them in the right spot for the camera, or, in a real-world situation, how to avoid an accident, make a turn, or fit through a tight spot. Refinements, adjustments—the devil in the details.
What Rick meant by the package was speed, depth, timing, point of initiation, and line of approach. All these things had to come together, under your control. I particularly struggled with the last one, the line of approach. I often finished my 180s or 90s far outside of where I wanted to be, way off the mark. The gag was good, but the line of approach was off.
Rick’s voice crackled over the radio. “You’ve got to look yourself into the mark. If you look at what you’re trying to avoid, you’ll hit it.” He had talked about this before, and it was something I had learned driving motorcycles—if you stare at a pothole, trying to avoid it, you end up steering the bike right into it.
You have to look up, especially through sharper turns, and look at where you want the bike to go. Sliding into stunts is the same: you have to avoid staring at the cones you’re trying to miss, and instead look at where you want to be. That could be tricky if you were trying to hit a skid turn through a fiery maze of burning cars, pursued by an alien spaceship, but just remember—look at the daylight.
The key to all this is time behind the wheel. In Extreme Fear, Jeff Wise writes about stunt pilots who have performed incredible feats to save themselves and their planes, because they had so much experience that they didn’t fly a plane so much as wear the plane. They strapped the plane on like a suit. When they discuss how they fly, they can sound mystical. They feel what the plane wants—but it’s just about mastery. Ten thousand hours, whatever you want to call it. Rick and his experienced veteran stunt drivers were like that. They knew their cars so well they were essentially wearing them.
“Okay, gentlemen, time for your test,” came Rick’s gravelly voice over the radio. This was the moment I had been dreading, the final exam. We had to do a medley of gags: first, coming out of the corner, the skid turn, then the 180 at the mark, then the skid turn into the 90. You had to get both gags right, back to back, before you could move on to the next pair. Nightmare.
We were halfway through the third day, and according to Rick, this should be no problem. To add to the pressure, he had given us a half-hour to complete the test—as a whole team! If all five of us didn’t do it, we all failed.
Of course, we all knew that failing meant nothing, really, but it sure felt like pressure, which was what Rick was after. On a movie set, having three hundred people watching, a half-million bucks’ worth of cameras set up, with the film spooling through at thousands of dollars a foot—that was a pressure situation, too. Like Rick said, you might get two takes to get a gag right, but then they were going to call somebody else, and there went your paycheck.
What about real survival pressure? What happens if you and your loved ones will be dead if you spin out in the turn and blow this gag? If you miss the skid turn, that means that the mutant biker gang is going to cook you and your family in a pot. That’s pressure on a whole different level.
Sitting in line, Yellow thrumming underneath me, the sun beating down and the din of cars all around, I had the sinking feeling that I was probably going to be the one who blew the whole thing.
Rick started with the action calls, and I inched along until I was next up. I watched the Belgian race-car driver, in Black, perform his first turn and 180, slamming it home, perfect.
“That’s a money shot, Black,” came Rick’s voice. A money shot is a keeper, the shot the director wants. Black only had three more to do. Why did I always have to follow that guy?
“Action, Yellow,” crackled the radio, and I pounded on the gas and felt the car roar to life. My mind was cluttered with a hundred different concerns, but as I bore down on the first mark, I just thought of the first step: get lock-up. And I did. I skidded through the turn, past ninety, but with a lot of gas I saved it, and I roared down at the next mark, swerving wildly to get the right line of approach, and suddenly I was boom, in my 180, and finally somehow I got everything to stop.
As the dust settled around me and the smoke from the tires whirled away, I heard Rick’s voice: “That’s a money, Yellow.”
I absolutely flew through the course, perfect, right behind Black and not missing a beat, until it came to my last gag, a skid turn and then the 90 going right. I missed the first one. Then the second. Dread filled my heart: Watch, I’ll have done everything before this right the first time and now I’ll be on this one trick until time runs out.
Black hit his last gag, and Rick’s voice crowed over the radio, “That’s a money, Black, you have graduated!” and then I heard the same for Red and Silver, as I went around and around, trying to land this 90. I skidded in with a bad line of approach. But I was getting closer and closer. I knew it couldn’t avoid me forever. Again, ripping through the skid turn and into the 90, riding the slide, a little countersteer and a shuddering stop. Was I too far away from the mark? Then, finally, the words I was dying to hear:
“That’s a money, Yellow—YOU ARE NOW A STUNT COMMANDO!”
This story is excerpted from a chapter of Sam Sheridan's book Disaster Diaries: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Apocalpyse and was republished, in condensed form, with permission from The Penguin Press.
Email us with the subject line "Syndication" if you would like to see your own work syndicated here on Jalopnik.