In a moment it was all silenced. The screaming of the fans packing the stadium. The 14 cars all tearing into a collision course with me. The passenger airbag blew as another skidplate car made contact and it finally snapped me into realizing what I’d gotten myself into.
I knew a crash was going to happen. I just didn’t expect it to happen on the very first corner of my very first skidplate race. And I didn’t expect an airbag to blow.
(You can watch what happens tonight on the premiere of Car vs. America, Jalopnik’s new TV show.)
Racing cars should be expensive. Everything about building and running a race car costs. You want to go faster? Get better tires. Get better brakes. Spend more on your cage and your suspension and on and on.
Skidplate racing is different. The entire principle is backwards. It’s inherently bad, which is what makes it great.
Anyone familiar with all of the prep and engineering work required to make a traditional race car will laugh when they see what it takes to set up a skidplate racer:
1. Strip the interior.
2. Relocate the battery away from the extremities of the car.
3. Weld the doors and trunk shut, then chain down the hood, too.
4. Replace the back wheels with metal skids.
That last part is the important one, but not particularly complicated. You take a regular, cheapest-wheel-in-the-universe steelie and weld a set of steel plates to it like a fat ski. It’s a few basic welds to make the skidplate and the wheel bolts right up to the car as before.
It is with this small change that makes the skidplate what it is: near-uncontrollable for the driver and unquestionably entertaining for anybody watching.
You see, traditional race cars are what they are because they try to be objectively better. Better accelerating. Better braking. Better handling.
Skidplate cars are intentionally worse. Losing all of the traction of your rear-wheels in a front-wheel drive car makes it want to slide absolutely everywhere. Lift off the gas and the car tries to spin out. Get back on the gas and the car pulls itself straight, until you feed in too much throttle, at which point the front wheels slip and the whole car tries to spin out again.
And spins are so much more violent in a skidplate car than they are with a car that still has all four tires. It’s like driving on ice, but only with the back half of your car.
If it sounds like I’m being particularly obtuse about how tricky these skidplate cars are to drive, the first time I ever watched a championship-winning driver go out in a skidplate, he crashed. On the first corner.
A few weeks back, my coworker Mike Ballaban and I went down to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, the spiritual home of NASCAR to run our first skidplate race. We met up with the winningest drivers in the sport, Ron and Jefferey Moser, the Moser brothers. (They’re cousins, but the run together so often that the name stuck.)
The Mosers helped us weld up and prep an automatic 1996 Mazda 626 in typical condition of any old family car now advertised on Craigslist as $400 OBO GAS SAVER RELIABLE MECHANICS SPECIAL.
Though it’s easy to think of Mazda as a plucky little company making sporty cars like the Miata and the RX-7, when Mazda makes a family car, Mazda makes it as normcore as possible. A ‘90s 626 is almost completely devoid of any standout features whatsoever.
Weight was just around 2,700 pounds (before we stripped it out the interior), and horsepower was around 118 from its 2.0-liter four cylinder (before two decades of wear and tear let that erode). It would be a difficult starting point for a serious race car. It was a perfect candidate to become a skidplate racer.
The Mosers were helping Mike and me prep for an evening race at Bowman Gray Stadium, better known for its fights than anything else.
The night we ran there, two fights broke out that I know about. One was payback after one driver crashed into another in the race. The other was because an out-of-towner was “cussing in front of my young ‘uns,” as the other half of the fight explained.
We needed quite a bit of help. Mike and I didn’t make it through three laps without crashing and spinning out on our first practice event, and when I was entered into the evening feature, I managed to pick pole position.
Sweet Ron Moser informed me that he told all 14 other drivers that a Yankee was coming down to try to beat all of these Southern boys, and they’d put a target on my back. “The first thing I’m gonna do is wreck your ass,” the driver of the car directly behind me on grid told me, with a glint in his eye.
Trying to describe the race would be futile. It was six minutes long, and in that period I felt like I lived three lifetimes. I spun, crashed into three cars at once, blew a tire and blew an airbag (the Mosers “forgot” they left the passenger airbag intact in the car). And that was only on the first corner.
I saved more slides than I can remember, and lost more than I’d like to admit. I threaded the needle between two cars crashing in front of me. I took two hard hits that left me sore the next day and felt more failure, success and elation than I normally do in two months. I felt like I’d survived the big one at Talladega, when all I’d done is done a few circles in a car that’d have otherwise been delivering kids of soccer practice.
Skidplate racing takes the absolute opposite approach to making a race car as any other form of motorsports, so it’s no surprise that it’s just about the most affordable, most accessible, most entertaining form of racing you can find anywhere in the country.
It may look at first like you have to be a madman to do it, but after a few laps I was convinced that whoever dreamed skidplate racing up is a genius.
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