When an 18-wheeler slammed into the back of my ZipCar last year, it not only gave me whiplash but turned me into a paranoid driver. I’d always been confident behind the wheel, but suddenly I was obsessed with checking my rear-view mirror, panicky about changing lanes on the Don Valley Parkway, unsure how much control I really had over my vehicle or how I’d react in an emergency.
Then, one morning, I found a Groupon in my inbox for a stunt-driving course. Hosted by Wings & Slicks, a racing school that operates at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park (near Bowmanville, Ont.) and Deerhurst Resort (in Muskoka), it promised to make me a better driver in four hours, for $279. How, exactly, this would result from spinning doughnuts on a strip of asphalt, I wasn’t sure, but it sounded intriguing.
“You may not be the next movie-making stunt driver,” warned the promotional material, but after this experience, “you will likely laugh uncontrollably when you realize what you just accomplished.”
If nothing else, I could use a good laugh. And so it was that, a couple of months later, I found myself pulling into the entrance of the Bowmanville track, hastily parking what must have been the only Prius in the lot, and stepping into a portable classroom with 11 others to get a crash course in slalom, J-turns and backwards 180s, the idea being that we’d learn how to do all of these manoeuvres, eventually perform them together in a sequence and then be judged by our peers for speed and accuracy.
The lesson is short and sweet. After five minutes and a cursory chalkboard drawing, we walk out onto a single wide track, where two 1998 BMW 328s await. The slalom – as in, steering around a series of pylons – is up first, and our goal is to attack it at 30 km/h. Hans Wolter, president of Wings and Slicks (not to mention a Val Kilmer lookalike), explains that our hands should be at three and nine on the steering wheel and we are to move “in a rhythmic way, almost like ballet.”
Is he serious? I watch anxiously as the first few participants give it a shot. Bob McCready, who’s from Mississauga and received this stunt-driving course as a Father’s Day gift from his daughter, jumps in and effortlessly glides around the pylons like it’s his day job.
“That was fun,” he says after. I inquire about his blood pressure, which he claims is fine. I ask if he worries about the car rolling onto its side and he says, “It’s a BMW, don’cha know, it won’t flip over.”
Still doubtful, I climb into the passenger side of the car. I’m immediately taken aback by the retrofitted handbrake, which sticks up vertically and is nearly the length of a baguette. The instructor, in the driver’s seat, gives me a brief explanation of under-steering and over-steering (basically, the faster you go, the less you have to crank the wheel). He demonstrates this by careening in circles around a balding patch of grass, so that by the time we switch seats I’m ready to throw up.
On my first attempt, the steering goes awry. My arms are flailing everywhere, like a frantic Gumby doll, and I’m knocking over pylons, which leads to screaming and cursing.
“Remember,” says Wolter, “pylons are people, too.”
After everyone completes this exercise, a man steps out on the far end of the track and begins to water the pavement with a hose. I’m used to seeing my neighbours perform this odd ritual, but it seems even more bizarre at a racetrack. Then it becomes apparent: Our next lesson is J-turns, and these are best performed on a wet surface so as to avoid burning rubber.
I get back into the car, and this time a younger instructor demonstrates the move for me. Marcos Garcia, 22, is from Brazil and has been doing road tricks since he was 12. He likes to show off, so instead of doing a 180-degree forward turn, he pulls a 360. Later, he reveals that he’s actually working on his 920-degree spins, which demand intense co-ordination and precision.
The key to J-turns is simple: Don’t slam your foot on the brake. This is easier said than done when you’re going 40 km/h and suddenly cranking the wheel while tugging on the handbrake. On my first try, I end up closing my eyes in pure fear. Adrenaline shoves all logic aside, forcing my foot down. Attempt number two, with my right foot tucked underneath the seat and Garcia in charge of the handbrake, goes better. Third time is a charm.
After this, backwards 180s are, frankly, a breeze – they’re identical to J-turns, except you begin by driving in reverse, then swirl around into a forward motion. No brakes whatsoever are required. It helps, however, to have a strong stomach, especially when riding in the passenger seat. Throughout the day, Garcia will most likely spin around more than 200 times while instructing.
“I’m lucky, I guess, it just doesn’t bother me,” he says. “Maybe ’cause I love it so much.”
Finally, we’re ready to put all of these moves together into a timed sequence –backwards 180, slalom, J-turn, slalom, stop – with the ultimate goal to come in at fewer than 40 seconds. Watching everyone take turns, the scene becomes truly impressive: Race flags are waving, tires are screeching, dust is flying. It feels like I’m on the set of an action movie, surrounded by actual stunt drivers.
Against all odds, I have a strong run, thanks to a bit of guidance and some help, again, with the handbrake. It’s so exhilarating that, after finishing, I can’t resist flashing a pair of devil horns out the window. In the end, 18-year-old Dave Moss takes the prize, coming in at 39 seconds. But my time of 41 seconds is up in the top three, which is both shocking and satisfying.
After all this, driving home along Highway 401 feels like a cinch. I don’t exactly love spotting tractor trailers in my rear-view mirror, but somehow I’m able to maintain an awareness of these and other dangers around me without panicking. When I walk through the front door, safe and sound, I’m sweaty and my husband tells me that I “smell like car.” I’m smiling, though, and I have an excuse: I’m a stunt driver now.