2011-03-29

How to become a Stunt Commando

As most of you have already seen on Facebook, last week I attended Rick Seaman's stunt driving school. Just as expected, it was a blast!
First things first, this was by leaps and bounds the best-organized driving school I ever attended, and I've been to a few. Logistics, organization, and professionalism were at the highest level. Every single student had a car (front- and rear-wheel drive). If your car misbehaved, there were multiple spares on site, delivered to you within a minute or so to ensure you did not miss out any practice time.
There were only five students, and each of us got issued a radio, as did all the instructors and crew, so that you always knew what was going on, could hear suggestions instructors were sharing with you and others, and could ask for help if you had a blowout, what with all the sliding and burnouts. There were more school staff than students, but remarkably, they all mostly stayed out of our cars.
Before every practice session, we'd meet at the table where Rick or one of the other instructors would explain the physics of each maneuver we learned, and how to make it all work. Then we'd get into our cars and go at it. Only if you couldn't master the trick after a certain number of attempts and suggestions from the instructors, would one of them jump into your car and watch you drive, then explain what you should do different. I needed a few of such interventions, and was amazed at how effective the knowledge transfer was.
Our cars were mostly old Chevy Caprices in various colours, and mine was Orange. During practice sessions, Rick would announce on the radio "Action Orange" and I knew it was time to shine.
We practiced precision skid stops, 45, 90, 180, 270, and 360 spins, 90-degree skid turns and 360-turns with a drive-off at the end. Moonshine turns were fun too. That's basically a 180-degree skid turn using your emergency brake.[1] The J-turn, where you floor it in reverse, then yank the car around in a violent 180-spin and slam it in forward gear to speed out gave me most trouble. I did it right once, and could not replicate it no matter how hard I tried. My "Ms. Smooth-Hands" driving style was definitely not helping here at all.

Here you can see me successfully perform a 360 turn. If you are interested in more videos (courtesy Jason, who was very kind to take video of my driving):
  • 90 degree skid-turn
  • 90-degree spin with a stop
  • 45-degree slide
  • After practicing each maneuver a number of times, we had to pass a test, where we had to deliver a "money shot"--i.e. a perfect execution of the stunt, so you get your money--for each direction, left, and right. On the third day, Rick said that the 180-spin test will be a game called "Stunt Commando," and that whoever got to do two "money shots," got to become a "card-carrying, walking the walk, talking the talk, etc. etc. STUNT COMMANDO!" All the instructors chimed in for that last bit, and we all had a great time. Even if the test is just a game, it's still a bit stressful, so this little bit of lightness did us all good.
    One of the most interesting things about the weekend was my first up and personal encounter with movie people. Beside Jason and myself, the other three students and all instructors were actual stunt people, with experience on a movie set. They had quite a different approach to what the desired outcome of a given trick should be. While competitive motorsports drivers tend to concentrate on speed and moderate precision (i.e. don't hit any cones and corner workers), in movie business, drivers have to perform on crowded sets, often surrounded by expensive equipment, and precision is taken to a whole new level.
    If a director tells you to spin the car and put the rear license plate within the focus depth of a camera, you could be expected to work within a 20-centimeter margin. Even more impressive are stunts involving hitting people with your car. I sure don't think I have the guts to do that.
    And yet, stunties talked about falls, full-body hits on walls or pavement, fire burns (that's when the person is lit on fire), and crashes like it's nothing out of ordinary. And I guess for them it's the everyday routine, while I sat there with big eyes and listened to the stories.
    Dante, a stuntie from Atlanta, showed this video to me, and that totally blew my mind at how dangerous and involved some of the motion picture stunts can be.

    Amusingly, talking to the fellow students, it seemed that they were just as impressed by Jason's and my track and autocrossing adventures, as we were by their stunts. To each their own I guess.
    1. I would like to note that "emergency brake" is quite a misnomer, "parking brake" is probably a more accurate term, which would cover both foot- and hand-operated secondary brakes. But having used the term "e-brake" for three days in the context of the school, I will stick to it.














    2011-03-28

    Another rainy weekend on track

    It must please racing gods to see drivers and their trusty steeds swim through rivers and lakes on track, for water hath covered Infineon and there was much slickness.

    This was the second event I got to run this season, and instead of getting dryer, the weather got much, much wetter and colder. I was very lucky to be part of the team with a trailer and a propane heater inside!

    Both days, my students did not show up, so I had a weekend to myself.

    Staying on the track and in control of the car was very challenging at times, and I could feel my tires hydroplaning almost on each lap. My times have plummeted of course, but so have most everyone else's (with a few exceptions). I have found that while I usually occupy the last or one-before-last position in the dry, I was able to place better in the wet. I guess my smooth-hands driving style helps me in the rain. In the dry however, I keep hearing that I'm not near aggressive enough. I decided that the deluge was not the right time to practice overdriving and drove as usual.

    Having seen a number of cars end up in walls and tire barriers, and having felt the car step out a few times, I was getting a little nervous during my stints. I'm not big on white-knuckle grip when stressed, but noticed that slippery conditions made me hold my breath through challenging corners a lot, so once I figured out where the grip was around the line, I began concentrating on my breath. That helped me concentrate on the present and not hold my breath so much.

    You'll be surprised to find out that the scariest moment of the weekend was NOT on the race track at all! I got to learn to tow a race car on a trailer, when my team needed help moving an extra car. When first asked whether I would help, I caught myself resisting and looking for excuses not to do that because I was afraid, having never towed anything before.

    This is when I decided I should do it, because there is no better time to learn than now, and so I hopped into the truck and followed the big rig onto the highway, my heart pumping so furiously, I could feel it in my throat. Wouldn't you know it, once you are actually doing something, it becomes less scary, and soon I was much more comfortable with the situation.

    I towed the same race car back to the garage after the weekend was over, and I felt a sudden surge of accomplishment that I learned something new, even though I was very afraid of that at first. I have been "planning" to learn to tow for months, but always found excuses to avoid it when opportunities were there.

    All in all, a very fun, though drenched weekend. And the best part is, there's another one coming up in just a couple of weeks!

    2011-03-05

    Stardom, here I come!

    My GoPro Hero HD has arrived. Full eighteen days after I ordered it from an online vendor, but it has arrived.

    I have to say, the packaging on this sucker was by far the most bizarre and hard to tackle I have encountered in years. There were two separate boxes, the clear plastic case and the cardboard box, which were partially encased in another cardboard wrapper, and taped to it and each other with at least a yard of cheap scotch tape which left sticky residue on everything.

    Once I finally got my hands on the contents of the boxes, I was left with the camera, one curved adhesive mount, which will go unused, since I have a camera mount in my car, and three cables: USB, component, and composite. Like I don't have enough of the component and composite cables already.

    It seems every single electronics manufacturer's dream is to stick the customer with at least one, and sometimes two, useless cable sets. I am still not entirely clear on why GoPro decided I needed these two. I'd rather preferred they skipped those and put a tripod mount in the package instead. Oh well.

    Then there were FOUR instruction booklets. Four identical booklets, shall I add. Warranty and accessories booklets did not come in multiples.

    Then under well-deserved ridicule from J. I braved the setup menu. Considering that the camera only has two buttons, the menu options were plentiful and sometimes puzzling, but I conquered them all, and now my camera is ready for some track action.

    I made a solemn pledge not to be that person who posts hours or unremarkable and largely unedited video on YouTube, so I had to also figure out a way to cut my movies.

    Thankfully iMovie, which came on the laptop from the factory, is easy enough to use, and I managed to create a little project, cut pieces from several files together, and save it all.

    I don't think there is much entertainment in seeing me pan around my living room in poor lighting, so you'll have to wait until I have an actual video to share.