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July 16, 2009

News & Features

Controlled chaos: Let your inner stuntman skid at a weekend driving course

New York Times News Service

Stunt school

A driver demonstrates drifting at the Extreme Stunt and Driving Team school. (Photo by Extreme Stunt and Driving Team)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- You know you've always wanted to do this. Instead of struggling with the back and forth of parallel parking, you just skid into the space nose first, sliding perfectly between the cars on either side. Then you, Mr. Bond, brush off your tux and coolly walk away.

It's possible. At least it is on a closed course in a specially outfitted car with a stunt-driving instructor riding shotgun.

I spent a day last summer in stunt-driving school with the International Film Precision Drivers and Instructors in Virginia Beach. I learned the basic skills of car control that I would never, ever try at home. The instructors were two longtime stuntmen: Gil Combs, who drove the bus in the movie "Speed," and Allan Wyatt Jr., who drove the General Lee Dodge Charger in "The Dukes of Hazzard" TV series.

Schools around the country that teach stunt driving

While most of my fellow students were either professional stuntmen wanting to expand their skills or people who wanted to break into the industry, some, like me, just wanted to learn the tricks.

Andrew Gardner, 33, of Prince Frederick, Md., teaches teenagers at the Best Driving Academy. Gardner says he has always been interested in stunts and sits through movie credits to catch the names of the stuntmen.

"I'd rewind the tape over and over to see the stunt shots," he says. "It's something I've wanted to do for a really long time, I think since I was 8."

The school's cars are Ford Crown Victorias that have been outfitted with some movie magic. The anti-lock system has been disabled because standard brakes stop the car more precisely, and a second brake pedal has been installed. This pedal controls a heavy-duty version of the parking brake, and when pressed, locks the rear wheels and puts the car into a skid to get the fun started.

The parallel-parking maneuver, officially called a 90-degree slide into a box, was by far the coolest. I had to slide the car into a space between two traffic cones -- and also avoid a taller cone just outside the box that represented the camera.

Stunt school parking

Instructor and stuntman Gil Combs reacts to a failed parking move. (Photo by James Schembari / The New York Times)

I drove toward the cones at 35 mph, and about 20 feet from the space I hit the second brake. The back wheels locked and the car skidded forward. Even though the rear tires were making the horrible screeching sound of a car out of control, it wasn't.

When I nosed into the parking space, I jerked the steering wheel hard to the left and the car pivoted into the space. I slammed on the main brake and stopped the car dead.

On my first attempt, cones went flying and I wasn't fully into the space. I had missed hitting the camera, but I had also missed my mark.

On my second attempt, I slid perfectly into the space, stopping inches from the camera. There was a moment of shocked silence from the instructor and my fellow students. Then they gave me an ovation.

Still, I don't expect to show up on a movie lot and land a job. But I will at least be able to approach a parallel parking space with a lot more swagger.


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