Here's your chance to perform all the stunts you see in the movies
Suppose you're a huge car nerd with a rich fantasy life (this is not a stretch for me). Imagine you suddenly get the call: you have to fill in as stunt driver on a Hollywood movie at short notice and you only have time to learn three moves that'll make you look passably awesome.
You'll surely want to stick to the classics: stuff like J-turns, 360-degree spins and, of course, two-wheeling. Nail that lot and you might just live to drive on screen another day.
This was the opportunity afforded me by Ultimate Stunt Driving in Queensland, Australia, last week. Not the bit about being in the movies. The bit about appearing passably awesome with precision driving.
Ultimate Stunt Driving (let's call it USD) is a driver training experience that gives participants the chance to try all of the above and more in Mini road cars, plus a specially modified Toyota Yaris (more about that in a minute). I was there as part of the media launch programme for the all-new third generation Mini (although USDs are second-generation models) - presumably running along a rationale that if Mini allowed journalists to thrash somebody else's cars, they'd be a bit gentler on theirs. Sound thinking. However, USD is also open to anybody who makes a booking and buys a ticket.
USD has been operating for five years - first in Sydney but now also out of Brisbane, at the Mount Cotton Training Centre, about half-way between the city and the Gold Coast. Aside from the obvious drawcard of driving like an idiot on a closed road in somebody else's cars, the programme is run by a couple of genuine V8 Supercar drivers: Dean Canto and Luke Youlden.
You have plenty of help, of course: lots of water on the skidpan to reduce traction, an instructor beside you who isn't past grabbing the wheel when needed and even some unique automotive equipment.
Can you really become a stunt driver in one afternoon by perfecting three spectacular moves? No you cannot. Or at least I could not; but I had a lot of fun trying.
The J-turn is the classic television and movie manoeuvre: in reverse at high speed, the nose swings around and the car makes a smooth transition from backwards to forwards driving without slowing down at all.
What you're supposed to do: It sounds so simple when they explain it. Accelerate hard in reverse with one hand on top of the wheel. When you hit the J-turn spot, flick the wheel half a turn one way, wait for the nose to come around and when you're pointing straight, bring the wheel back to centre as quickly as you can and accelerate.
Surely there's a lot of confusing gearchanging going on? There is, from reverse to neutral to drive at exactly the right times. But the instructor does that for you. Yep, it's that easy.
What you actually do: accelerate in reverse in oddly wobbly fashion. This is due to a combination of nerves and the fact you're gripping the wheel top-centre really tightly, because you don't want to forget where your hand should be.
Wrench the tiller around and, as the nose swings through 180 degrees, you'll accidentally release the wheel, thereby losing track of where straight-ahead is. A bit of random twirling, complete loss of momentum and then an awkward stomp on the go-pedal as you accelerate away in a direction that is slightly different to the one you started in. But you did it ... sort of. A J-turn with a twist.
THE 360-DEGREE SPIN
Undeniably impressive when it's done correctly, this necessitates a high-speed nose-first straight-line entry, a smooth spin in a full circle and continuation of travel in exactly the same direction. As with the J-turn, no loss of momentum if you please.
What you're supposed to do: accelerate hard to build up speed, then slip the car into neutral. With your hand on the wheel at about one o'clock, a quick flick one way to spin the car. Once the car is rotating, some handbrake is required to bring it right around. The wheel must then come back very quickly the other way. Accelerate and keep driving in the same direction as if nothing happened.
Once again, gears courtesy of your friendly instructor.
What you actually do: panic, mostly. Once you flick the wheel and the car starts to spin at high speed, all of that book learning goes out the window. The wet skidpan does most of work, so it's unlikely you'll remember much about where the steering wheel should be - but if you're lucky you'll accidentally let go of the tiller and then grab it at exactly the right moment to stay on course once the spin is complete. Which is what I did. All on purpose, naturally.
Balancing a car on two wheels is a familiar stunt that's been done by everybody from James Bond to the Dukes of Hazzard, yet it's always staggering to watch. Doesn't seem possible in the real world, but it is.
USD's specially prepared Yaris has a jockey wheel mounted high on the driver's side to prevent the car rolling if it tips too far. Being clever corporate types, they also mocked up the little Toyota with Mini graphics for our day.
What you're supposed to do: hold your left hand on the wheel at about 10 o'clock, in anticipation of driving at a very different angle.
Drive the car at 20km/h towards the ramp, mounting it with the left-side wheels. Once you're off the edge of the ramp, you're at the correct angle for two-wheeling and all you have to do is balance the car with the steering wheel - more movement than you'd think, actually - and keep a constant speed to maintain momentum. A turn to the right reduces the roll angle, a turn to the left increases it.
When you're done, gradually steer left, reducing the angle as you go and let the car gently land on all four wheels.
What you actually do: surprisingly, driving up a ramp that rocks you sideways is quite easy. Keeping balance is the tricky bit and it's inevitable that you'll see the jockey wheel touch the ground on the first few tries.
The hardest bit is actually keeping the speed up. Either through panic at the instability of it all or elation that you're actually doing it, it's all too easy to let the km/h drift away. When that happens, the car loses balance and thumps to the ground. Hard. But at least it's still shiny side up ...
Regardless of your relative success, it's all over in a matter of seconds. USD instructors say it takes about three solid days of practice to get the hang of two-wheeling. And the rest, I would say. Or is it just me?