Shoot to Thrill

Fast cars, naked women: Ed Dellis loves his work

"There's nothing you could say or do that would shock him," Darla Haun says of Dellis.

When pressed, Dellis admits to a few "surprises" at his private shoots. In what sounds like euphemistic language, he says, "I've had situations where their interpretation of what is sexy didn't match mine, and that was actually at the point where I realized I needed to be doing interviews."

Nowadays, he makes sure that he and his potential clients meet over lunch first, so he can see if they're a good fit, make sure they don't have any psycho ex-boyfriends who'll be mad about the pictures, and that he finds them attractive in some way. (Ed's not into obese girls, he says.) He turns down more than half of the people who come to him: "You can't cover it all; you've gotta go on your instincts at that point. You get a feel for who the person is, what their motivation is for coming and wanting to see that side of themselves."

*     *     *

Chapter the Third: In which the master of his domain instructs a new disciple on the need for speed while seated in a vehicle so expensive you should be charged for even thinking about driving it.

It's a sunny Friday morning at Coast Automotive in Costa Mesa, the only auto shop, Dellis says, that he'll allow to lay a hand on his 1958 blue Lister Corvette. Dellis' pride and joy—"It's a sexy car. All curves"—is the one with which he set the quarter-mile speed record in the Cannonball One Lap, a week-long race in which competitors not only race for speed on closed tracks, but also compete to see how quickly they can drive cross-country to the next track.

Today, the shop owner's teenage nephew, Max Bolanos, will get to do more than that: He's getting a full-on driving lesson from Dellis, who bills himself as "the DAM driving school"—Defensive Assertive Methods, or, as Dellis points out, if you don't like his philosophy, "you can start your own DAM driving school!"

Dellis specializes in teaching people how to handle fast, expensive cars. "A lot of times what happens is, guys will buy these Corvettes, or they'll buy a Ferrari or a Lamborghini," he says, "and they think, magically, that they can defy the laws of physics." In addition to teaching them safety, Dellis also follows what he considers the "unwritten" rules of driving—like how, in California, it's okay to speed so long as you're safe.

"Every time I've gotten a ticket, I've deserved it" he acknowledges. "But there have been situations where I've come up on highway patrols, exceeding the speed limit, but because I was driving in what I call a professional manner—being polite and not infringing on other people's rights to enjoy the roads—they let me go."

He's quick to qualify to his students that it depends on the driver, saying, "Your job, if you're driving a high-performance vehicle, is to explore the personalities of the people around you. You take in information off their cars. You know: Is it a clean car? Is it a trashed-out car? Is it set up properly, suspension-wise? And does it sound like the engine's maintained? Then you know the chances of that person being a good driver are improved. And you watch the way they move in the lanes. You sniff out all this information constantly.

"You take the right-of-way when it's yours, and if everybody does that, we'll all get there safer."

The first order of business is finding out what young Bolanos wants to learn most. "Releasing the clutch on time, like on these race cars," he responds.

They strap into Dellis' Lister. Asked how he feels, Bolanos answers with a nervous smile: "Lousy."

Dellis assures him that's normal. As the engine growls to life, the Lister heads out the front gate . . . and stalls, prompting Dellis to laugh. The false start makes Bolanos even more nervous. Finally, they're off.

"Too much adrenalin, man!" yells Bolanos, as they accelerate onto the freeway.

A video camera is rigged up behind his head, and you can see Bolanos is enjoying it on some level. Dellis offers a running commentary throughout, noting such things as "you sit real close to the ground, you can communicate with the earth—you really feel everything. In a regular street car like your Eclipse, you're isolated, you have to use your other senses more.

"You're getting a lot of information through the steering wheel," Dellis says. (And yes, the car's steering wheel is fitted with a Personagrip.) "You notice that when you turn, it sort of fights you a little, but when you get to the limit, that resistance you feel is going to go away."

"I think he felt the effect, and I could see the smile," says Dellis. Now it's over to Bolanos' Mitsubishi for some steering-wheel techniques. The key is to keep both hands on the wheel, at opposite sides, and pull, rather than push, when making a turn. In practice, this looks almost like a karate lesson from Mr. Miyagi. "Go back to the straight-line position. Okay, now, you do it on your own. Okay, now wait—stop. Go back. This hand. Wait. Keep your hand there; move this hand up. That's the first thing. Then this hand pulls, and that hand slips. And then when you get to that position, exactly across, then that hand grabs, and you finish the turn. Now wait, grab the steering wheel—it's okay to cross—at the end. Wait, keep going."

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