Drifting away.
Drifting away.

The Slow and the Spurious

I'm highly prone to motion sickness. I've never ridden a roller coaster in my life. So why the hell am I sitting in a drift car, mere meters from the Long Beach track, as driver Ryan Hampton (apparently nicknamed "Organ Donor" by some of his rivals) revs his engine and tells me about his turbo boost? Maybe because I loved that first Fast and the Furious movie. Or maybe because it beats covering City Hall.

Flashback: as part of the promotion of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, the Weekly's marketing director, Alicia, was offered the chance to ride along in a drift car—y'know, like in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, with all the crazy braking and skidding through turns. Alicia asked me if I wanted to write about her, but seriously, where's the fun in watching someone else do the crazy thing? Fortunately, she pulled some strings, and soon enough, the idea of putting me in jeopardy of life and limb was en route to becoming a reality. Now, if I could only find the race track . . .

Yeah, I know. You'd think a race track would be kind of hard to miss. Unless the Mapquest directions you've been given actually lead to the Grand Prix corporate headquarters instead. A corporate headquarters, we should note, where no one seemed to know anything about the drift car event or even what exactly OC Weekly is. But after talking to five different people, one of them finally understood and gave me the right directions, which I promptly managed to screw up twice before getting to the right place. Driving fast in a circle would surely be a relief after that series of wrong turns.

And then . . . I'm not on the guest list. Is that the only list? Yes, they say. The only possible press list? Yes . . . but the press aren't allowed till tomorrow. Then who gets in today? Just vendors. But what about the drift car event? Don't know anything about that. But aren't people riding in drift cars at 3 p.m. today?

"Oh, you mean the ride-alongs?" Yes, jackass, I do. And now you produce another list, having told me there was only one?

My name's on the other list. I fail to suppress the urge to yell, "I TOLD YOU!" at the guy. He gives me my wristband despite my outburst, and I'm off to the media tent, running late. I've been told it's the white tent underneath the tower with the red and white stripes. Wait, hold on a second—every tent here is white, and there are several tall structures bedecked in red stripes. By the time I get to the right one, everyone has left, except one guy, who tells me to look for John, "a guy in a white shirt."

Alicia is also late, having similarly ended up at corporate HQ by accident. But they get her into a car right away, one that has several passenger-side rules posted, including "No screaming." By the time she makes it back, she's shaking all over and calling our attention to the fact that she's shaking all over. She asks if I'm excited, and I respond that I'm not sure I believe it's actually going to happen.

I say this because none of the available helmets fits me. The all-over style are an obvious no-go, and the ones without a chin go on my head about halfway, digging into the middle of my crown in a way that seems destined to split my skull clean in two if anything goes wrong. I already signed a death waiver, but I need a real helmet, damn it. My big head has gotten me in trouble lots of times before, but never so literally.

It takes more than an hour before we can find something to wedge over top of my planetary noggin, and time is running out—these rides have to stop at 5. Finally, I'm bundled into the orange car driven by Ryan, a thin, charming compulsive gum-chewer. I try to make small talk, hoping, like a hostage in a bank robbery, that if he sees me as a real human being, he won't try to kill me in a fiery wreck. He responds, "We'll try to make it interesting." I assure him I'm a total wuss. He responds that he's anxious to try a few new things, including his turbo boost. At least there isn't a "no screaming" sign here—I can express my gut-churning fear any way I choose. Did I mention I consciously avoided breakfast and lunch to ensure an empty, puke-free stomach? Unless those two midday Dr. Peppers feel like re-emerging, that is.

We drive out of the arena and into the lineup. Ready for the signal to zoom out onto the track. And then the signal guy walks forward and makes a throat-slashing gesture with his fingers. There has been a wreck – a black S-13 that no one can identify. "Who drives a black S-13?" asks Ryan. Nobody knows. But the track is now closed. "I'm sorry, man!" says Ryan, and you can hear the embarrassment in his voice.

Still, he saves a little face: as we turn around to go back, he revs and hits the brakes hard, sending us into my one and only drift-style turn of the day. Then he hangs back behind the other cars longer than expected and hits the turbo boost for a very short stretch. It works. We go fast. For about one second.


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