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I’m from London, and in London we don’t drive. We walk miles in relentless drizzle, we squish into stuffy tube carriages like sardines, and we take over double-decker night buses in obnoxious, drunken, 4am hordes. But rarely do we bother to traverse our densely populated, well-connected city in cars. If we do drive, we do it in a begrudging, British sort of way: Crawling through the city traffic at 15 mph, refusing to admit that we’re lost in the spaghetti-like tangle of streets, and frequently referring to fellow drivers as “absolute f*cking wankers.”
So moving to L.A. three weeks ago was quite a shock. All of a sudden, the nearest decent coffee shop is a 15 minute walk away, Google Maps is estimating that a 2.1 mile car journey will take 39 minutes in traffic and even the most throwaway suggestion that I might, you know, just take the bus provokes expressions of abject horror and pity in the faces of my newly found friends. People like driving here, and they like watching other people drive too. So when I’m invited to participate in a Formula Drift ride-along in the lead up to the Title Fight at the Irwindale Speedway, I don’t hesitate. When in Rome, as they say.
The sensation of hurtling round the track at a bajillion miles per hour and then drifting at angles not encountered since high school geometry class is a lot like being on a really scary roller coaster.
At Irwindale, I’m introduced to Chris Fosberg, whose laidback demeanour does not belie his status as a self-taught, badass, former Formula Drift World Champion. The Doylestown, PA native offers a firm handshake and retrieves my flame retardant jump suit, which I eye with some suspicion. It’s not quite the snazzy number that Chris has tied nonchalantly around his own waist–the same bright orange hue of his energy drink sponsor Nos and emblazoned with cool badges-but it’ll do. At least it’s black. You can never look like too much of a fool in black. That's what I’m hoping, anyway.
Appropriately attired, I clamber inside the vehicle and Chris’s right-hand man buckles me up like a toddler in a car seat. And then, I wait.
There is something on the engine–I can’t quite hear what through my fetching beige balaclava/helmet combo–and it needs to be "burned off." I find out it is oil. I enjoy a good fifteen minutes of chilling in a fog of carcinogenic-smelling fumes. I use the time to take in the stripped-back interior of Chris’s Nissan 370z—remembering that the manufacturer now claims Usain Bolt as a “Director of Excitement”—and am surprised (read: alarmed) by how bare bones the car is. It has been stripped, I learn later, to maximise power to weight ratio. The gearshift is literally a metal rod. The aluminium foil-thin doors seem like they might fly open at any point. The light switches on the dashboard resemble something you might expect to find in a former Soviet Bloc hotel room.
Before I have the chance to ponder my sanity/the small print on my health insurance, we’re leaving the rig and heading onto the track. Unfortunately there are a slew of other folks also waiting to live out their own personal ‘Fast & Furious’ fantasies, so we’re required to wait some more. Here, too, the air is thick with a haze of…burning rubber? Gas? Dust? Who knows what this stuff is, but it can't be good for your lungs. I embark upon a silent internal monologue concerning FD drivers and their likely propensity for respiratory issues. I’m tempted to lift my face shield to ask Chris inappropriate questions about the state of his lungs, but he’s giving off an air of intense zen and I have the rare good sense not to interrupt.
And then, with a literal bang, we’re off-minus my stomach, which I think I left somewhere at the starting line. The sensation of hurtling round the track at a bajillion miles per hour and then drifting at angles not encountered since high school geometry class is a lot like being on a really scary roller coaster, except much closer to the ground, and all the more thrilling for it. Inside my helmet, I’m silently laughing like a maniac with the sheer adrenaline of it all and as we pull up in a cloud of (yet more) dust, I have to resist the urge to squeal “Again! Again!”
Alas, there’s only time for this two minute loop and I’m left wanting more and thinking, maybe I could get used to this driving thing after all.
Written by Phoebe Lovatt (@phoebelovatt)
Related: WTF Is Formula Drift?