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The last time Jason Statham was at Willow Springs – a twisty, rolling, serpent of a racecourse deep in Southern California’s Mojave Desert – things were a little less exciting.
The English action-film star had been summoned to “performance driving” in a basic four-cylinder Mini, an experience roughly analogous, thrill-wise, to driving to work in a donkey cart.
“It was the most lame thing you could ever imagine,” says Statham. “They made me put a helmet on. I could windsurf quicker than that thing. I was not a happy man.”
“Today should be a little different,” I tell him. Willow Springs claims to be the oldest purpose-built road course in the United States. Its nine-turn, four-kilometre road course has sat on these dusty desert hills since 1953, much of that time under the stewardship of Bill Huth, who is rumoured to have won it in a poker game. A second, more technical 2.8km course known as “the Streets” was added in 1985, and a go-kart track followed a bit later. Huth has turned two of his car tracks over to us for the day, but that’s not the best part. The best part would be the Lamborghinis that recently arrived via tractor-trailer: a canary-yellow Gallardo (retail price: R4.8-million new, R2-million used) and its fearsome big brother, a tangerine-orange Murciélago LP640. (that number, if you’re wondering, refers to horsepower. Sadly, the Murciélago has since been discontinued.)
Statham sizes up the cars, smiling like a child, which is pretty much what a supercar reduces a man to, even a 38-year-old man who has built his career, in part, on driving. “The thing is, you can feel like sort of an asshole driving one of these cars,” he says. “Then you get into it and five minutes later you’re like, I don’t give a f–k. This is amazing!”
Statham is probably most famous for starring as a driver-for-hire in the three Transporter films, and from the beginning he urged his producers to let him handle much of the driving. It’s a request that now comes with the package. “As much as they’ll let me do,” he says. “I’ve had tons more time in cars in comparison to most other actors. So producers let me do more. Otherwise, I’ll start stomping my feet and throwing sh–t.”
He says that as a kid he “was always salivating over the nicer cars” and that his love of speed really intensified when he was on Britain’s national diving team (he once placed twelfth at the world championships) and would race his best friend and teammate back and forth to practice in their Volkswagen GTIs. “If I could have been one thing as a kid,” he says, “it would have been a boxer or a race-car driver, and I think a race-car driver it is. That’s the lifestyle. I’m a fanatic about cars.” Statham’s ride in all three Transporter films was a bit more subdued: a black Audi sedan, chosen in part because Statham loves the marque. “The Germans have it right. Their build quality is far superior to anyone else’s in the world. Even German nail clippers are just nicer.”
The first car Statham bought once he had some money was an Audi RS6 wagon, and it’s an RS6 sedan that sits in his driveway today. He also has an Audi S8 sedan. It just so happens that Audi also now owns the venerable Italian automaker behind the beautiful technicolour sculptures sitting in front of him on the paddock. And that company, apparently, really trusts us. “The amazing thing is no one from Lamborghini is here,” I tell him. “They didn’t send a babysitter for the cars.” “No one?” “They just sent them on a truck. It’s amazing.” “In a way, I’m quite happy,” he says. It’s classic English under-statement, quickly punctuated with some American hyperbole. “I would probably give you one of my toes to come and do this.”
As bold as Jason Statham may be, he’s not stupid. He acknowledges the potential for carnage posed by two 500-plus horsepower cars placed in the hands of relative amateurs left unsupervised on a complicated racetrack with off-camber corners and dramatic elevation changes. Which is where Ryan Negri comes in. Negri is a former professional racer himself and has been squealing around the corners at Willow Springs for more than a decade. He was, coincidentally, also there the day that Statham was training in the Minis. “You helped pay for my house,” he says a few minutes after meeting the actor. “Glad I could help,” Statham answers. Negri’s first piece of advice is to steer clear of the big track, which has corners so difficult that it would take only a minor slip-up to turn a beautiful Lambo into a pile of scrap metal. He takes us for a hot lap in his Audi S6, which he handles like a Formula 1 car, narrating each corner. Through several, I catch him saying something like, “If you get on the petrol too hard here in too low a gear, you will end up spinning out and going backwards… into that brick wall. The hay bales aren’t gonna do anything. You’ll destroy the car.”
He shows us the quickest way through the course, what drivers call the racing line, and has us both gripping the sides of our seats. The first thing you notice when a professional is driving is that a car is capable of so much more than you think it is. A professional will wait as long as possible to brake. When he does eventually do so, he brakes hard – so hard that the weight of the car is shifted from back to front as quickly as possible. In order to turn the car, the weight needs to be up front. The idea is to go as fast as you can for as long as you can but, as Negri points out, sometimes that means going slower too. A common amateur mistake is to come into a corner far too fast and then brake too hard too deeply, so that the car has lost all momentum by the time the driver is ready to accelerate. When you consider that most race cars are roughly equally fast in a straight line, it makes sense that races are won and lost in the corners. It’s evident that the big course is technical and riddled with hazards.
Anyway, Negri says the real fun is to be had on the Streets course, where no section is straight enough to allow for carnage in the corners and where the run-off is abundant and the walls non-existent. “You want to go sideways, right?” he says, a question Statham hardly needs to answer. For a moment Negri breaks character from “driving instructor” to “guy who just loves thrills” (not that the two are mutually exclusive).“ There’s all this technical mumbo-jumbo in racing, with ‘apex’ this and ‘braking points’ that. Honestly, the most fun you can have is going sideways. The other track is much more, like, you can throw it around. The speeds are generally slower going into the corners. You feel more like you’re driving in the city,” he says. Only sideways.
The nice thing about Lambor-ghinis is that, under the meticulous Teutonic direction of Audi engineers, these once-difficult beasts now double as fairly comfortable street cars. Sure, they are powerful and bad-tempered and require a sort of modified limbo to get inside, but they also have comfortable seats, dependable air conditioning and useful tricks such as back-up cameras and a button that raises the nose for driving over kerbs. I think of it as an angry Italian race car with a German conscience. Negri suggests to Statham, who is almost salivating by now as he stares at the steering wheel, a plan for getting accustomed to the track: “Why don’t we go out first? I’ll drive, you sit shotgun. Then we’ll switch. I’ll sit here and teach you. And then, I think, we’ll really have the most fun. I’ll jump in one car, you jump in the other and we’ll just do lead-follow. I’ll start off medium speed and work up. If you’re ever uncomfortable, just flash the high beams and I’ll slow down.” As if that’s ever going to happen.
Negri says all this casually, while roaring around the big track’s final corner. An 800m stretch of straight road beckons ahead. The Audi is screeching, its tyres clinging at the edge of traction, and yet Negri is holding the wheel lightly and talking calmly. He could just as easily be sitting at a traffic light. “It’s adrenaline, man. It’s pure adrenaline,” says Statham once we’ve stopped in the pit lane. “Yeah, when you’re on the edge it’s… it’s a lesson, isn’t it?” “When you do it right, it’s wonderful,” says Negri. “But the problem is, if you lose it, that’s…”Statham grins. “Let’s see.”
The LP640 is broken. For reasons Negri can only guess at – disconnected wheel-speed sensor seems to be the most plausible explanation – the car will not advance beyond second gear, so we’re forced to do laps of the Streets in the Gallardo. Poor us. Negri, however, has an idea for the Murciélago. It would be a shame, after all, for this beautiful machine to just sit idle. “We’ve got good tyres. Let’s do burnouts.” He’ll give Statham a lesson in drifting, or the controlled sliding of the car while moving forwards. This is actually now a motor sport in its own right, perfected by Japanese street racers and made famous in a series of manga comics. The idea is to break traction and get the car sliding, but then hold that slide at a particular angle by manipulating the accelerator and the steering wheel, maintaining just enough traction so that the car doesn’t completely spin out. I head out in the Gallardo for a few laps, leaving behind an orange streak whirling around in a cloud of tyre smoke. Minutes later, I return to see both men standing next to the LP640. A cloud of atomised rubber has yet to dissipate from the air above the skidpan. They’re laughing. “This one’s done,” says Statham, pointing to the back, where the tyres are smoking. And indeed it is. I notice the back right tyre is completely shredded, as if someone has taken a cheese grater to it. It’s also, for the record, smoking. “You know what, send me the bill,” says Negri, pulling Statham back towards the Gallardo. “I had as much fun as you did. Now c’mon – let me bust your hymen out on the Streets track.” They start with another hot lap, on which Negri again shows off the driving line. “Holy shit,” Statham howls. He mocks being pinned to the seat and holds out his hand; it’s shaking. “That is a f–king rush.” And then Statham is set loose. Out on the course, the car whips around corners until it doesn’t. On the third lap, Statham spins out. When he pulls into the pit, gravel spills out of the wheels like Rice Krispies being poured from a bowl. “Control the car,” Negri tells him. “So when it’s sideways, fight it. It’s like being on a wild horse. You either gotta pull its reins or it’ll toss you into the weeds.”
“You gotta have a lesson,” Statham tells me, noting that just a short time watching Negri drive improved his own skills exponentially. “You’ll have double the bravery.”
“You know what?” says Negri. “You have it up here.” He points to his head. “You just aren’t thinking it when you’re too focused on being scared.” Out on the track, I can actually see Statham’s confidence grow. He’s hard on the petrol, the brakes, the tyres – in other words, he’s driving the Lamborghini the way a performance car should be driven. There’s a reason racing is expensive. When you push a car’s various parts to their limits – limits they are designed to reach – things wear out quickly. Statham ploughs a little too wildly around a corner and loses the car in a 360-degree spin. He returns, giddy. Negri has some new advice for him: “Keep the traction control on. Not because you’re not capable – you’re more than capable. But the tyres are getting loose and traction will keep you out of trouble.” What he means is that the tyres have heated up, making the rubber slippery, and together with the residual rubber already on the track, not to mention the loose dirt and gravel and… well, it’s easy for those of us who don’t have a professional’s feel for the car to lose it. Clearly.
Negri tells me he thinks Statham is a natural and has something you can’t teach: balls. “If he gained one thing today, it’s that you have to be in control. Technique means diddly if you’re not in control. You’re in charge.” “I’ll tell you something,” says Statham. “With the traction control on, you can’t go wrong. I was hammering it like a motherf–ker! For beginners – which is basically what we are – it’s awesome. You can’t screw up.” Negri doesn’t entirely agree, but the point is taken. “It does what your foot is supposed to be doing. Now you’re in control. You can get in big trouble without it… as you saw.” Here he’s referring to the two times Statham spun out of control. “Traction control will give you all the power you can have. The wheels are telling the computer, ‘Go… don’t go… go… don’t go’.” The computer, he means, allocates power to the wheels based on the amount of traction. If the back left wheel is slipping, engine power gets directed to the wheels that still have grip. Professional drivers can manipulate car physics in other ways, but even the best pro can’t react as quickly as a computer. As Statham disappears for one last lap, Negri is already thinking about the action star’s next lesson, and – perhaps – a new addition to his house. “I wanna get him out here to do some training. I’ll get him to where he can do his own stunt driving. He’s got the agility and the balls. If he’s gonna be that guy – the driver – he may as well be that guy.” Because he can.