Man About Town: L.A. Racing school makes him take stock

Man About Town: L.A. Racing school makes him take stock
L.A. racing student Chris Erskine is strapped in and determined not to die at Irwindale Speedway. You try to act smooth while driving a car at 120 mph. (Irfan Khan/Los Angeles Times) (Irfan Khan)

You're talking about someone who death-grips his martini. You're talking about someone who double-clutches during teeth cleanings.

So what am I doing in a stock car, thundering around a speedway at 120 mph? Killing time till happy hour? To me, all hours are happy hours. It's just a matter of how you choose to spend them.


Now, as humans, there are things we automatically and collectively don't like: ice cream headaches, Annette Bening's laugh, webinars.

Then there are the things we automatically love: frogs, Ali MacGraw's legs, reruns of "The Wonder Years."

In between, we have things like auto racing. Some love it. Some don't. I happen to have a need for speed and jittery suspensions.

Sitting still is what frightens me. Like all those idiots lounging around Starbucks all day, working on their spec scripts. Oops, that idiot's me. But still.

What they do out here at Irwindale Speedway is hogtie you into one of these 450-horsepower late-model stock cars. During the classroom session, one of the instructors, Doug, tells us of how some people freak over the cramped driver's cockpit and call it quits right there, though if you've ever flown coach, this won't be anything you're not completely used to.

Other horror stories include three-car pileups in the pit area. Then there was the woman who ran into the concrete rail before even making it onto the track. The dudes who run the L.A. Racing school at Irwindale are still shaking their heads over that one. Wham, bam, thank you, ma'am.

So, basically, my goal today is not to become some ha-ha anecdote during the pre-driving instruction period, which lasts about half an hour. We go over what to do in a skid, the different ways to brake during a turn, how to roll on and off the gas to keep things smooth.

Keeping things smooth is vital to good racing, whether here or at the highest levels. Smooth is king. Mercilessly pounding an accelerator noogies an engine and ka-boozles the suspension. My verbs, not theirs. I just wanted you to get the picture.

Also, my goal today is not to die.

Dying and me don't get along. I have several dozen loans to repay, two fantasy football teams to draft, a dog who insists we're lovers. I've been exploited on every possible level, professionally and personally, which means a lot of people depend on me. Mostly, they are monetary relationships, even the romantic ones, but I've come to believe that money is the essence of all human bonds (and bondages).

"Don't make your first lap your hot lap," the instructor urges.

Bingo. For I have too much to live for.

Funny, but I've been shopping for a vehicle just like this. Full-welded steel tube frame, full coil-over suspension, 450 horsepower pushing 2,500 pounds. In third gear, you shed your skin. In fourth, there goes your nose hair.

This is the kind of car Val Kilmer uses to flee bank heists. Whiskey-throated, throbby, loaded with adolescent angst. The car is me is what I'm saying. I have met my soul mate, all muscle and no brains. Some relationships are just simpler that way. And way sexier.

Four cars at a time, we whip around this fetching little Irwindale Speedway, on big, wide, Hoosier racing tires, sticky as licorice.

I was prepared here today to drive a stock car, not race. But here we are racing at more than 100 miles per hour. Previously, only my intestines ever went that fast.

On the second lap, I update my will. On the third lap, I have a long confessional with God, during which he mostly laughs. On the fourth lap, I begin to cry.

Tears of joy, of course, for I would never admit otherwise. This is the fastest I've ever gone on land, certainly, though there was this one time in high school in my buddy Doug's Mustang — what a maniac.

Really, how does any guy survive the teen years? Worse yet, how does any guy survive middle age?

At racing school, that's how.