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The festivities at this week’s Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach include a 10-lap pro/celebrity race to raise money for children’s hospitals. It’s a wonderful idea, tinged by one stark truth: Celebrity race drivers are celebrities, not race drivers. Acting skills and beauty are about as helpful on the racetrack as a dead agent. So, driven by curiosity, and perhaps a small measure of perversity, I tagged along last month to see what happens when a dozen A- and B-list icons are dumped into the strange world of race car training school.
8 a.m. To get to Willow Springs International Raceway, I take the 14 east past Lancaster to Rosamond, which, in location and spirit, seems about as far from Santa Monica as you can get. Just when I think I’ve gone too far, I see a racetrack tucked up into a heat-blasted hill. It’s the “Fastest Road in the West”; it says so right on the building. I quickly spot Lauralee Bell from the soap “The Young and The Restless.” “OK, I’m nervous now,” she whispers, confessing that she learned to drive a stick shift just two weeks ago. “I’m here because no one thinks I can do it.”
8:30 a.m. Assembled inside the track’s cinder-block classroom are a model, a rap artist, several actors, a CNN anchor and an Israeli-born high-tech tycoon from the Silicon Valley who donated $53,000 to charity for a spot at the race camp. Several celebrities will be arriving later in the week. I glance around, stunned. There’s not a handler, stylist or arm ornament in sight. Standing in front is Danny McKeever, owner of the Danny McKeever Fast Lane Racing School. For some 14 years he has prepared celebrity drivers for the grand prix’s tough 11-turn street course.
10:30 a.m. The chalkboard is filled with curves labeled “A” and “B,” and there is much discussion about “trail braking” and “toe heel” technique. I could use help grasping the nuances between an early and late apex, but I do understand this: Slow down and you’ll go faster. To finish first, first you have to finish. You’re not making mistakes here; you’re gathering information. Play nice.
11 a.m. Everyone heads out to the track, greeted by a line of race-ready Toyota Celicas. “Since I have stick-shift issues, should I be in back?” Lauralee asks hesitantly. She is told no. I think: You’re going to get squished like a bug.
2 p.m. Most of the celebs are exhilarated by their racing, so much so that I suddenly yearn to get behind the wheel myself, and not of the minivan with baby seats that I arrived in. I turn nonchalantly to Rita Tateel, a “celebrity wrangler” who rounds up stars for such events, and make a subtle inquiry. She explains that the drivers are drawn from “film, music, sports, fashion and a category we call miscellaneous personalities.” I scan my resume mentally, hoping for notably “miscellaneous” experience. I stop when I note that Rita is narrowing her eyes, which, in her line of work, is probably the closest she ever gets to saying no.
7:45 p.m. Although the group is tucked discreetly in the back of a strip mall Japanese restaurant having dinner, a busboy recognizes the famous faces. He works his way among the diners, offering up Celeb 411 to pretty teenage girls eating tempura with their parents. At first, a couple of pairs of girls stroll by. Then it becomes a stream. Finally, one asks rap artist Coolio for his autograph. The chef emerges with a camera, and a gaggle of 8-year-olds appears, waving napkins and pens for autographs. Amid the melee, Melissa Joan Hart, of television’s “Sabrina the Teenage Witch,” and Jose Solano, of the TV show “Baywatch,” size each other up. Later, they salsa in the hotel bar.
8:30 a.m. Parked outside the classroom is a plum-colored Bentley. It belongs to Ze’ev Drori, the computer wizard whose donation earned him a spot in the school. He’s a techie out of water here, though. “Who are these people?” he whispers in my ear. “I don’t watch television.”
Coolio, who commands a room with sharp wit and considerable bravado, seeks advice from the soft-spoken Ze’ev because, as it happens, the one noncelebrity at the camp also is the fastest racer. “I am just not making that turn, man,” Coolio says forcefully. “I don’t know what I’m doing there.” Ze’ev responds quietly, and soon Coolio is nodding and the two are laughing and re-creating the course with hand gestures.
11:30 a.m. “Go get a helmet,” Danny tells me. My heart leaps. Perhaps I’m miscellaneous enough after all. A moment later, I’m strapped into a five-point harness. Alas, it’s the passenger seat. Danny is behind the wheel. We roar off. “Watch my hands on the wheel,” he says. The faster we go, the more calmly he talks. By lap three, he’s cooing advice. As we shoot into turn one going 95 mph, I find that I’m breathing hard. A few minutes before, Jose had pulled into the pit, flashed a dazzling smile and announced: “Better than sex.” He is right.
2 p.m. To everyone’s delight and her own astonishment, Lauralee is starting to go fast. While awaiting their turns, CNN anchor Daryn Kagan is joking with the rap artist, and the Silicon Valley tycoon is chatting with the “Baywatch” hunk. “It’s a microcosm of America,” Ze’ev observes. Perhaps. But as down to earth as they seem, it’s still an America of “InStyle” magazine photo shoots, New York hairdressers and up-all-night wrap parties.
8 p.m. At dinner, Melissa, Lauralee and Carl Lewis, the nine-time Olympic gold medalist, take a photo of their midriffs, all adorned with bellybutton rings. “What will happen when I get pregnant?” Lauralee wonders. We contemplate her navel.
7:30 a.m. Mike Sullivan, a local Toyota dealer, shows up for breakfast in a crash dummy suit. The celebrity race’s 1991 winner, Donny Osmond, singer and TV show host, arrives at the school for the first time this year. He is enormously charming and, to my surprise, this boyishly handsome fellow possesses a steely racing will I haven’t witnessed this week. “After my race in 1991, Chevy actually offered me a team,” he says. A professional race car team? He nods. A short time later, Donny climbs aboard our van heading for the track. He has his own personal helmet, gloves and suit. Ze’ev shoots me a look that says things are different today.
3 p.m. More testosterone is indeed in the air. Ze’ev and Donny and last year’s winner, Andy Lauer from the sitcom “Caroline in the City,” are close to trading paint on the track. “Break them up,” says Danny, waving them in. The urge to make connections between personality and driving style is irresistible. Daryn has no problem mixing it up with the boys. Jose goes fast but tends to fishtail it by turn four. Lauralee lets others go first. One of the guys makes cheap shots when he thinks no one is looking. And Donny--for him, every turn, every downshift is imbued with meaning and importance. “He says none of this is practice,” Lauralee tells me.
4:30 p.m. Huddled inside Toyota’s race trailer, Daryn and one of the instructors discuss the start of the Long Beach race over a handful of Jolly Rancher candies arranged in two rows. Each candy is a racer. “So if I’m pole position, I’m the lemon on the inside right,” she says. “That’s correct, not the grape,” the instructor replies. Walking by a few minutes later, I reach for a candy, then stop myself. Is it bad luck for a racer to be eaten?
9 p.m. Many bottles of red wine have been consumed over an Italian dinner. To my left, Daryn talks about the time she got to fly in an F-18. Across the table, one of the mechanics confesses that he’s never told his mother, who lives in Arizona, about his 20-year-old tattoo. Someone picks up a cell phone and starts calling 411 in Tucson. And to my right, Coolio is singing:
When you find yourself in danger, when you’re threatened by a stranger, when it looks like you will take a lickin’. Bluck, bluck, bluck, bluck. There is one thing you should learn when there is no one else to turn to, c-a-a-a-l-l-l for Super Chicken.
10 a.m. Lauralee’s husband has come to watch her drive. “I told her if she didn’t want to do this, no one would make her,” he says, watching apprehensively as she enters the track. A moment later, the soap girl with stick-shift issues is passing cars on the turn and watching other drivers get small in her rearview mirror. “I’m impressed,” says her husband. In truth, he’s dumbstruck.