Photo gallery: Celebrities practice for the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race
In the movies and on TV, it seems actors always perform stunts and impossible feats with expertise and ease. But at the Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond this weekend, the actors were mere mortals.
The 12 celebrities slated to participate in the Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race on April 20, part of the 39th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach, took to the track for four days of race training.
Comedian Wanda Sykes admitted she is "just trying to stay alive." Others who have participated in the charity competition took the intense training in stride, such as Jesse Metcalfe, star of the television show Dallas, who said he felt "a need for speed."
Stars including Sykes and Metcalfe, and Olympic Gold Medalist and Long Beach native Jessica Hardy, made the early-morning trek out to the western-most valley of the Mojave Desert to get a crash course in basic racing from Fast Lane Racing School pro instructor Danny McKeever.
Other celebrities participating include Mexico's most acclaimed actress Kate del Castillo ("La Reina del Sur," "Under the Same Moon," "Trade" and "Weeds"); Brett Davern ("Awkward"), Jenna Elfman ("Dharma & Greg" and "1600 Penn"); Jackson Rathbone ("Twilight"); Michelle Rodriguez ("Avatar"); Jeremy Sisto ("Six Feet Under"); Michael Trucco ("Castle" and "How I Met Your Mother"); Dakota Meyer, a former U.S.
Racers in the pro category include motocross champion and MTV's "Nitro Circus" star Andy Bell; 2012 Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race winner and comedian Adam Carolla; Olympic gold medalist swimmer Tyler Clary and National Hot Rod Associate driver Melanie Troxel.
In addition to the pros and celebrities, two charity auction winners will race: Dave Pasant, a retired insurance executive, and Carter Lay, philanthropist and LAY'S chips heir.
Next month, the participants will be zipping 10 laps around Long Beach's 11-turn, 1.97-mile downtown course in souped-up new 210-horsepower Scion FR-S race cars.
But before getting to Long Beach, celebrities had to test their mettle on The Streets of Willow Springs, a 1.7-mile road course.
"Everyone thinks that they are a race car driver because they can speed down the 405 Freeway, and that is decidedly not true," said Grand Prix Association of Long Beach President and CEO Jim Michaelian, who was at Willow Springs Saturday for the celebrities' third day of training.
"It really does take a visit to a place like Willow Springs to show the celebrity drivers that there is much more in terms of technique and expertise to master the track," he said.
Elfman said she had no idea racing was so technical.
"This is a total foreign territory, but I was very excited to explore this opportunity," she said. "It has been a lot to learn in a short time. It has been a real exercise in taking what we are learning in the classroom and bringing it onto the track."
Elfman said it had been a very "colorful day."
"I am not so concerned with speed as I am with mastering the techniques and finding a line," she said. "This has been a very up-and-down experience. ... I really can't take the pressure of anyone riding my ass. I'm just like, pass me."
Metcalfe said he has owned a lot of classic cars and sports cars and rides motorcycles. He said he has been having a blast behind the wheel.
"I jumped at this opportunity," he said. "I have a need for speed. In season one of 'Dallas,' I did the NASCAR experience and did a full day of training, going 130 mph - this seems a bit like Go-Karts compared to that, but I have definitely gotten a little bit of the racing bug."
The celebrities were trained on seating position, steering wheel use, braking, downshifting, cornering and other basics.
It's a challenge, trainers said, because "we're taking a group of people that in most cases have never driven in a competition or even tried to drive a car fast," said Dan McKeever, lead instructor and son of chief instructor Danny McKeever.
"And we have to get them ready to race in Long Beach, where there are walls and there are crowds and there really is all kinds of pressure," he said.
Saturday, which was the third day of training, consisted of reviewing course procedures and race flags alerting drivers of what is happening on the track. The drivers learned there's more to a race than the checkered flag.
For example, a yellow- and red-striped flag means there's oil, water or debris on the track. A black flag with an orange circle means something is wrong with the car and tells the driver to come into the pits for inspection.
Willow Springs is a perfect training ground for beginners, said Michaelian.
"Without walls, the drivers are able to make mistakes and the instructors can work with them on those mistakes without the dangers that are presented in Long Beach - walls, fans, tighter corners," he said.
Celebrities also learned how to pass drivers safely and calculate speed on turns, and they ran simulated practice starts.
"On the first day you get in one of these cars and you see what the limits of a car are and how to navigate them through the turns," said Davern, who stars as Jake Rosati in MTV's "Awkward. "
"I got the car up to about 220 (mph) on the first turn," he said, laughing. "No, really, I think they are going to nickname me 'spins' or 'skids,' because I am spending a lot of time in the dirt. But we are having a blast."
Sykes, meanwhile, wondered if Toyota Racing checked anyone's driver's license. She said most of the men on the track "really think they are in the Daytona 500 - they are crazy out there. I, on the other hand, am taking it slow and steady."
"I really love my life," she said. "I ain't trying to die or get into some accident. When I see someone coming up behind me, I pull over and get out of the way."
Hardy, who has participated in Olympic Trials in the same location she will be cruising over in her Scion FR-S race car, said this is "an opportunity of a lifetime."
"The adrenaline has been insane, when we first took to the track I was about ready to pee my suit," she said. "But things have calmed down a bit and I have really been trying to push myself past my boundaries."
Others talked a little trash.
Del Castillo said she loves that there are more women this year (five total), but joked that "she is much better than all of them."
Meyers, who received the Medal of Honor for bravery in Afghanistan, said the only person he is worried about on the track is Sykes.
"I know that if I wreck her or anything I will have to answer for it once we get to the pits," he said, laughing.
Sykes replied: "I am pretty much afraid of me, too. I am scared of me. I am just trying to stay alive."
She said she is having a blast, but some people are a bit cocky and acting a bit too seriously.
"The instructors, they are so cocky, they really act like they know everything, always telling us what to do like they are the instructor or something," she said, joking. "They really need to calm down a bit, and stop being know-it-alls."
Celebrities will be in Long Beach for Practice Day on April 9. The 2013 Toyota Grand Prix takes place April 19-21.