A star-studded track
by Karen Robes Meeks
ROSAMOND - Keanu Reeves dodged bullets and flew like Superman in the "Matrix." Raven-Symone played a teenager with psychic ability in "That's So Raven."
Stars often perform mind-bending feats on screen, but here at Willow Springs Raceway in Rosamond, they are mere mortals.
For four days, stars like Reeves and Adrien Brody made the early-morning trek out to the westernmost desert valley of the Mojave Desert to get a crash course in basic racing from Fast Lane Racing School pro instructor Danny McKeever. They will compete in the 33rd annual Toyota Pro/Celebrity Race on April 18 in downtown Long Beach.
Part of the 35th annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach weekend April 16 to 19, this year's pro/celebrity race for charity boasts a field of 18 racers that include actors Eric Close, Tim Daly and Mary Lynn Rajskub, "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek, comedian Carlos Mencia, pro skateboarder Danny Way and MTV's "From G's to Gents" host Fonzworth Bentley. They will race in the celebrity category.
Racers in the pro category include two-time Indianapolis 500 winner and two-time CART Series Champion Al Unser Jr., 2008 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Johnny Benson and Jamie Little, ESPN/ABC's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series pit reporter who was last year's celebrity and overall winner.
Next month, they will be zipping 10 laps around Long Beach's 11-turn, 1.97-mile street course in suped-up Scion tC Sports Coupes.
But before getting to Long Beach, celebrities had to test their mettle on The Streets of Willow Springs, a 1.7-mile road course.
"Everybody thinks that they're 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 on March 21 for the celebrities' third day of training.
"And it takes a visit out to a place like Willow Springs to show everybody that there's much more in terms of technique and expertise."
Raven-Symone did not expect it to be so technical.
"I expected it to be 'OK, press the gas and go,' but there's geometry and thought behind it and you have to actually think," she said.
"When I drive on the normal road, I'm like, 'I know this like the back of my hand,' but it's like erasing everything that I was taught and relearning how to drive again."
Close, who plays FBI agent Martin Fitzgerald on CBS's "Without a Trace," said he's raced before but nothing like this.
"This is a whole new ballgame, and every day I'm learning something new and realizing how bad I am at this and how much I've got to learn still," he said.
Last week, McKeever and his staff trained celebrities on seating position, steering wheel use, braking, downshifting, cornering and other basics.
"It's always challenging 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, leader instructor and son of chief instructor Danny.
"And we've got to get them ready to race in Long Beach, where there's walls and there's crowds and there's all kinds of pressures," he said.
Watch the flags
They reviewed course procedures and race flags alerting them of what's happening on the track. After all, 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 perfect training ground for beginners, said Dan McKeever.
"Without walls, we want to be able to make mistakes, recognize that we made mistakes without hitting something," he said. "Here, we can create a bunch of different configurations and we can recreate a lot of the corners that they're going to see in Long Beach."
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," said Daly, who plays Peter Wilder on the "Grey's Anatomy" spinoff, "Private Practice."
"The idea is to drive as fast and as smoothly as you can on the edge of all hell breaking loose, and all hell breaking loose is a lot farther away than you think it is," he said. "So becoming comfortable with that, I can go this fast in this corner without crashing."
Trebek quickly discovered what kind of driver he is on the track.
"I just found out that I'm very steady," he said. "Unfortunately, the word that goes with steady in so many tales is slow and steady. I am not the fastest puppy out there, but that's OK. At least I'm doing the proper maneuvers and that's encouraging."
Trebek, who considers himself a cautious driver, compared driving on the race course to the freeways.
"I mean, I get nervous if I'm going 70 on the I-5 ... and somebody pulls up on my rear bumper, I'm going to start wondering `What's going on?"' he said. "Here, it's the same thing. Is he going to pass? What is he going to do? Is he just waiting for me to make a mistake?"
Meanwhile, Jamie Little, the third woman in the pro/celebrity race's history to win, returns to defend her title.
"Last year, the biggest challenge was learning how the car works as far as the race track goes," she said. "What is the best way, the fastest way around the race track and hitting your marks and getting all the technical aspects down, to be the fastest you can be?
"This year, the biggest challenge was 'OK, I have all the skills. I know how to get around the race track the fastest way.' But it's finding those little, tiny tenths of a second, being faster in this corner."
Racing takes unbelievable focus, Little said.
"For that slightest second, if your mind starts to wander anywhere besides the race car, you miss your turn, then you miss the next set up and you lose time and somebody gains on you," she said.
Both McKeevers were impressed with this year's crop of racers.
"Everybody's excited," said the elder McKeever, who has been training celebrities for the Long Beach race for the past 24 years. "Yes, there are a couple of people who are a little tentative, but they're actually better than they think they are. ... Everybody's doing really well and have progressed quite a bit."
The way to a win
Some predicted pro skater Danny Way to win this year's race.
"Danny Way will probably win the whole thing because he's as fast as the pros were, but he's racing in the celebrity category," Little said. "But the thing about him is, watching him, he's super fast, but his technical direction on the track wasn't perfect. He wasn't hitting the exact marks you're supposed to hit.
"I think once we get to Long Beach it'll be interesting if he's not right on his marks, but I think overall he was the fastest and probably has the best shot of that group."
Others talked a little trash.
"I don't want anyone to win but me," joked Raven-Symone. "Actually, I'm coming for Adrien Brody. He looks race car-ish and I'm coming for him. Keanu Reeves, OK, yeah, you can unplug yourself and like, teleport yourself there. But this is not a game. This is serious."
However, most said they had one simple goal.
"Al Unser Jr. once said to me ... 'First you have to finish before you finish first,"' Daly said. "So, I would like to finish. I would like to get all laps in. That would be my main goal. And to have fun."
Celebrities will be in Long Beach for Practice Day on April 7.