Driving with the star - stunt driving with Russ Swift
Most people of a certain age will remember the TV advert for a Montego, where the company car driver becomes a hero by dodging all manner of obstacles and sliding his car into an unfeasibly small parking space (see it here if you don't know it). That made the name of Russ Swift, Britain's best known stunt driver.
Now, many years on, I am standing on a deserted Thruxton circuit with Russ Swift who is going to try and teach me some of his tricks using a Mini hatchback. Russ is going to find this harder than making a Montego dance...
To begin with, he shows me some of his repertoire. There is the J-turn, where he reverses at high speed and then flicks the car around in its own length. This is one of the most spectacular manoeuvres, but also has a macabre history. Russ was asked to teach it to the military after two soldiers in Northern Ireland accidentally drove into the path of an IRA funeral in 1988. They were beaten to death by the crowd, but could have escaped if they had known how to make a J-turn.
Then there is the handbrake turn into a parking space – when the parking space is just a few inches longer than the car and the car slides through exactly 180 degrees as it parks (and not 185 degrees or 175 degrees). Finally, there is driving on two wheels, which is the most surprising one. I had assumed driving on two wheels was a constant battle to keep the car falling one way or the other, a battle the driver would eventually lose.
In Russ's case, he can keep it on two wheels for as long as the tyres will last – which is only a couple of miles. Understandably, the sidewalls object to having half a ton weighing directly on to them and expire after a few minutes. He has tried to drive the whole of the Silverstone Formula One circuit on two wheels, but a tyre always gives up before he can complete the lap.
To most people, the idea of a blowout while up on two wheels sounds utterly horrifying, but to Russ it is just a polite message to go back on to four wheels (and the remaining three tyres).
When it came to my turn, I was excused the driving on two wheels bit – that requires quite a few sacrificial cars during the learning process. The J-turn was the trickiest to master, partly because you have to start by going backwards at high speed. The idea is to get close to peak revs in reverse gear, then swing the wheel exactly half a turn. You then hit the brakes and the car starts to spin. As it comes round, you turn the wheel back to exactly where it started and then accelerate away.
Starting a spin is very easy – as many drivers have found to their cost. The hard part is releasing the wheel correctly. Because the car is still spinning, your brain tells you to over-correct: instead of letting the wheel come back by half a turn, you bring it back by more like three-quarters of a turn and then head off at a sharp tangent to the direction you intended to go. Russ says that is the mistake everyone makes – you just have to ignore everything your eyes are telling you, and force yourself to bring the wheel back by what seems like half the required amount.
The handbrake turn is more straightforward – at least you are facing forwards when you start. For this, it is a question of steering sharply and, once the turn has started, pulling on the handbrake as hard as you possibly can to slide the rear wheels round. Again the tricky part is releasing the handbrake at the right time: if you wait until you are straight, it is too late and the car will slide too far. You also have to be ready to accelerate away as soon as the car approaches the opposite direction – the power will pull a front-drive car straight.
At the end of my session with the ever-cheerful Russ, I emphatically did not make the Mini dance, being more Ann Widdicombe than Pamela Stephenson. However it was a fantastic insight into what can be done by the Rudolf Nureyev of car control.
If you get the chance to see Russ Swift in action, take it. Being a former engineer, his moves are as precise as the machine templates he used to build, and his enthusiasm remains undimmed after thousands of millimetre-perfect displays.