“Drifting is not about speed,” explains Lino Ramos, of Sonoma Raceway, where he founded the popular weekly “Wednesday Night Drift” program. “Drifting,” he says, “is all about technique. It’s about taking a car out of control, and still controlling it.”
Sitting at his desk at the raceway—where his office is perched atop a high hill overlooking the facility’s 1600 acres—Ramos calls up a video on a computer and swivels the screen around for me to see. He’s found footage of a car engaging in the technique called “drifting,” in which the driver intentionally oversteers the car, causing a noticeable loss of traction in the rear end of the vehicle.
“It looks pretty cool, doesn’t it,” Ramos says, appreciatively. “It’s even more fun to do it.”
For most of us, of course, watching is as close as we’ll get to drifting, and for several million people across the world, the best way to watch professional drivers losing partial control of their cars while maintaining enough control not to die, is by watching one of the seven movies in the phenomenal Fast & Furious series.
The most recent entry, Furious 7—which Ramos and I have met up here at Sonoma Raceway to discuss—has already made more than three-quarters of a billion dollars, and that’s in just three weeks.
“Drifting is just one of the things the drivers do in the movie,” Ramos says, “but I definitely think it’s the popularity of the Fast & Furious movies that have made drifting so popular over the last few years.”
Ramos has worked at Sonoma Raceway—formerly Infineon Raceway—for 22 years, ever since he was 16 years old, doing basic laborer work around the massive site. It was Sears Point Raceway back then, and as the facility has changed hands a time or two, Ramos has worked his way up to his current position as Director of
Facilities, managing the entire property, supervising 24 employees, overseeing everything from changing over the track configuration from one kind of event to another, all the way to setting up for massive Nascar Cup competitions.
With the 4-year-old Wednesday Night Drift program, Ramos has been able to indulge his love of the sport that makes a car look as if it’s ice skating across a track—simultaneously thrilling and magical, and a little bit scary.
Which pretty much describes Furious 7.
The film—completed, tragically enough, after star Paul Walker died in a car crash in 2013—takes the original concept of the first film, about a cop infiltrating a gang of car thieves, and makes it a cross between a James Bond movie and American Graffiti, with a lot more fistfights than the latter and much cooler cars than the former. In the film, featuring Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez and Dwayne Johnson, cars do a lot more than just drive. They drop from airplanes, parachute to the ground and land on curving mountain roads. They play chicken at 100 miles an hour. They fly out through the windows of a 100-story skyscraper, sail through the air and crash through the window of a second skyscraper, and then a third. They careen from a parking garage and sideswipe a helicopter, somehow dropping off a package before plummeting to the ground.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Ramos admits. “As a guy who loves cars, it’s great to see drivers do all this crazy stuff. But I kind of miss the first movies, where it was all about drag racing with your friends. Working on cars together.
Having fun seeing how fast your car can go. A lot of the stuff they do in the movies now, you couldn’t really do. That stunt with the skyscrapers? That’s not even possible.”
Asked if he thinks these movies have encouraged people to take more chances while driving, Ramos agrees that that’s probably the case.
“And that’s why I go to a lot of car shows and car events,” he says. “I go out and I tell people about what we’re doing here, where you can come out and drive fast and do all kinds of fun things that aren’t legal, or safe, to do on the street.”
In a strange way, Paul Walker’s death illustrates the danger of driving recklessly, underscoring the need to separate what trained drivers do in movies and what the rest of us can do on an open road.
“It’s so unfortunate,” Ramos says. “Paul Walker’s death could have been avoided in so many ways. But unfortunately, you can’t turn the clock back. I really don’t think Paul Walker was the kind of guy to be doing anything reckless out on the streets. He wasn’t even the one driving. It was his friend, the owner of the Porsche. Lots of times, people with expensive cars want to show off how cool their car is, or how fast it can go. It makes it so easy for something to go wrong. And things can go wring fast, just like, ‘Click!’—Everything’s going in the other direction.”
Another way Ramos believes that the Fast & Furious movies have had an influence is that the number of women who’ve been taking up drifting and other car-driving skills has been growing. In the Furious films,
Michelle Rodriguez can do pretty much anything the guys can do behind a wheel, or under the hood.
“It’s pretty cool to see a woman come out here and start working on her car,” Ramos says. “And then she gets behind the wheel and goes out drifting with the other drivers. It’s happening more and more, and I think some of that is because of these movies. A woman sees Fast & Furious and she thinks, ‘I could do that!’
“Cars are fun to be around,” he continues. “Cars are fun to work on, and fun to drive and it doesn’t matter whether you are a guy or a girl. You can get hooked pretty easily.”
Ramos leads me out to the parking lot, where his own 1989 Mustang is waiting. He’s made a number of adjustments of his own.
“When you drive it on the street, every time you shift, you can hear the blow-off, and you can feel that there’s the power there under the hood, if you ever wanted to use it,” he says. “I wouldn’t do it, but if I was on the highway, and a Corvette pulled up next to me, I know that I could punch it and leave that Corvette behind in just a few seconds. That’s a cool feeling. It’s a very special feeling, knowing you are sitting in a car that could go really, really fast if it had to.”