Physically, Shaun White — X-Games star, Olympic gold medalist and champion of gingers worldwide — is a small guy. He stands 5-feet-8 in racing shoes, and his vintage leather jacket billows around his slight frame. But despite this, and despite the fact that his hair (which earned him the no-longer-cute nickname "The Flying Tomato") is more auburn than flaming orange, Shaun is the biggest thing in a 2-mile radius. Big words when you consider we're in a Skip Barber classroom at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. He stands out and stands tall, he's the center of attention, has been all his life, and knows it. It's not cockiness; it's just life.
But why is a professional snowboarder/skateboarder with a closet full of gold medals at a racing school? And what the hell is Inside Line doing covering it?
You see, Shaun White wants to drive. With Travis (you know the one), Ken (duh) and Dave Mirra swapping action sports for motorsports, it was only a matter of time before more high-profile extreme action-sports stars turned to the relative safety and joint-saving suspension of professional motorsports. As Pastrana said, "With age, get a cage." And when you're as famous as Shaun White, the cage comes to you. BFGoodrich signed the snowboard/skateboard standout to a two-year endorsement deal to upgrade Shaun White's driving — and if it sells a few tires, great.
The minute we heard about this, we had to see if this kid is for real.
Relax. He's a Car Guy
Shaun White has never known normal. Not the type of normal you and I know, at least. He was sponsored at age 7, won his first X Games gold at 17 and his first Olympic gold medal before he turned 20. He's won gold at the Summer and Winter X Games and the Dew Tour — in the same year.
"I failed my driver's course the first time I went," he says, recounting the beginning of his automotive history. "There was a hidden stop sign.... but I went back and passed. My first car was a Lexus — an IS 300. So I went from that. I ended up just giving that car to my sister, and I went from there to the Murcielago (LP640). Straight into the Lamborghini, and then straight into a tree."
Shaun goes into detail about a decreasing-radius turn, understeer and then wild oversteer that ended with the car becoming one with nature. He doesn't use the correct language, but he does know not only that it went wrong, but why it went wrong. And it went very wrong. The white Lambo was totaled and replaced by the same model, but in black.
"I didn't buy the Lamborghini to be that cool guy," White continues. "I was just fascinated. It was something I never imagined in a million years I'd own. I also drive a '66 Mustang."
He says he's always been a good driver, but driving 600-horsepower cars on an irregular basis (he's traveling most of the year) wasn't enough given his compulsion for speed. "The main thing for me was to possess these skills. I have this pretty rippin' sports car, I should know how to really handle the thing."
That — not any motorsports endeavor — is what Shaun, his brother Jesse, sister Kari and Garrett — a member of White's entourage — are at Skip Barber to do. It's why you'd go and why I'd go. Except we'd have to pay.
The Centrifuge That Separates the Men From the Boys
White spends the first few hours of the day doing setup shots. There are more than a dozen photographers present to document this. They shoot him in his fireproof suit, Oakley racing shoes and gloves (Oakley is a major S.W. sponsor) and Stig-like helmet with his trademark tresses dripping out the bottom. He's in a car, he's out of a car. He's on the car. He's lacing his shoes again. It's what they don't tell you about media production.
Two Skip Barber instructors not set to be on camera with Shaun take me, another journalist and two BFGoodrich execs to a wet skid pad, where we spin for couple of hours in Mazda RX-8s that lack ABS or traction control. Once we've mastered powerslides and pulled off the course, master instructor Terry Earwood tells us that the wet skid pad (an oval in this scenario) is his favorite tool for car control; if he had only one way to teach someone to drive, it'd be a wet skid pad. After two hours of driving through the side window, we agree.
When White's photo shoot is complete, we're exhausted from skid pad training and lounging behind a waist-high gate abutting the skid pad. Shaun is aboard one of the Mazda RX-8s about to make his first laps of the day.
Skip Barber's skid pad comprises two half-circles linked by some 50 yards of straightaway. White barrels the RX-8 into those turney bits faster than anyone else — by a huge margin. He commits. He pushes. He goes for broke every run. He catches the slides sooner, too, and powers out stronger and straighter. It's like there's an accelerometer in his stomach that alerts him the millisecond things change.
"I understand the balance ratio of just before you start to slide out," he says. "I'm starting to feel that. Even snowboarding I'm on the border of being out of control... It's that great fine line. It's nice to hear your tires kind of squee but not that full SQUEAL."
When you've spent this much of your life on the fine edge of grip, slip angles are second-nature regardless of the vehicle or the language. This is sliding. And White is good.
Talent and Time Travel
The autocross isn't difficult, but there's a tight left at the end of the front straight that should be a good barometer of his skill set. On the first lap, he loops the Formula Skip Barber car on that turn. Everyone watching laughs, except the BFGoodrich people who keep their eyes glued to the journalists. White restarts and gets back on course.
Formula Skip Barber cars weigh 1,250 pounds and are powered by a 2.0-liter Mazda engine making 150 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. The cars are shod with — no surprise here — BFGoodrich g-Force Sport AS tires, and can hit 60 in 4.5 seconds. Power gets to the ground via a five-speed sequential manual transmission. This is as far from a Lamborghini Murcielago as you can get.
The next lap he's approaching the corner the same speed as the first run. Clearly for White, entry speed wasn't the issue. He spins again, but this time he stays on the gas, smokes the tires and doesn't stall. Lap three he goes in even faster. He doesn't spin, but manages a powerslide — in a midengine car with a 98.8-inch wheelbase — that would make Samuel Hubinette blush. It's not fast, but he's learning.
On lap four he nails it. He's entering that corner 25 percent faster than either of his siblings. For the remainder of the laps, he continues to nail that corner, but with mild adjustments each time "to set the car for the next turn, and the one after that" he tells me later. His ability to evaluate, execute and react is superhuman.
"The thing that's nice for me is that I process things so fast because of snowboarding. When I'm flipping...everything kind of slows down."
Time slowing down on a race course? That's one of those skills professionals talk about as a milestone in their driving career, not something you figure out on day one.
"The slowing down thing... it's hard to describe. Especially with snowboarding... it doesn't feel that fast. I'm already thinking about what's next. And that's what I like about this course and these things. I can already picture what the turns are supposed to be like before I get in there."
Again, this is driving clarity most pros experience with a few years — not a few hours — of practice. The Skip Barber instructors are equally as impressed — either that or they're the best actors in the world.
Motorsports Is Safe ... for Now
Paraphrasing a bit from Neal Stephenson's cyberpunk novel Snow Crash, professional sports have a way of making 30-year-old men feel decrepit. White is only 24 years old — barely an adult — but he's been in the public eye on the big stage for nearly a decade. Ten years in action sports, however, is a lifetime. Today there's a masseuse next to his luxury bus. White was sidelined in 2010 due to ankle injury and everyone knows those knees won't last forever. Have you seen Travis Pastrana walk lately? It's not pretty.
White's youth leaves a few more years of highly competitive snow/skateboarding for the superstar. And when his schedule opens up for the summer season sometime around 2014, don't be surprised to see a rallycross car with his name on the side. When asked flat-out if this is a viable next step, White's eyes grow to saucers."Yeah, sounds good! Let's do it! Let's keep it fun, keep it exciting!"
And given his natural skills, competitive nature and four years of hand feeding by racing professionals, don't be surprised when he's on the podium. That's where he was born to be.
Edmunds attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.