By Blake Z. Rong, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Dec. 4, 2013) — I met Paul Walker earlier this year when Lexus invited us to Willow Springs in California to drive the LFA.
“Oh please,” I thought at the time. “Why the hell did they invite him? Just because he made some car movies or something?”
As it turned out, Mr. Walker was an immensely quick driver—one who hung with and even outpaced Ken Gushi, one of Japan’s top competitors in the sport of drifting. Eventually, they let him and his friend Ryan have free reign over the Streets of Willow.
More importantly, perhaps, Mr. Walker was also funny, self-deprecating, a good storyteller; he raved about his experience driving at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill in 2010, where it “pissed rain” and his team lost an engine. Incidentally, his co-driver was Roger Rodas—who was driving the Porsche that crashed last weekend, killing both men.
It’s a bit of a Hollywood cliché to remark how nice a celebrity is—“Oh my God, he posed for pictures and everything!” the starstruck are quick to gush. But you know what? Mr. Walker did indeed pose for pictures. And the Toyota crew, the journalists, the videographers and those who had never met him before were all grateful to know the big-time Hollywood heartthrob who played with the same cars that we loved, who never checked his enthusiasm, who wore his passion on his short sleeves.
He was one of us, we declared. And you know what? We were right.
You know what else? He never did buy that LFA.
<b>The Movie Star</b>
Mr. Walker was taller in real life.
It’s practically a trope of cinema and celebrity that action heroes are smaller in person than you’d imagine—think Tom Cruise here—and after five increasingly outlandish “Fast and Furious” movies, it’s kosher to consider Mr. Walker an all-out action star. But, he wasn’t short—it’s just easy to look short next to The Rock.
If you asked a sheltered Scandinavian to describe what a Californian boy looks like, he’d be hard-pressed to come up with someone other than blond, easygoing Mr. Walker. He grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He wore flip-flops to the desert. And he was realistic about his celebrity.
“You guys want to see the craziest thing?” he said, thumbing through some photos on his phone. We huddled around him. “So I’m getting breakfast this morning, and this girl there is way more excited than usual. It’s like whatever, it happens sometimes. So she goes up to me and—if this was my daughter I’d kill her—she has ‘FAST’ tattooed on one wrist, and ‘FIVE’ on the other. I’m like, ‘In five years, you’re gonna laser it off.’”
Mr. Walker had a collection of 25 to 30 cars, many of which are kept and serviced at Always Evolving on Constellation Road in Valencia owned by his childhood friend Rich Taylor. There’s some BMW E36 M3 lightweight specials, really rare stuff, he says. An E30 M3, of course. His favorite car, a Nissan S15 Silvia, almost unseen in America. An R34 Skyline GTR comes as no surprise, yet it’s not that one. A Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution that was shipped from Europe. Not, in fact, overnighted from Japan.
“Does Paul get annoyed when people quote lines from the movie at him?” we asked Mr. Taylor.
“Yeah,” he said, “if you go up and say, “Hey, what’s up?” that’s fine. If you just shout lines at him, then it gets annoying.”
Mr. Walker raced in the Redline Time Attack Series in a BMW M3, until the series folded in 2011. Three years ago, he championed a Mazda Miata with Motorsports Enterprises Racing at the brutal 25 Hours of Thunderhill, his first wheel-to-wheel race. “It was pissing rain all weekend,” he said. “Couldn’t see anything. You had to use The Force.”
He mimicked driving with his eyes closed, sticking a right foot out. Team MER overcame a differential and two transmission swaps to take a victory in the E1 class. Mr. Walker “displayed the quick and consistent speed of a veteran racer,” said an MER press release.
Standing trackside at Willow Springs, the dust subsided, and then, those magic words: “You guys want to drive?” He hopped in the yellow LFA with Rich, Mr. Gushi leading in the CCS-R. We rode shotgun with Matt D’Andria, co-host of “CarCast with Adam Carolla” and the only other journalist here. They started half a lap ahead of us around the Streets of Willow, and with every new lap the yellow LFA inched closer and closer to Mr. Gushi, barreling up the straightaway into turn one at 120 mph.
“Hey, he passed Ken!” we heard.
“Did he really?” Mr. D’Andria glanced out the side window.
“Oh, you know he’s not gonna shut up about that.”
No surprise there—the CCS-R has a stock IS F engine, at 416 hp, while the LFA packs both 136 more hp and the adrenaline-fueled misgivings of Brian O’Conner. He’s a good driver, said Mr. Gushi, and he definitely had fun out there. After his session, Lexus wired him up with a microphone to ask him a very simple question: “What did you think of the car?”
“We featured one in ‘Fast Four,’ or ‘Fast Five,’ “Mr. Walker said. “Loved it. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to manipulate Lexus into lending me one for, like, two years.”
“Sure thing, Paul,” we imagine a Lexus rep musing quietly to himself. “We’ll lend you the black one. But if you wreck it, you owe us a 10-second car.”
<i>This report appeared on the website of Autoweek magazine, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.</i>