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I Almost Learned How to Drive a Stick Shift at Honda Driving School
"Maybe if I wiped my mind clean of prior ill-fated lessons, I could become as receptive as an infant or a sponge"

Learning to drive standard is no more difficult than learning to ride a bike. There’s just the added component of grizzled cube van drivers screaming at you as you stall in the middle of the intersection at St. Clair and Bathurst. At Honda’s Manual Driving School 2.0 last Tuesday at the Ontario Place parking lot, I set out to finally learn how — from professional racecar drivers.

In a future automotive world where mechanics become IT specialists and cars drive themselves, it would be nice to say I can drive stick.

“Who has taken manual lessons from a boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife?” boomed our host, retired racecar driver, Chris Bye. “How’d it go?”

I shook my head in dismay, recalling a vast world of pain. 

“Usually,” he chortled, “it ends up with the car in the middle of the intersection, both doors open, keys on the side of the road.” Yep.

“We’re gonna have you driving manually before you leave here. You’re going to depress the clutch all the way to the floor. Why is that? Otherwise the car won’t start! Clutch all the way to the floor. Start the car, put it in first gear, which is toward you and forward. And take your right foot, put it under the seat. DO NOT TOUCH THE GAS PEDAL! When they say, ‘ready — go!’ slowly lift your foot off the clutch. Nice and easy. As soon as the car starts to roll it will start to move a little bit – Just stop moving your foot. Let the clutch engage and let your foot off the rest of the way.”

It seemed simple enough. Maybe if I wiped my mind clean of prior ill-fated lessons, I could become as receptive as an infant, or a sponge.

We scanned an array of pylons set up in a perplexing formation. The rain had washed away most of the chalk which indicated our path. Thankfully (for insurance purposes) there were medics on hand to deal with any ‘situations’. We were driving new Honda Civic and Accord HFPs, guaranteeing that our shifting would be smoother than average. But because each gearshift box is different, I’d have to feel my way around. The whole process seemed vague – not unlike stumbling upon a warp zone in Super Mario Bros.

“Once the car is moving, shifting from first to second to third is easy. The tough part is balancing the throttle and the clutch. That’s what most people struggle with in the beginning. So don’t touch the gas, lift your foot up lightly, once the car starts rolling then give it some gas. Most people say, ‘well won’t I slip the clutch?’ Well, yes, you will. But I’d rather you slip the clutch at 800 RPM than 8000, right? Nice and easy, the car starts to go, start shifting up and down.”

Our instructor was Daniel Morad, who recently signed to Status GP running in the newly formed GP3 series, part of the global GP ladder system to Formula One. He deftly demonstrated the course for us.

“But were you using brake?” we asked, terrified.  

“I was braking and then clutch,” he described again. “Loop around, between the cones, all the way around.”

The whole thing was stumbling towards ecstasy: pull this joystick, stomp down, other foot, brake. In my experience with Streetfighter 2, sometimes pressing all the buttons simultaneously yielded excellent results. More often, they resulted in Chun Li getting decimated.

I fared no better with our intermediate instructor, Kelly Williams who has driven race cars for over 15 years. Once I (mysteriously) got it into second gear, I decided to just stay there and pealed out beyond the pylons and to the outer edge of the parking lot, longing to just keep going at this gear. When I came back, she flagged me over. “Here, I’m gonna ride with you. Did you get lost?” Despite the fact that I was repeatedly stalling and riding the clutch, she was encouraging. “You’re doing alright. Just go easy.” After 40 minutes of lessons, I still couldn’t downshift.

When we broke for lunch, pro driver Alex Tagliani showed up to give us a quick primer. I won the door prize for a ‘hot lap’ with Tagliani, which involved me being pinned breathlessly to my seat as he careened around the course, grazing pylons and screeching to an impressive halt. It was like being stunt car during a car commercial. It was how sex with a porn star or dinner with a Michelin Star chef must be like. Professional.

When I got out of the car, I knew that I had a long way to go.


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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