Text: Iñigo S. Roces / Photos: Iñigo S. Roces | posted August 16, 2010 16:11
The Russ Swift Interview
"There's no flight to the UK at all and Heathrow's the busiest airport in the world. It's too dangerous to fly. It just ruins the engines."
He was stranded here as a result of the an ash cloud from Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull volcano drifting into Europe and grounding flights all over the subcontinent.
He had just finished his last performance at the Manila International Auto Show, parking, turning spinning and even driving Subaru Imprezas on two wheels, twice a day, for the past week.
If you still don't know who Russ Swift is by now, a quick search in YouTube will reveal who he is, what he does, and why you should know him. And after that, scroll down for Auto Industriya's one-on-one interview with him.
Interviewer: So tell us, Russ, who'd you get into this? Take us to the very start.
Russ Swift: I was crazy about cars, anything about cars. It was just something in my genes. My dad, when I was quite young, he used to take me to Scrambles, they called them - motocross events. He was very keen on that. I was very keen on motorbikes. I had motorbikes for years, even if I wasn't old enough to ride. I still got motorbikes now.
As a child at school, in art classes, I would draw cars. When we had to write essays, I would write about cars. When I was home, I was just playing with toy cars, Scalectrix, electric slot car racing. I was into that before. And that was how I met my friends who I started rallying with. I met them in this model car club.
So it was just there, naturally. I think it's my natural enthusiasm that allowed me to get into cars really. I love what I do.
I: And the stunts?
RS: All the tricks, I've mastered performing the sport of Autotesting; perfecting the handbrake turn and the reverse spin, inch perfect.
Somebody recognized that it would be nice if I showed off my tricks in a rally. It was the Rothmans team. They had some guests and asked if I would go and entertain their guests in the middle of this rally. So I did. Then they invited me to a bigger rally and then I put a bit of thought into it, choreographed a proper routine, made it really slick, put it to music and over the next few years, it just grew and grew and took over everything else. Then I was able to make a good living doing nothing else. And that was in the early 80's.
Then I get a break in 1988 doing the Austin Montego commercial. That got me known worldwide and that got me to this part of the world for Proton in 1989 when we did the Tour of Malaysia. Then Opel representatives in Singapore got me to do the Singapore Motor Show about 20 years ago. I've been going back to Singapore since then.
Now, Motor Image, based in Singapore, have me touring this whole part of the world. Later in this year, we go to Indonesia, Singapore, Bangkok and Vietnam.
We do displays all over the world. We did the filming for the show Time Warp in Boston in America. Nissan just did a tour with the Top Gear team in Sydney, Auckland, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
I: So have you passed it down to your son as well?
RS: He just wanted to be in the act. He used to come along to my shows and he thought it was wonderful. He wanted to be in so I built a half size replica of my car with a little lawn mower engine and put a little skid on the side.
He learned to drive on 2 wheels at the age of 7. At the age of 9, he was touring Malaysia with me. We flew in the car from the UK. I made it look like a Proton when he was doing displays for them.
As soon as he finished school, he spent more time coming with me on shows. Now he runs his own separate company. He's doing enough work for both of us.
I: Speaking of work, how does a typical driving display go behind the scenes?
RS: I was picked up straight from the airport, had a mini press conference at the airport. They drove me straight here where there was another press conference. I then went out and checked in with the mechanics who were busy preparing the cars. The loading bay was still busy with people unloading the show cars. So I went back to the hotel, unpacked and changed for about 2 hours. I went back here, had half an hour's practice with the cars, ran through the routine with the other drivers who position the cars for me. Then I came back here at 4 am the next morning for the morning television show. I was here till 8, went back to the hotel and slept for an hour and a half. They picked me up again half past nine and I came back here.
I: And the show itself? How does that come together?
RS: Each show is about 20-25 minutes. It depends on the area. I got a small area here so it limits what I can do, but that is the standard show. Some people want smaller, more compact shows. If it's part of a big show, we do lots of smaller elements. What I do here is a fairly standard show for a small area.
It's very physical, especially in a small area. When you got room to get the car up to speed, you can make the car to do a lot of the work. Whereas at low speed, you're actually hauling the car around. I have to put a lot of input into it.
I: This all sounds like a lot of work. How do you get the strength to get up in the morning and do it?
RS: I still enjoy it now as much as ever. My bones are starting to hurt a little bit. I find that my mobility isn't as good as it was but I still think that I can put on as good a display as I ever did.
My back and my ribs and my shoulders, you know, you really know you've done it. I loosen up and stretch before I do these things because the physical effort that goes into it is hard to believe.
I try to teach people to do these things and they haven't got the strength to do it. It's really quite aggressive the things I do.
I: It's a hectic and physical routine. And you've been doing this for 30 years?
I: How in the world do you keep it up?
RS: You could make it difficult for yourself. I'm easy on myself. I rest whenever I can. I can switch off. I can do a show, then I can sleep for an hour, finish the show, go straight to sleep, wake up again, go straight to another show. You've got to do that. If you're tired, you can't be 100%. You can't be bubbly. I think that's so important when I do I show. I don't want a show to feel flat because of me.
I: So shall we add character actor to your long and impressive resume?
RS: Lots of things all come together. I've got to be a business man, I've got to be an accountant, I've got to be an agent. It's all about relationships and trust and being professional. I've never advertised. All my work has come from recommendations.
Alvin Uy (MIAS organizer) saw me perform in Singapore Motor Show and asked me to come here. Every job I do leads to another job. It's just a pleasure to do things people appreciate and enjoy.
I: Any plans of retirement any time soon?
RS: I don't know. I'll know when to pack up; when I don't enjoy anymore, when it hurts too much to do it, when I can't cope with it. Then I'll stop. It's still enjoyable and I'll continue it.
I: What keeps you going?
RS: It's not the money. I don't need the money. I'm not a multimillionaire. I could retire if I was careful. I'd rather do this than go on holiday. This is far more interesting. I'd be bored if I was sat on a beach somewhere.
I: Why so?
RS: You meet interesting people, doing a bit of driving you enjoy and making good friends. Here, as long as I'm able to come back and still do a good job, I'll do so.
I: Anything for fans wanting to follow in your footsteps?
RS: Just be very sensible about this. There are people now who aspire to do what I do and they probably don't realize how much groundwork has gone into it. I get emails virtually every day from someone who wants to be part of my team. I've probably competed in auto tests every weekend for 10 years before I got to that level and won the British Championship. People have got to do that sort of thing. I can't just take somebody on and train them up to do what they do. It's got to be in them, they've got to have the same enthusiasm as I have to do that sort of thing. I can point them in the right direction and channel them where to go. But you've got to get involved but you've got to do it responsibly.
There's too many people now, doing the sort of things I do in the street. And it's those people that will get me to stop if what I do becomes socially unacceptable because of other people.
I: Isn't that how you practice?
RS: I see what I do as similar to an aerobatic display, an airshow. The pilots don't do that everyday at work. They're very responsible people putting on a show in the right environment with the right circumstances. That's where you can do those things.
There's no place to do what I do in a public place where anybody can start to do handbrake turns no matter what the confidence is or who it's about. If you do wanna do something like this, join a registered club or association where they organize events, where there's people who can show you how to do things, the right techniques. Then you take it from there.
It's hard work at the end of the day. It's practice. It's like playing a musical instrument. It doesn't matter how much raw talent you got. They don't realize how much skill and practice it takes to do the sort of things I do a hundred times out of a hundred and still leave room for error. And still put on an exciting display without accidents.
I: But these are with cars on the very edge of control. How do you keep it so consistent?
RS: I'm not a daredevil, really. I've been doing this a long time now. I haven't rolled a car in 30 years. There are times I would say no. If the surface is oily and wet and I just think it can't be done. Nobody will put me under pressure to do it. You have to stand up to that. There are cases where people won't take your word for it and believe that that's only as far as you can go.
The experience I've got, I know how far I can go and stay safe. I'm very confident that I can make a decision that it's not safe. It's a big responsibility and your reputation depends on it.
I work for car manufacturers not two bit firms that want someone to do crazy driving. I'm representing big companies and fronting their promotion and I have to act very professionally and responsibility. And I think that's what people like about me.
I: That's what the whole world likes about you. Thanks so much for your time, Russ.