So You Want My Job: Road Test Driver

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 15, 2009 · 17 comments

in Money & Career, So You Want My Job

carArthur St. Antoine test-driving a Reynard Formula 3000 race car in Canada.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Do you like adventure? Would you like to get paid to go on one? Do you like cars? Do you like to drive them really fast? Would you like to get paid to write about going on adventures and driving fast?

Sound too good to be true? Well, Arthur St. Antoine has such a job. Mr. St Antoine’s background is James Bond-ian in nature; he is an experienced racing driver, pilot, scuba diver, and photographer. But instead of using these skills in the field of espionage, he employs these passions as an adventurer, writer, and Editor at Large for Motor Trend, where he tests and reviews 150-200 cars every year.

Whether or not you’ll every get to strap into a Ferrari for a day at the office, Mr. St. Antoine’s tips on winning your dream job are right on the money. Many thanks to Arthur for this engaging and inspiring interview!

If you’d like to learn more about Arthur and read more of his writings, check out his blog at Motor Trend, “The Asphalt Jungle” and his personal website as well.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Where did you go to school?)

I was born in Washington D.C. on Pearl Harbor Day 1960, just prior to John F. Kennedy assuming the Oval Office. Washington was an inspirational place to live as a wide-eyed young boy—especially at the time I was there. In particular, I remember visiting the old Smithsonian and seeing some of the early Mercury and Gemini spacecraft not long after they’d flown in space—they were practically still hot from re-entry. Had a life-lasting effect on me.

My family later moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan (my father was a law professor and, for seven years, dean of the Michigan law school). I attended the University of Michigan myself—though I can’t say I amounted to much academically. Managed to graduate with an English degree. My younger brother and two younger sisters would later go on to earn post-graduate degrees from Ivy League universities. Me? After college I went to race-driving school.

2. Why did you want to become a writer/road test driver/road test editor? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I can’t say that I ever knew precisely “what I wanted to be.” I still don’t. I do know that I’ve always been drawn to writing, adventure, exploration, and interesting machines. As a boy, “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” changed my whole concept of what’s “out there,” what’s possible in life. When I watched Cousteau, I knew one day I wanted to live as he did—travel, explore, discover, push myself to learn new and unusual skills. I didn’t know how I’d do so, of course. The moon landing in 1969—which I followed live on our battered old Zenith—was also a revelation. While I never actually entertained the notion of becoming an astronaut myself, certainly the audacity of Apollo 11 and the other missions sparked an ambition within. I’ve since gone on to become both an advanced scuba diver and a licensed airplane pilot.

Cars also fascinated me—particularly Formula 1 racing machines. As a teen, I chanced upon a Saturday afternoon showing of the 1966 movie “Grand Prix,” and was immediately hooked. Here were modern-day knights in little cigar-shaped missiles doing battle at incredible speeds in places like Monte Carlo. It wasn’t enough simply to watch such romance and spectacle from the sidelines; I knew someday I had to partake for myself. Thus, my post-college visit to a race-driving class.

3. Your job would make many men foam at the mouth with envy. How did you find your way into the position?

Take every job seriously, no matter how small. It teaches you professionalism. And you simply can’t predict the connections you might make, the examples you might set for yourself. During college, I worked summers (and some nights during the school year) waiting tables and doing catering jobs for a high-end Ann Arbor restaurant. After I left college (and my restaurant job), the restaurant happened to cater a party for Car and Driver magazine, also based in Ann Arbor. My ex-boss mentioned to one of the C/D staffers, “You know, we have a former employee who loves your magazine and loves cars. In fact, he just took off for racing school.” And the Car and Driver person replied, “Really? Well, send him over. We’re looking for an intern.”

It was lightning in a bottle. Without knowing how I’d ever parlay my loves of writing, cars, and adventure into a career, suddenly I had a foot in the door at a blue-chip enthusiast publication. Within a year, then-editor in chief Don Sherman, to whom I’m forever grateful, gave me my dream shot, promoting me to associate editor—a full-time job writing road tests and news stories. Two years after that, I became managing editor. The ME position was more of a desk job than I wanted—I was mostly editing the work of other writers and running the production aspects of the magazine—but I took it on because I knew it would be good training for the future. After three years, I quit as managing editor to become a full-time freelancer, with Car and Driver as my main client. Luckily, I had a boss (C/D editor in chief William Jeanes) who understood my desire to branch out as a writer—and actually encouraged me to do so.

After moving to Los Angeles in the early 1990s, I began doing more and more adventure and car writing for magazines like Men’s Journal, Marlboro’s Unlimited, Los Angeles, and others. I’d think up some dream idea I wanted to do—climb icebergs in Alaska, hang out with NASA astronauts at the Johnson Space Center, scuba dive on the wrecks where they filmed the James Bond movies in Nassau—then I’d sell the idea to a magazine and get them to pay for it.

By the mid-1990s I dabbled as a copywriter in the advertising business for a few years, always freelancing on the side (many nights I didn’t sleep!). Around 2002, I “traded team flags” and joined Los-Angeles based Motor Trend magazine as Editor at Large. The position allows an exceptional amount of freedom—I write a column, road tests, features, and blogs for Motor Trend, but I’m also able to pursue outside stories such as my adventure writing. I’m very lucky in that respect. I’ve always placed personal freedom very high on my life-priorities list.

4. If a man wants to follow in your footsteps, how should he best prepare? What kinds of things are a magazine or company looking for when they hire a road test driver? How important are personal connections to people already in the biz?

Being a car enthusiast, of course, helps considerably. Back when I started in the biz, what certainly bolstered my chances for securing a full-time gig was my encyclopedic knowledge of Formula 1 (“Hey, Art. Who won the 1961 World Driving Championship?” “Mmmm, that was Phil Hill.”) I was passionate about it, and it showed. Also, I could write. Simply loving cars isn’t enough. You must have strong journalistic/English skills—whether from college classes, working for a local newspaper, etc. Of course, before my first auto-magazine job I’d also saved up for performance-driving classes on my own, and have continued to take such courses throughout my career. I’ve now attended something like 12-14 racing/high-performance driving schools in North America and France, plus I’ve raced in categories ranging from Showroom Stock to various formula cars. Nothing builds your driving skills quicker than wheel time at a race track (and, no, performance driving is a skill that cannot be learned on public roads).

Being savvy with a camera helps, too. I spent much of my free time in junior high and high school shooting pictures with friends and working in my own darkroom. Even if you don’t end up shooting photos yourself, knowing what the photographer needs in terms of light, positioning, etc., can really help during hectic assignments.

For sure, industry connections are big. In fact, any connection can yield unexpected benefits. That’s why I say, don’t ever think any job is too small. You might be painting some guy’s house, and he’s really impressed by your work, and it turns out he knows someone who works at the office you’re trying to break into and he’s happy to put in a good word. Such personal connection gets you right past the pile of résumés on an HR person’s desk. It works the same once you’re writing for magazines. One editor knows another, and they recommend you, and suddenly you have more work. It amazes me how lightly some people treat great opportunities. I’ve seen guys land internships at the car magazines I’ve worked at, then blow their futures by not listening, being cocky, driving recklessly, or simply not trying hard enough. You’re either a professional people can count on, or you’re not. There isn’t a halfway point.

snowCaught in a blizzard during a Land Rover expedition in Iceland

5. What is a doing a road test like? How does one go down?

There are a lot of misconceptions about road-testing, mostly by people who think you simply jump into the car and mash your right foot to the floor. In fact, a road test is very methodical, a combination of carefully derived scientific fact and finely honed personal observations.

The various manufacturers generally supply test cars to us from press fleets they maintain around the country. Or, if a model is just being introduced, we’ll travel to wherever the press event is being held—and that could be anywhere in the world (manufacturers usually pick locales with great driving roads or scenery that will show well in photographs).

At Motor Trend, we try to limit the actual instrumented testing to one or two guys who do it all the time—helps keep the results standardized. We’ll take the car to a test track (in Southern California we use the drag strip at Auto Club Speedway or the runways of the former El Toro Marine Air Station), then run acceleration tests, braking, Figure 8, and more. All data are weather-corrected. Often, after our driver is done with instrumented runs, I’ll make an acceleration blast or two myself, or a few laps around the Figure 8 course, just to get a feel for the car when it’s pushed to the max. We also often rent race tracks (such as Willow Springs in the Mojave), where we can run laps at high speed in relative safety. Pushing a car to its limits reveals a lot about its character, but, again, it’s something you can’t do on a public road.

Road tests also comprise a lot of much more sedate on-road driving. How does the car ride? How is visibility? Quietness on the highway? Ease of using the various electronics and controls? After doing this for a while (I’ve been road-testing for around 25 years now) you know what to look for—and you build up a database of experience from which to compare all sorts of cars. That’s why we try to drive and spend time in every new car that hits the market—it’s the only way you can correctly assess one car’s strengths and weaknesses versus another’s. I probably drive, conservatively, 150 to 200 different cars every year.

Once all the actual test-driving and photography is done (photos take more time than anything else), you sit down to write the review—usually incorporating notes and impressions from other colleagues if they’ve also driven the car.

6. What’s the coolest car you’ve ever gotten to drive?

As I noted, we drive almost every car available for sale in the U.S.—and more. So you could throw a dart at a car catalog and I’ve probably driven it. But, for sure, I do have a few standouts from my career.

Way back in the 1980s I had a chance to drive a 1931 Bugatti Royale, one of only six built and at the time the single most expensive car in the world (Tom Monaghan of Domino’s Pizza fame had paid $8.1 million for it). It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but during the entire drive all I could think about was the chance that I’d bump into a hummingbird or something and cause $500,000 worth of damage. At one point the engine did overheat a bit and steam squeezed out of the radiator—which was terrifying—but in fact the car was fine.

I’ve driven Ferraris on the Italian maker’s private race track (Fiorano) in Italy, ridden with three-time world driving champion Sir Jackie Stewart in an original Ford GT40 LeMans race car, and recently raced a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1 against a Blue Angels F/A-18 fighter jet. This job does have its memorable moments.

In 1998, I even reached the summit of my own personal Everest: a test drive in a genuine Formula 1 Grand Prix racing car. The car itself was mind-blowing, of course, but it was the entire experience that proved almost overwhelming. Here I was, behind the wheel of the ultimate race car, the kind I’d fantasized about when first watching ‘Grand Prix” more than 20 years earlier, actually hurling it around a racetrack myself. By the end of the test my eyes were pretty misty…

7. What is the best part of your job?

The cars are part of it, for sure. It’s like being a test pilot for the military: nowhere else can you get your hands on the hardware we drive. Doesn’t matter if you’re as rich as Bill Gates; you’re not going to get to drive, say, a prototype sports car six months to a year before it’s released to the public. That’s pretty special.

The travel also has its moments—when the planes are on time and the locale is memorable. And I’ve met some really exceptional people over the years: champion race drivers, world-class pilots, writers, explorers, industry captains, brilliant engineers.

Best of all, though, is combining all of it into a story, the creative outlet, the writing. It can be both frustrating as hell and immensely satisfying.

8. What is the worst part of your job?

Deadlines! Also, the hours can be really long—during comparison tests, for instance, 12-14 hour days in the broiling desert are common—and the travel can get to you. I’ve been to Germany three times in the past two months; the last time I returned from Germany’s Nürburgring race track late Friday night then, at dawn on Saturday, left straight for the desert and our annual Motor Trend Car of the Year competition. Jet lag isn’t allowable.

9. What’s the work/family/life balance like?

That’s the hardest part: being away from my wife and daughter (she’s nine). I miss a lot of my daughter’s school events, and though she’s been taking tennis lessons since last spring I have yet to see her play. That gets to you. When I’m home, I try to spend as much time as possible with my girls—we’ll go on a hike in Malibu, to the beach, the Getty museum, just hang out. I’m lucky to have a great wife who not only understands the realities of my job, but also keeps our house running when I’m not there. I could not do this without her.

I get homesick all the time, but I just have to put that out of my mind. The reality is, this is my livelihood. You can’t be an adventurer behind a desk.

10. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

All Ferraris all the time! Yes, we drive Ferraris—and Lamborghinis and Porsches and the like—but there are a lot of Hyundai Elantras and Toyota Corollas in there, too. It’s like the old myth about the test pilots with the silk scarves and the bravado; in fact, like test flying, the job involves a lot of tedium, careful observation, and detailed note-taking. Besides, for every hour I’m behind the wheel of a cool car, I probably spend 15-20 hours behind the computer keyboard, writing road tests or features or blogs.

11. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Do things that scare you—as often as you can. By that I don’t necessarily mean jumping out of an airplane every day. It might be a job move you’re unsure about, or an experience that intrigues you but you’re afraid to try, or simply asking that pretty girl out for a date. The things you’ll regret most later in life are the things you didn’t do. When I was a younger man, I watched a few of my idols die in racing accidents (Gilles Villeneuve’s death at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix was a terrible shock.) I made a vow then: Push, Arthur. The clock is ticking. I don’t want to be 70 years old saying, “I wish I’d . . .”

When I first soloed in an airplane—I’m all alone, and I’ve got to get this thing safely back to earth all by myself—I felt hot flashes of panic zinging through me. It was terrible, and I had to consciously talk myself into remaining calm and landing. Well, I could have quit flying the moment I returned to the runway. But I didn’t. And the very next time I flew solo, a week later, I was fine. I’ve found that most “scary” things are only scary because you don’t understand them—and you only understand them by first pushing past your silly fears.

I’ve long believed this: The worst word in the English language is “complacency.”

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Josef October 15, 2009 at 11:12 am

Great interview. Being a gear-head I’ve always wanted to learn more about this career in particular. Thanks!

2 Jim F. October 15, 2009 at 12:30 pm

Wow-very cool! Yes indeed, your job has me foaming at the mouth with envy. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

3 Nuke LaLoosh October 15, 2009 at 3:25 pm

This is my first Man-Crush of the year of our Lord, 2009.

Envy – absolute envy. Although, the only thing that’s different for me is I won’t take a job that constantly has me missing out on my kids’ lives. Too me, there’s nothing more important than seeing my boys grow into men & being a big part of that.

4 Katherine Taylor October 15, 2009 at 7:43 pm

That guy is so sexy and from the tone of the interview, very confident. I really like the fact that he was able to drive a 1931 Bugatti Royale. But too bad for missing out on some of his daughters activities.

5 Murchada October 16, 2009 at 8:07 am

I like reading about people who took unconventional paths (makes sense) to unconventional jobs.

Here are some jobs I’d like to see if they weren’t already covered:
Sports Illustrated or Penthouse photographer
Movie scriptwriter
Heavy metal guitarist
Demolition man
Stunt man
Novelist
Toy designer

Keep up the good work!

http://www.scotlandshirt.com – the ultimate super Scotland shirt

6 DLM October 16, 2009 at 12:13 pm

“I don’t want to be 70 years old saying, “I wish I’d . . .”” …seen my kids grow up, perhaps?

“I watched a few of my idols die in racing accidents (Gilles Villeneuve’s death at the 1982 Belgian Grand Prix was a terrible shock.)” I’ll bet not as big a shock as for Villeneuve’s family, assuming he had time between races to at least conceive one.

As much as I enjoy reading about these “dream jobs” the true test of manliness is, if one chooses to have a family, to be there for them. This one comes off as very self indulgent.

7 Stuart Dangar October 16, 2009 at 1:02 pm

Very well said Mr. Antoine… I tear up every time I hear or read this quote by Ayrton:

“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.”

-Ayrton Senna

And I think it is the people like us that have to fight to understand that we are not like the others that follow the supposed path and to not feel bad or guilty about it…which I sometimes do

8 Murchada October 16, 2009 at 1:48 pm

DLM, I don’t totally agree with the sentiment, unless you are talking about this job specifically. Is the life of a soldier self-indulgent because they aren’t around a lot? Sometimes there’s a job to be done and sacrifices have to be made.

http://www.scotlandshirt.com

9 DLM October 16, 2009 at 4:16 pm

Murchada,
My intent was to disagree with the sentiment that to be “manly” we must never stop pursuing our dreams of driving the fastest cars, climbing the ten highest peaks, or any other purely self indulgent quest at the expense of the family. This is especially true if the pursuit puts you at risk for not being able to provide for said family. Think about the true story of the guide in “Into Thin Air” that telephoned his pregnant wife to say good bye while dying on Everest. This was not a “sacrifice” that had to be made.
The life of a Soldier is hardly comparable.

10 Theodore October 16, 2009 at 4:48 pm

DLM, getting married and having a family doesn’t being submerging your individuality and all your dreams and passions and sacrificing all of that. There’s no need to kill off your manhood and turn into some boring shell of yourself. Yes you do have to make some sacrifices, but if you can live your dream and you can support your family by doing it, why not go for it? Every man needs to find his own balance. Should men never be businessmen who have to take frequent international trips, or politicians, or film directors, or professional athletes, or archeologists, or astronauts, because they can’t see their family as much as they would like? Should all of those men have given up on their dreams? Were they really self-indulgent? I don’t think you’ve thought through your argument very well.

And this guy isn’t climbing Everest, he’s testing a Hyundai Elentra on a closed track. I think he’s pretty safe.

11 Richard Shelmerdine October 17, 2009 at 10:20 am

Hey guys. I quit my job recently at Asda / Walmart to follow my dream which is to write a spirituality / personal development blog. I encourage you guys to do the same. Small steps will do it.

12 Murchada October 18, 2009 at 11:56 am

DLM, I agree that a man should not pointlessly or foolishly risk his life when he’s got a family to provide for.

I don’t know if this guy was taking insane risks. Yeah, maybe he wasn’t as home as often as he’d like. On the other hand, he was pursuing his passion and earning a living. Sometimes there isn’t a perfect balance.

http://www.scotlandshirt.com

13 Brian Driggs October 18, 2009 at 1:59 pm

What a great read. I happened upon this site randomly after someone I follow on Twitter linked me to this “All My Faves” visual blog directory thing. I thought “Art of Manliness” would be all about beer, sports and fart jokes, but I was dead wrong.

Then again, I don’t know much about the site yet. I ended up glued to the very first story I found from start to finish. This was an exceptional read. I tend to run in gear head blogger circles and I know a LOT of people who recognize Mr. St. Antoine’s name and aspire to such careers. The information shared in this interview is just brilliant.

Thanks for putting forth the effort. You’ve got another subscriber now.

14 DLM October 20, 2009 at 10:54 am

It truly is all about balance, between the family and the job. I am not advocating “…submerging your individuality and all your dreams and passions…” or “(becoming) some boring shell of yourself.”

On the continuum from “Devoted Stay at Home Dad” to “totally self indulgent heel,” I would say this example falls a little closer to the latter than the former. The author himself answers that the hardest part of the job is deadlines and to a lessor extent travel. No mention about the family until specifically asked.

I think it would be better to leave all references to the family out of these “My Job” articles. It is pretty obvious that if question 9 were omitted we would know intuitively such a career would be hard on family life. As it is now it just highlights who is really making the sacrifices in order to drive fast cars and travel around the world.

15 Zack October 24, 2009 at 8:38 am

http://www.motortrend.com/av/features/112_0908_chevy_corvette_zr1_vs_jet_fighter_video/index.html
Talk about something incredible. Think they’d let a Devil Dog Try it? Lucky guys.

16 His sister October 27, 2009 at 1:31 am

Don’t be fooled by the manly talk — my brother is absolutely devoted to his fabulous wife and adorable daughter!

17 marty amoscato November 1, 2009 at 4:53 pm

im 27 i live in queens NY, graduated from shorham-wadingriver with a b.o.c.e.s. deploma for auto mechanics and have a trade school certificate from A.D.I.(automotive diesel institute) i race when i can (drag,drift,motorcross) with my 06 gto. i eat breath and well you get it about pretty much any thing with and engine. i would do anything to have this job…thanks

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