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Celebrity Drive: Actor Mekhi Phifer

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 4/20/2015 K.S. Wang

Quick Stats: Mekhi Phifer, actor
Daily Driver: 2008 Range Rover (Mekhi's rating: 8 on a scale of 1 to 10)
Favorite road trip: California to Florida
Car he learned to drive in: old Honda or Toyota
First car bought: 1996 Ford Explorer

Mekhi Phifer used to race off-road in a side-by-side as a hobby, and after training for his first time at this weekend's Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race, the actor has a newfound appreciation for road racing.

"It's a great, great experience. I've caught a little bit of the race bug and kind of want to do it more as a hobby," he says. "You really learn that it's a lot of physics and geometry involved. It's not just driving a car like you would drive a car down the highway. It's a totally different machine, totally different mindset. It's very exhilarating. It gives me a whole new respect for NASCAR drivers and racers in general. "

Although his side-by-side was an automatic, Phifer already knew how to drive a car with a manual transmission when he got to training sessions. "I know how to drive stick, so that helped a lot, I didn't have to learn how to do that. But I don't drive stick as my daily driver, so you get a little acclimated, you get used to the clutch and all that stuff again. It's like riding a bike," he says.

Celebrity Drive Mekhi Phifer© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Mekhi Phifer Phifer also had to get used to this type of auto racing. "The terrain is different; the machines are different. You need a lot of what they call 'travel' when you're off-roading, meaning that there's a lot of space between the wheel and wheelwell because you have to be able to go over bumps and what they call 'whoops,' big bumps and go up hills," he says. "So it's a whole different machine totally. In the cars you ride really low to the ground because you're on pavement. You're not climbing up hills and going through water."

Phifer liked learning these new race skills at Willow Springs Raceway led by Danny McKeever and the instructors at Fastlane Race School. "I really do enjoy the tips. They've got some great trainers. The Toyota crew is a wonderful crew that is teaching us a lot and making us very comfortable behind the wheel. I love it. I always have a need for speed," he says, adding that fans might know he's from Harlem, but might not know he has been an off-road racer, goes camping and on RV trips, and skydives. "I pride myself about being a jack of all trades."

When the celebs recently practiced at the actual street course in Long Beach to prepare for this weekend, Phifer drove himself there in his 2008 Range Rover.

"I love my Range. I've had it for years and I don't want to get rid of it," he says. "It's mine flat-out, it's kind of like my baby. My wife has a Range Rover too, so we're a Range Rover household," he says.

The Range Rover a great daily driver for Phifer, who lives in Los Angeles. He loves the SUV and rates it an 8 out of 10. "It runs great. I've done things to it and I don't want to get rid of it. I've customized it in certain ways," he says. "I have little things on it — a supercharger, TVs and a sound system. It's never broken down. I maintain it very well. You get your oil changes, tires rotated, tune-ups."

There's nothing Phifer dislikes about the Range Rover and he also likes that there are no car payments on it — it's all paid for. "Even though I usually follow the speed limit, it's fast, it's powerful, spacious, it's mine," he says.

Phifer only ones one car, having gotten rid of a 2006 BMW 760 since he moved to a place that only allows two parking spaces. "I would rate that a 4, with the mechanical computer problems I had with it," Phifer says of the BMW. "Every time something got fixed, something else went out. That was a pain in the ass. There was always something happening."

When Phifer was off-road racing, he needed a truck to pull his trailer. "I had a big diesel pusher, a DodgeRam," he says. "I had a 26-foot trailer when I used to do off-road racing, in the desert, I would use that to pull and tow. I don't do it anymore, so I don't need it."

Photo: Jack Fleming© Provided by MotorTrend Photo: Jack Fleming

Car he learned to drive in

Phifer grew up in Harlem, in New York City, and a family friend who was a driving instructor taught him how to drive.

"I learned how to drive at a very early age, 13 or 14. It was in a big, empty parking lot in New York. It was a little bit more upstate New York, so it was a little more rural," Phifer says, adding he learned in a basic student driver's car. "It was probably either a Toyota or Honda or something like that. I learned in one day, the mechanics of it all, and then I didn't drive again for a few years."

When he was about 18 and had a learner's permit, Phifer would drive an old car that belonged to his then-girlfriend's mom. "I didn't even have my license yet. Her mother would let us use the car sometimes and I would drive her car. We actually called that car Always Something, because there was always something going wrong with that car. It was a piece of junk," he says. "I think it was maybe like a Chevrolet. That's probably the reason why she even let us drive that thing, because it was a hunk of junk. It was worth $100 maybe."

The car offered an opportunity for a teenager to drive around the city. "I'd drive it in Manhattan, to the boroughs — Brooklyn, wherever the car would take me."

Phifer says certain tricks kept the car running. "You had to have a screw that you put under the battery because if you didn't the wires would disconnect," he says. "If I was driving, and I hit a bump or something, the screw would fall through where the engine is, I would have to hopefully pull over and try to find that screw on the ground."

Sometimes Phifer would have to stop the car at the worst time in the middle of New York City traffic. "It would happen on the on-ramp to a highway and the car would shut off and people would be behind me, and New Yorkers are very impatient, so they're honking and cursing," he says. "And I'm looking on the ground like a prospector for this one screw that fits just right for the battery. And then have to avoid potholes and bumps. I mean, it was a pain in the ass."

Phifer didn't get his license until he was 20, when he filmed "High School High" in California, starring Jon Lovitz and Tia Carrera. In Los Angeles, Phifer got to really drive in earnest, in a new rental car. "In my contract they said we'll rent you a car for the duration of the movie, which was three months. But I didn't have a license so I had to get my license. So to this day, even though I was living in New York at the time, I have a California driver's license," he says. "I remember that car — that was a Nissan Altima that they rented for me. So I really got the real hang of driving and driving defensively in Los Angeles."

Photo: Jack Fleming© Provided by MotorTrend Photo: Jack Fleming

First car bought

About a year later, Phifer bought a 1996 Ford Explorer Eddie Bauer edition. "'High School High' was the first time I got a substantial amount of money, like a real deal and then shortly after that I got the Explorer," he says.

Still living in New York City, Phifer bought that SUV as his daily driver. "It was always hard to find parking. Being in the city, going through the elements, I wanted something that could go into four wheel drive if it snows, it rains, and I was a young masculine male, so you want something that has some masculinity to it," he says. "It was the new body style for the Ford Explorer and it looked good. And it was hip. I was young."

Phifer kept the Explorer for two years and upgraded to a Ford Expedition. Shortly after that he moved to Los Angeles and shipped the car to the West Coast.

Favorite road trip

"I love road trips. I'm a road trip king," Phifer says. "Not only do I like road trips being far, but my favorite road trip that I ever had was in a 40-foot RV driving cross country. Just me, my wife, and the dog, to Disney World," he says.

They took two weeks to do the road trip, and he had driven the route before. "It was just a lot of fun to stop in RV parks and go places. We visited her parents in Louisiana, we stopped in Atlanta, a buddy of mine was having a boxing match. So we stopped at many places along the way — Memphis, we stopped all over the place, Arizona, Texas. It was just a great trip."

Phifer took that trip three years ago, and when he has more time they plan to do another road trip. "If we had a month we would stay in certain places for three days and move accordingly," he says. "What made it so fun is we enjoy each other's company immensely and then I just love driving and I love being on the road and seeing some things, the adventure of stopping in RV parks and doing different things that you just can't do by taking a plane somewhere was a lot of fun."

Celebrity Drive Mekhi Phifer© Provided by MotorTrend Celebrity Drive Mekhi Phifer Phifer has a friend who rents out RVs and for him, there's nothing like road-tripping in an RV. "We had music on at times, at times we talked, that's the beauty of an RV. If I got hungry she could go right into the fridge and make sandwich for me," he says. They also watched Travel Channel and wanted to visit some of the top 10 barbecue spots listed. "We wound up hitting a couple of those spots that we saw on television. They didn't live up to the hype at all, but it was still the adventure of it. We had such a great time, we didn't want to come back."

When on road trips, Phifer sometimes gets recognized. "People are cordial and nice, they say 'Hi,' they talk to you, but that's the beauty of going cross-country in that way. You are going to meet new people," he says. "You're going to walk around if somebody's barbecuing, you wind up talking to another family and sitting out with them or them sitting out with you."

He would often call ahead to make reservations at RV parks. "For me personally, I could do 10 hours straight driving. My wife didn't drive the RV. So we could do 10 hours straight, so I would map out accordingly and then I would find RV parks," he says. "So if I was going to drive from L.A. to Arizona, I would find a really cool RV park in Arizona, then we'd make a reservation for a plot. So a lot of times when my name mentioned they would already know that I was coming, sometimes they want a little picture. They're very accommodating, but that's the beauty of it."

Phifer liked the casual schedule of such road trips. "If we're in certain places, we might park the RV, call a cab, go to the local casino, wherever that place is," he says. "Then go to dinner somewhere and back up and hit the road again."

Photo: Jack Fleming© Provided by MotorTrend Photo: Jack Fleming There are some really nice RV parks in this country that people may not know about, Phifer says. "A lot of times people that don't know, they think an RV park is like a trailer park, like low-income housing. But that's not the ones that we went to. We went to high-end RV parks. When you get there, you hook up your RV, a lot of them have gyms and swimming pools, and video game rooms if you've got kids. Then you can explore your area, wherever you are."

Phifer joins other celebs this weekend at the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro/Celebrity Race, including Mark McGrath, Tricia Helfer, Nathan Kress, Rutledge Wood, Brett Davern, Alfonso Ribeiro, Dara Torres, and Robert Patrick. The Rock-N-Roar concert this weekend features Motley Crue's Vince Neil.

Please visit www.gplb.com for more information.

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