A people’s history of doing donuts

Doin’ Donuts. Rippin’ Brodies. Cuttin’ Cookies. Wippin’ Sh**ties. Wherever you are and whatever you call it, turning the steering wheel to full lock and spinning your vehicle in a tight circle is one of life’s great joys. Everyone seems to agree on that, even if they can’t agree on what to call it.

Today is National Donut Day, and I’m totally aware that it’s a made-up holiday designed to sell pastries and that every automotive brand in the country is going to use it as an excuse to post videos of someone doing donuts. But I can’t resist an excuse to post videos of someone doing some donuts. I am not ashamed.

Originally, I planned to do something semi-serious, like trace the history of the donut, but then I realized that, like the first automotive race, the first donut was most likely done by the first car. Here is proof that a Model T can do a donut to back that theory.

So then I thought, hey, NASCAR drivers do some pretty sweet donuts when they win. Wonder who started that, was it Lee Petty or somebody back in the moonshiner days? Well, no, it turns out that back when drivers owned their cars and didn’t rebuild engines every race, they didn’t especially like blowing up their powerplants for a smoke show, so they tended to drive them carefully back to the pits.

Seems like victory lane donuts didn’t really become a thing until the late 1990s, when Alex Zanardi did one in CART racing.

“I think it was Long Beach; he was way down in that race and the TV people had kinda written us off,” says Ganassi Racing Director Mike Hull, who worked with Zanardi when he drove the Ganassi Target car. “He came back to win, and it was a big deal. He proceeded to do donuts, which nobody had ever really seen before. But he was like that—he knew racing was serious, but he loved to celebrate winning. He made it fun. I do believe he was the architect of the victory donut. Afterwards everyone started doing it, in open wheel and especially in NASCAR.”

It’s a cool story, but Stef Schrader of Jalopnik already did a good job telling it, so that’s another story idea I’m too late on. I did quiz Hull on whether he thought NASCAR or Indy Car did better donuts. “Seeing an open wheel car doing a donut with precision is pretty special, but I’m not going to choose sides.” These days he says mileage restrictions and financial considerations make IndyCar donuts rare, so you’re more likely to see them in stock car racing. “Nobody cares if they blow up the engine since they rebuild it anyway after a race. Well… maybe the engine builder cares.”

Look what you started, Alex!

At this point I was getting panicked. I’d already eaten a glaze twist and an apple fritter, and I should have gotten a full dozen because now there weren’t enough left for the office (and also I still had no idea what to write about for this story). Maybe I could find video of someone from every motorsports discipline doing a donut? NASCAR was easy, since the drivers are encouraged to do victory shenanigans. “Most crew chiefs are OK with it,” says Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Penske Ford. “Drivers and the fans love it, so it’s all good in my book.”

We’ve covered Indy Car. What about drag racing? Has anyone ever spun a nitro car in the winners circle? “Sorry, but no,” says Clay Millican, who drives a Top Fuel Dragster and was just in victory lane at Atlanta Dragway, where he set a track record in the Parts Plus/Great Clips rail. Then he laughs. “I wish we could!!!”

I thought I had proven him wrong when I found this video, but the joke’s on me.

As I continued my careful research into donut history, I found that it was not only passenger cars and race cars that were drawn to circular locomotion.  

Check out the turning radius:

Passengers, please fasten your seatbelts.

There are a surprisingly large number of results for “Semi doing donuts.”

Does this count? I feel like it should count.

OK, I’m getting off topic. Here’s that one of the guy in the Cobra doing donuts on the wood floor to get us back on track.

So, at the end of this journey, did we learn anything? Well, we know that anything that can be spun in a circle will be. And nobody can agree if a Brodie is a partial Rockford turn or a full spin.

Steve Dulcich, host of Roadkill Garage and no stranger to demonstrative driving, told me: “Brodie is a forward 180 or U-turn sliding the rear. Donut is a spinning circle 360 degrees or more. Brodie is more useful, donut is more gratuitous mayhem.”

But then my friend Elizabeth Herndon, who is not a famous car show host but does have a blog about words and what they mean, backed me in, thinking a Brodie was any parking lot circle-doing. I was informed that one can only “cut cookies,” if it’s on a lawn, also called a “lawn job.” And one only whips a sh**tie on gravel, since the “sh**tie” part is how gravel goes everywhere. Also, Canadian automotive journalist Ben Hunting says that Québec calls donuts “Les Donuts,” but I don’t believe it.

Elana Scherr Dodge Polara
Elana Scherr

One thing everyone is on the same page about is that the best donut is the donut they’ve done. Understandable. My favorite donut is the first donut I ever did, which was in a 1969 Dodge Polara, and all the gas spilled out the back filler cap so I’m lucky it didn’t all catch on fire. Spectacular. Sadly, I don’t have video of it.

Hopefully this has inspired you to get out and ruin some high school principal’s lawn. On second thought, don’t do that. But I would encourage you to share your own links to gratuitous mayhem and what names you grew up calling this most epic of parking lot punkitude in the comments below.

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