Daredevil stunt drivers

We investigate some of the most tyre-smoking, death-defying stunts that seem to fly in the face of physics

It’s hard to watch the incredible vehicular stunts in films such as Fast and Furious and Mission: Impossible and not imagine being behind the wheel racing through the streets and performing jumps. But stunts are more than just CGI magic; they’re the work of professional daredevils, who risk their lives for these high speed performances. 

For stunt drivers it’s not enough to just use their car to cruise down to the beach or drive around town – they want the excitement and danger. Vehicle stunts first revved up in the 1800s, when a telegraph messenger in Connecticut gained fame for the tricks he was performing on his penny-farthing bicycle. He was later credited with the first wheelie on a modern bicycle. Then came the invention of motorbikes and cars, which soon saw thrill-seekers using their vehicles in ever-more daring ways.

Carnivals started to regularly host groups of stunt riders, or ‘stunters’, as the sports gained more attention, and by 1915 the ‘Wall of Death’ was invented. As the name suggests, the new trick had a reputation for being dangerous. With the tracks stood vertically, the idea of the stunt is that bikers start at the bottom of the drum, and as they accelerate they are able to drive horizontally around the inside of the track (a feat we expect is actually as terrifying as it sounds).

Vehicular stunts in cinema started shortly after, with 1958’s Thunder Road introducing the era of the stunt-heavy car chase, leading to more recent iconic stunts on our screens like the sensational truck flip orchestrated by Chris Corbould in The Dark Knight or the multi-car stunts on the bridge in Deadpool. These aren’t the sorts of stunts that people jump into without any planning. Each stunt you see is meticulously practised and calculated, whether in the movies or live stunt performances. The coordinated teams will often first practise with dummies to get a feel of the trick before a stunt driver attempts it properly.

They will also use computers to predict the trajectory and calculate speeds and the locations of landings. The first automobile stunt in cinema history that utilised technology to assist in the planning was James Bond’s 360-degree corkscrew in mid-air with an AMC Hornet X in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974).

Top 5 world famous stunts

Kenny Powers attempted to jump a 1.6-metre section of the St Lawrence River that separates the
US and Canada. The Lincoln Continental was rocket powered and fitted with small wings, but it crashed when it was driven off the 26-metre ramp. 

Robbie Knievel, son of the famous Evel Knievel, attempted a 55-metre jump over 25 pickup trucks when he was 29 years old but was thrown to the ground when he hit the 22nd vehicle after sliding out of control during his approach to the jump.

In 2011, American stuntman Tanner Foust set a world record when he drove a Pro 2 truck down a vertical Hot Wheels-style track and sailed 101 metres through the air. He removed his mask to reveal his identity after he landed.

Skydivers Konstantin Petrijcuks and Steve Curtis shot to fame in 2017 when they drove a car full of
skydivers out of the back of a plane to free-fall to the ground near Area 51 in Arizona, jumping out of the vehicle before it concertinaed into the Earth.

FMX rider Robbie Maddison rode his motorbike along the surface of the Yarra River on 22 December 2016 in Melbourne, Australia, a trick that was originally inspired by a major stunt seen in the movie xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 119, written by Charlie Evans 

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