We Trained As Hollywood Stunt Drivers For The Day
"CONE DOWN! CONE DOWN!"
I’m sat in a Ford Focus RS about to do a J-turn while one of my colleagues sits in the back of the car and a professional stunt driver sits next to me. “Reverse. Speed up. Clutch down. Swing the steering wheel from nine to three. Drive off. Fast.” These directions loop around in my head while I try to prepare myself for the chaos that is about to ensue.
I take a deep breath and internally release a bunch of unprintable swear words before firmly placing my foot on the accelerator and speeding off backwards.
You’re probably wondering how I ended up in this situation…
Ford has just opened a new driving experience called Go Faster where ordinary members of the public can not only try out some of their cars but also test out their acting chops with the aim of making your own Hollywood-esque movie trailer at the end of the day. My colleague Owen and I were challenged to test it out and to take on the role of Wheels in our very own film.
I am a good driver. Well, that’s IMHO. A fairly lengthy list of people may disagree, but they’re all just haters. Yes, I took more times than I care to remember to pass my test, have had plenty of hair-raising moments, almost run over a fair few people, and am partial to a stall, but I’m yet to have a crash – so, in my mind, that makes me one of the best drivers I know.
I grew up in Guernsey, a small island in the middle of the English Channel, where the speed limit is a paltry 35mph with some roads even slower at 15mph. Yep, seriously. Coming into this challenge, I was concerned that I’d be rusty ("Which is the brake and which is the accelerator again?!") and lacking the real need for speed which I associate with stunt driving.
When it comes to acting, my biggest role was that of the male lead (I went to an all-girls school) in my Year 6 play. From there, my jobs dried up, and I cast my dreams of winning an Oscar for my on-screen antics aside.
Owen: While I certainly wouldn’t describe myself as a petrol-head, I definitely have a soft spot for being behind the wheel of a car. My first car was a hot-hatch, and I would come up with excuses to drive it everywhere, even if it was literally to the shop at the end of the road for a pint of milk. As I’ve grown up, my relationship with cars and the cars I’ve owned has matured (I currently drive an automatic, mid-sized, family crossover, complete with a child seat and a "baby on board" sign swinging in the back window), but I’m still shamefully a wannabe boy racer at heart.
As for acting, I took drama at AS level and regretted it within about a lesson and a half. Saying that, I worked in a pretty well-known Floridian theme park for a summer work experience once, and my job was on a ride which involved entertaining guests for hours on end – I loved it and properly hammed it up. So I was hopeful that I might be able to tap into that part of me once again.
Josie: Forgive me, but I know nothing about cars. I don’t understand the concept of horsepower, am uncertain about what power-steering actually means, and couldn’t point out where the engine cylinders are if I needed to. My wish list for a new car is pretty simplistic: It has to be a good colour and come with some pretty cool-looking technology, which the Ford RS we would be driving at the event certainly did have. Plus, it was a snazzy blue.
The Mustang GT is an undeniably sexy car, and, when I saw it rock up in the introduction display, I couldn't help but gasp a little bit. No matter how ambivalent you are to cars, everyone has dreamt of road-tripping around the US of A in a Mustang, right?
Owen: I was PUMPED when I saw the Mustang. I love muscle cars and have wanted to drive a Mustang since Nick Cage jumped Eleanor over the traffic jam in Gone In 60 Seconds. The Focus RS also looked the business, and, when the stunt team lined the cars up in front of us after their introduction display, I was champing at the bit to get in. They made it all look so easy, so I absolutely thought I could jump in and do just do it myself. Numpty.
The challenge: to oversteer the car in order to activate a loss of traction in the rear tyres while maintaining control and gliding around a corner.
Owen: I'd attempted drifting once before in my lifetime and not to put myself down too much, but I was rubbish.
When I got going I felt like an absolute madman – I loved it! It was so easy to do. (Paul Swift, the stunt driver who was with us in the car, gave the advice of “put your foot down and turn the wheel”.) I’m not sure how many times we actually went round, but, at this point, it was the most fun I’ve had behind the wheel of a car. Everyone was screaming, there was smoke everywhere, and the tyres were crying out in agony; I know this sounds like some sort of dystopian nightmare, but you had to be there.
Josie: Oh god, after watching Paul demonstrate the move for us, I was genuinely shaking. I cleverly volunteered Owen to go first in an attempt to take some time out to calm myself but much to my dismay, I was beckoned into the car to experience the thrill of drifting from the backseat, which, as you can imagine, is a lot of being thrown around while watching your life flash before your eyes.
When it came to my turn, my whole body had started to shake. A whole host of anxiety-inducing scenarios were going through my head – what if the car spins out of control or I smash through the barriers and total the car, or what if I simply cry at the steering wheel? After a good minute of trying to dispel my nerves and fumbling with the seatbelt, I decided it was now or never and I boldly pressed down the drifting button while saying a quick prayer and my goodbyes. I took the car round in tighter and tighter around the middle of the drifting course really pushing the car (and myself) to its limits, and, to my surprise, the car’s front wheels started to move outside the back ones.
I’m drifting! I’m really drifting! I thought to myself as I started to feel the addictive sensation of pure adrenaline flood my system.
In my mind, I was sailing around like a pro and suddenly and inexplicably wearing a Drive-esque silk bomber, but when I watched the footage back it looked a bit more...sedate... But I felt badass at the time, which is all that matters, right?
The challenge: to reverse the car at speed, spin it 180-degrees, and then continue forward.
Owen: I had seen this move done in so many films and always wanted to try it, but where on Earth can you actually do something like that without hearing sirens soon after? I couldn’t wait to learn how to pull it off, but I was aware that this was a little more complicated than turning the wheel to full lock and putting your foot down. "J-Turn" John, our instructor, pulled off a seamless manoeuvre on our preview run and made it look so easy, so the pressure was on!
I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty sure I nailed it on all three attempts. This is what I have been put here to do. Some people have photographic memory. Some people can solve a Rubik's cube in less than a minute. Some people will go on to do amazing things to help the human race. I am here to J-turn.
Josie: I can barely reverse, let alone do a controlled spin while doing so, so I knew this was going to be a huge challenge for me. After watching "J-Turn" John run through the movement a few times and bearing witness to Owen absolutely nailing it from the get-go, I was determined to follow suit.
On my first attempt, I predictably fluffed up my timing and forgot to take the car out of reverse (cue lots of smoke and the pungent acrid smell of burnt tyres), and, while my second attempt was slightly better, I still wanted to crack the nut before I relinquished my control of the steering wheel.
“Reverse. Speed up. Clutch down. Swing the steering wheel from nine to three. Drive off. Fast.”
Andddd, I nailed it! I couldn’t believe it. The rush was incredible, and I really felt like a pro at this point. I'll 100% be cracking a J-turn out at any and every opportunity I can get from now on.
The challenge: to complete a controlled skid (basically a handbrake turn) into a parking space–sized box.
Josie: This is one of those stunt-driving moves that every single person, whether they love cars or not, has seen in a film and thought “that is DAMN cool.” Our instructor carefully took us through the moves before showing us how it was done with a perfect slide that would make even Baby Driver blush.
Owen: I had never performed a powerslide in a car. On a BMX, I used to be a demon, but in a car I am very much a "mirror, signal, manoeuvre" kind of person when it comes to parallel parking.
There was A LOT to think about with this stunt. You had to power down towards the parking space, then bury the clutch, hard right turn towards the bay, yank the handbrake, and resist every human urge you have to jam the brake down until you were placed perfectly within the bay. The first two attempts, I ended up the right way round, but my positioning was woeful. On my final attempt, I just gave it the beans and ended up smack bang in the middle of the bay. I was just happy to end the training side of things on a high to be honest.
Josie: When it came to me, I couldn’t quite get the knack! No matter how much I tried, my instincts took over each time I gave it a go and I couldn’t let myself not pump down on the brake when I felt the car sliding. Frustrated, I gave it one last try and managed to hold off the brake less than before but still hadn’t mastered it before my turn ended. My failure made me more determined to get it right for the cameras.
The challenge: Drive a lap of a short course including a slalom run, perform two doughnuts, before parking up at the finish line. Five second time penalties are given to anyone who hits a cone.
Owen: For this challenge, we got to drive a 5.0-litre V8 Mustang GT. And I was so excited that I probably should have brought a change of pants with me.
Before I got going my instructor told me, "the course isn't really about speed, but precision". So really, this was an opportunity to kick the back out and make a lot of smoke in a beast of a car. This was all about keeping composure and not getting too excited that you were driving an automative icon in stunt, and this sort of opportunity would never happen again, and oh my god, I am dead.
When it came to actually taking on the course, I lost my head. I drove my foot into the floor and stormed towards the slalom then swung the car around to attempt a doughnut. I've never done a doughnut before. I've never been told how to do a doughnut before. But the drifting, I thought. I will apply the skills I learned from that here! Full lock on the wheel, foot through the floor, and I felt the back end go. It's working! I thought, as the car entered a slide, but only really in one direction and not in the perfect circle I envisioned. I took out a cone, it disappeared under the car, and I went screaming towards the barriers. My instructor hit the kill switch. I revved up the car again, put it in reverse, headed towards the second doughnut point, and inexplicably used the same tactic again. I powered through another cone. "CONE DOWN! CONE DOWN!" a marshall screamed as it arched through the air. I swung back towards the finish line and slammed on the brakes. "Did you have fun?" asked the instructor. I just laughed at him.
It took five people to dislodge the first come from under the car.
Josie: After witnessing the unfortunate demise of a cone (RIP) thanks to Owen's abysmal driving, I was determined to make sure I made it through the shakedown challenge cleanly (with a fast time to boot). My tactic was simple: Slow and steady wins the race. We've all heard of the tale of the hare and the tortoise, right? For this, I was focused on embodying the tortoise.
Stepping into the car, I realised that the Mustang, while undeniably sexy and a dream to drive, was way bigger than anything I'd ever been behind of the wheel before. I suddenly understood why so many cones had met such an early demise. On my practise run, I knocked the first one, and after realising, I panicked and managed to turn on my windscreen wipers. I finished the course flustered. At least this was just the practise, I thought.
For the real thing, I took a deep breath, put pedal to the metal, and then surged forward as the Mustang roared into action like the fiery beast it is. I took on one side of the course perfectly with all the cones still in place, did a doughnut with a slight drift (natch), then pointed my noble steed towards the finish line. Drumming my fingers excitedly, I managed to switch on my windscreen wipers once again, but this time I didn't let my clumsiness distract me. I parked up the Mustang with a quick emergency stop and looked eagerly towards my timekeeper.
"31 seconds!" I'd come second in the challenge leaderboard for the whole day – and, crucially, had beaten Owen, whose time had been equal to mine bar the 10 seconds of time penalties he'd been saddled with – proving that slow and steady does (kind of) win the race.
The challenge: to take on the role of Wheels, show off your acting abilities, and put all you’ve learned today to the test with the final filming segment.
Josie: This is where everything we’d learned today really counted. For the first part of the filming, we would be metamorphosing into the character of Wheels (complete with a costume change into a badass bomber jacket and leather gloves), a getaway driver helping a trio of criminals enact revenge by breaking into a villain’s casino. Trust me, it all makes sense when you see the trailer!
We were guided by Gus – the eccentric and ego-maniac director – and the rest of the cast, including Scarlet, Carston, and the baddie, Remy. Our acting challenge was simple: to give the camera an ice-cold steely look.
Me? I have no such thing as a steely look. My go-to look is a clumsy smile, so to help, the cast gave me some pointers – "imagine you're a sexy guide dog!" – in order to really tap into my inner "magnum." After fluffing a couple of takes, I dug deep and gave it my all, and I got the take!
Owen: I had no idea that any sort of acting was going to be required, so to be told that I was going to be required to give a smouldering look towards a camera in front of a room full of people not once but twice was pretty daunting. I don’t really smoulder. I can try, but it generally makes me look like I am suffering some sort of internal agony. But the director, Gus, did what he could with a complete novice like myself, and I got there in the end.
Smouldering for the movie poster was actually probably my favourite bit. I felt like I was posing for a real marketing campaign, and one of the cast members, Scarlet showered me with compliments. They were all lies, obviously, but a compliment is a compliment, and I took it.
Josie: Before we filmed our driving scenes, we were taken through the movements by Henry, the stunt lead for Go Faster Productions, whose words of encouragement – a simple “be good!” – I’m sure resonated with the rest of the crew as much as they did me. The route planned was a quick J-turn before heading into a drift and then finishing off with my weakest move, a powerslide, all while making love to the camera. I glided through the J-turn making sure to really swing my steering wheel from nine to three for maximum impact, then gave it my all on the drift before heading into the dreaded powerslide. With gritted teeth, I gave it a go, and this time, to my surprise, I aced it. As I crossed the finish line, I was beaming from ear to ear. Maybe I've got an Evel Knievel in me yet.
Owen: The filming segment was a lot of fun; it felt good to put everything together in one long sequence and put into practise the skills we learnt across the day. I was itching to get back in to the car again. Knowing that it was the last time we’d do it, I was super keen to nail absolutely everything.
I sort of forgot that this wasn’t just an excuse to tear off in the car and have a bit of fun; after the initial J-turn (nailed it), I immediately lost all sense of direction; it was like trying to find your way out of Lakeside on a Saturday afternoon. Paul put me in the right direction, and I had a lot of fun drifting around the camera again. I obviously forgot to look at the camera, and then I got lost again. After making my way to the powerslide section, all intention of performing went out of the window, and I just wanted to hurtle around the course for a second time. Sadly, Paul guided me back to the crew bus, and my stunt-driving experience was done.
Josie: The whole day was a whirlwind of emotions from start to finish. I began my day as a bunch of nerves, shaking with fear, and ended it elated and full of energy. As a bonus, I felt more confident in my driving abilities than before with an added injection of empowerment at how badass I’d just been.
The next day, the elation turned into hilarity when I opened my personalized movie trailer which had been created using splices of footage from the day. While I thought I’d been serving a serious smize and smoulder, it turns out that I’d actually been serving a heavy mix of fear-face and open-mouthed confusion.
Owen: I was bowled over by the poster. Honestly, I’ve shared it with everyone. It’s probably the best photo of me ever taken. I don’t think I’m smouldering, but it’s definitely the slickest I’ve ever looked. Leather gloves and all.
So it’s clear that acting isn’t my strong point, but fair play to the guys in the edit booth. The in-car footage is incredible. Not only do I look like I knew what I was doing, but I really do look like I’m giving it some welly, and the way our footage has been cut in to the existing trailer looks very cool. I definitely let myself down with my "pull the lever" acting though.
Exhausted, but like I’d achieved something. The whole day was an absolute blast. I loved the experience, I learnt a lot, and I really felt like I was creating a film for Ford. I got to drive two very special cars.
I have a lot of love for both the cars. The RS was definitely a little rocket of a car. I had a lot of fun driving it, and I’d definitely like to drive it again. It’s just the wife that needs convincing. (Also, I’d ruin it with the "baby on board" sign.) The Mustang was everything I wanted it to be and more.
I would definitely like to pursue a career on a stunt-driving team. How do you make this happen? Is there a stunt university?
Think you're ready for the Go Faster driving challenge and to take on the role of Wheels? Go Faster is taking place in London from 13–22 October. Head here to find out more information about how to get involved.
Images © Ben Armson / BuzzFeed