After the release of Baby Driver, getaway driving’s never looked so cool. We hear from the people behind those car chases, and meets a group of petrolheads staging fake getaway drives outside Birmingham
(First published in Vera magazine, November 2017)
At the Curborough Sprint Course outside Lichfield, north of Birmingham, I’m watching a robbery – or at least the closest thing that softcore journalists like me get invited to. Leo Sidiropoulos, a local car nut who has worked for Jaguar and Land Rover, is sprinting from his battered VW Polo to grab a briefcase as police sirens begin to blare from a boombox. He gets into the car, which has a giant monkey plush toy called Joe in the passenger seat, fumbles with his seatbelt, and then – amid a screech of tires – takes off round the track, in a hurry.
This is Race Wars, an annual event which was started in 2015 by Shane Lloyd, a colourful former drag racer and nightclub owner from Walsall, who wanted to set up a safe space for local car fanatics who wanted to drive really, really fast – and pretend to be getaway drivers. “I came up with the idea to add a bit of spice and naughtiness to it all,” says Lloyd, who once applied to host Top Gear. He brought in a static US highway patrol car for atmosphere and added a bikini carwash because… well, why not?
“It’s meant to be a bit of fun,” he says. “A lot of these guys are inspired by the movies – the adrenaline, the intensity, the excitement of escaping from something. We give them a place where they can blast the hell out of these cars, but not get in any trouble. After all, everyone secretly wants to be a getaway driver – they just don’t want to go to jail for it.”
Certainly, the mostly young men queueing up for their fictional bank robbery – driving everything from Fiat Puntos to Lotus Exiges and Mitsubishi Evos – have had plenty of inspiration from the movies of late. While Lloyd says he could quote all of the Fast and the Furious movies, it’s ice-cool getaway drivers who have been in vogue in Hollywood over the last few years – and the latest getaway pinup is Ansel Elgort’s Baby in Baby Driver, who drowns out his tinnitus with revved-up 70s rock as he drives.
Edgar Wright’s action-comedy-romance has been a critical and commercial smash, with Empire magazine describing it as a “car-chase opera… a high-octane, tightly choreographed eye-orgy of violence, action, drama and, yes, love”. But never mind Kevin Spacey’s menacingly waspish performance, or the sweet love story between Elgort and Lily James – does the movie pass muster with the petrolheads at Curborough?
“Yes, definitely, though I’d have liked even more driving,” says Simon Ory, an HGV driver in nearby Sutton who is celebrating his 40th birthday – which includes taking me for a spin round the track (literally) in his terrifyingly powerful BMW M4, turning the traction control to zero for maximal drifting, spinning and general showing off, whilst barely getting above second gear.
“The big thing for me is that they use the right car in Baby Driver,” says Ory. “Whether I’m watching a film or reading a report of a real bank robbery, my question is usually the same: what’s the car? A lot of Hollywood movies use these American muscle cars, but in Baby Driver he drives a Subaru Impreza, which is exactly the kind of car a real getaway driver would use.”
Ory is also a discerning consumer when it comes to car stunts. “I don’t like it when car films don’t reflect reality – there’s that scene in Gone in 60 Seconds where the car hits the ramp and jumps a line of cars. I was like: nah, that’s complete nonsense.”
Perhaps the nearest equivalent in Baby Driver comes in the high-octane opening sequence, when Baby – faced with two trucks – does a ‘180 in and 180 out’, a fluid-motion stunt of two 180-degree spins, in different directions, that’s never been seen in a car movie before. I ask Ory about it. “That’s CGI, mate – gotta be,” he says.
Ory may know a lot about cars – from traction control to RPMs and the best tyres for drifting – but, on this particular point, he’s entirely wrong.
I know this because I call up Baby Driver stunt coordinator Darrin Prescott, who might be the hottest car chase expert in Hollywood right now. An all-round stuntman since the mid-90s, he’d been best known for his fight scenes, from Fight Club to The Matrix Reloaded, in which he was the Agent Smith fight double.
But when he got a break as the stunt coordinator and stunt driver on The Bourne Supremacy in 2004, over time he began to be known – in his words – as “the car guy”. He’s since done celebrated car chase scenes in everything from Drive to John Wick, whilst being one of the busiest stunt coordinators in Hollywood.
His style is very much about keeping things real. “With the driving scenes, I love to do as much as possible in-camera [without effects],” says Prescott, who was inspired growing up by Hooper, the 1978 movie starring Burt Reynolds as The Greatest Stuntman Alive . “I don’t like quick-cutting, either, where you’re stitching parts of the gag [stunt scene] together. I like it to play out in one go; I want the real thing.”
The ‘180 in and 180 out’ is a classic example. “I’d seen it in a car show 25 years ago,” says Prescott, “and I’d always wanted to do it in a movie. When I got the concept for Baby Driver, I didn’t just fall in love the idea of setting it all to music – I thought, this is the time for this gag. What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.”
What a lot of people don’t realise with driving scenes is that you often only get one shot. With a fight scene, you can re-shoot as much as you want. But cars are expensive, so you have to get it right.
Luckily, Prescott has his own real-life Baby – stunt driver Jeremy Fry, who’s worked with Prescott on many of his driving films since the Bourne days, including as Ryan Gosling’s driving double in Drive (in which Gosling’s character moonlights as a stunt driver). The pair have been friends since they learned to drift together at the stunt driving school that Fry worked at. Both say the other is the best in the business.
For the 180 gag – which is merely one of a handful of “big-boy stunts” in Baby Driver, like a reverse 270 drift – Fry had to drive at 70mph to get enough speed. “Of course there are nerves when you do a scene like that,” Fry tells me over the phone from California. “We’d rehearsed a lot with cones, but it’s different when you’re there with real trucks, crew and concrete walls. What you see in the movie is exactly what we did.”
Like all Prescott and Fry’s films together, authenticity is important – hence, as he always does in driving movies, Fry took the star to the track for training. “Ansel was a quick learner, like a lot of these guys are,” says Fry. “He may not always be driving, but it’s important that he looks the part. He has to know, for example, that if you’re going to whip a car round, it’s not a huge turn on the steering wheel – it’s gentle.”
Elgort learned the notoriously delicate skill of drifting, and was such a quick learner that he does actually drive in a lot of the movie (for much of the time, actors sit in a contraption known as a Biscuit Rig). “He drives for real in quite a few challenging scenes,” says Fry. “Like the one where he steals an old lady’s Chevy Capri and sees that she’s left her purse, so he powers the car round to give it back.”
Both Fry and Prescott say that filming Baby Driver in Atlanta was up there with their best experiences in the movie industry. “It’s not just that it was so much fun,” says Prescott. “I think it could really stand the test of time and be known as an iconic car chase movie. It’s probably the film I’m most proud of.”
Back at the Curborough Sprint Course, though, things are a little different. One guy’s jeans almost fall down as he sprints to get his briefcase; another wastes almost ten seconds because he’s yanking his seatbelt too hard and it won’t budge (here, helmets and seatbelts are mandatory). Still, the driving is so ferocious and skilful that I’m too intimidated to have a go in Shane’s beaten-up Mazda MX-3 (as a would-be getaway driver, I haven’t even made it to the bank).
As for Sidiropoulos, he clocks in at 97.03, which is a brilliant time given that he’s driving an un-modified Polo that he bought from a farmer after financial difficulties forced him to sell a sportier Honda Civic. But, alas, he’s up against the likes of a modified Subaru Imprezas and Ory’s beastly BMW M3 – and his time means that he doesn’t get to the fictitious safe house in time.
In Race Wars, that means he’s arrested, though the monkey will get off scot-free. “It’s not exactly a Hollywood ending, is it?” he says, deadpan. Getaway driving, alas, may not be a viable career option – something even Baby Driver might know.