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Racers find thrills, challenges in Hollywood stunt driving

If you find yourself on the edge of your seat while watching Vin Diesel's character in Fast Five, Dominic Toretto, elude authorities, if you stare in awe as he drifts around I-beams in an abandoned warehouse, it's a good chance you have Rich Rutherford to thank for that jaw-dropping action.

Rutherford was among a small group that served as Diesel's stunt doubles during filming in Puerto Rico and Atlanta for the latest installment of the tuned-up car-driven, adrenaline-junkie film franchise, which hits theaters April 29. It was Rutherford's third appearance in the series, following 2006's The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift and Fast & Furious ('09) and for the veteran stunt man, the draw of the series is all too simple.

"For me the cars are the key," he said. "I want some action. Sometimes we're on jobs and we're not doing anything, but in [the] Fast and Furious [series] you're pretty much in the mix every day when you're on set and to me that's interesting, it keeps your attention up."

Rutherford honed the skills that he's used while working on the likes of Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby and this summer's sequels to Mission: Impossible and Transformers on the race track. The former Indy Lights Series driver had seven top 10s in eight career starts before the money ran out. He became a teacher at the Skip Barber Racing School, where he shot instructional and promotional videos before transitioning into movies and commercials.

While the goals of stunt driving and racing -- the shot and the win -- are very different, what it takes to succeed in both isn't really that far apart, says Rutherford.

"If you're on the race track you have your particular line and you want to repeat that line and your technique all the time so you have a very consistent lap time," Rutherford said. "It's the same thing with movies with the fact that you need to be spot-on every time, because you just don't do one take of something; it's numerous takes, different camera angles, all sorts of stuff going on, so you want to do that same thing over and over again."

Rutherford is far from alone when it comes to making the move from the track to the movie set.

There's Tanner Foust, the host of Top Gear USA, who was nominated for a Taurus World Stunt Award for his work alongside Rutherford in Tokyo Drift and has also appeared in Fast & Furious, among other projects. He's a rally and drift champion with three X-Games gold medals. There's Ben Collins (Quantum of Solace, National Treasure: Book of Secrets), one of the confirmed identities of the masked driver The Stig on BBC's Top Gear, has driven in multiple circuits since 1995, most recently the Le Mans Series and there's Eric Norris (The Amazing Spider-Man, The Green Hornet), the son of Chuck Norris, the 2002 NASCAR Grand National West Series champ, who has also raced in both the Nationwide and Truck Series.

Then there is Stanton Barrett. A legacy stuntman whose father, Stan, was the first person to break the speed of sound on land in 1979 in the famed Budweiser Rocket. The younger Barrett got his first job as Ricky Shroeder's stunt double in a 1989 TV movie and has since appeared in nearly 200 films, including The Green Hornet and 2 Fast, 2 Furious. He's also made 206 starts between the Sprint Cup and Nationwide series, including five N'wide races last season.

"[Stunt driving] is all about timing and being confident in what you're capable of doing and where people are," Barrett said. "Racing [at] 200 mph, inches from guys, obviously you're comfortable driving that close and it's no big deal; things become slower and guys that aren't used to that, things happen a lot quicker and you're better able to read stuff better and judge what happens before it happens."

While there's a common mindset between the two worlds, they are also breeding grounds for competition. There's a sense of one-upmanship among stunt drivers, an "anything you can do, I can take to the nth degree" mentality that's part of trying to produce something that an audience has never seen before.

"You can be the most professional guy in the world, but once you get in your car and it's time to do the move for camera, the competitive juices just come back," Foust said. "That's what it's like being in motorsports and that's the kind of people we are. ... With stunts, you want to keep it safe but at the same time you know what the director is looking for and you want to go big and go as over the top as you can to make the shot."

Foust is part of a group called the Slide Snobs, which counts among its members Rutherford and fellow F&F series alum Rhys Miller. They're prone to watch footage online and on the silver screen, breaking down whether the stunts were enhanced by computers. Call them purists in a world overtaken by CGI.

"We kind of analyze how it went and when there's CGI involved it kind of wipes it away for us," Foust said. "We want to see it done for real."

Barrett has been shot with a squib bullet. He has been set on fire and jumped from one building top to another -- on a motorcycle. It's a line of work where fearlessness would seem qualification No. 1, but Barrett says a daredevil mentality alone can be dangerous, if it's not balanced with a healthy understanding of what could go wrong.

"Especially around the race track, I'll meet people [who will say] 'Oh, I'm crazy, I'll do anything. I want to be a stuntman,'" he said. "I say 'Yeah, you're going to die the first day doing something simple.' It's a whole different approach; it's a strategic approach. We lay it on the line, that's for sure. I'm willing to do anything I think I'm capable of doing, but you have to respect what you're doing, that's for sure."

It's dangerous by nature, the life of a stuntman. It's the part of the movie we have come to take for granted. But the complexity involved in pulling off car chases, even falling down stairs, takes precision and expertise.

"You're putting yourself into a position to go 'Hey, I have the ability to -- whatever happens right now -- I'm going to make the right decision and make the shot and make it happen,'" Barrett said. "It's fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants."

Of course, it isn't without its moments of unrivaled bliss in the absurdity of it all.

On the set of the Red Dawn remake, which is slated to come out later this year, Foust found himself driving a pick-up truck through back yards, crashing through fences and swing sets.

"It was one of the most stress-relieving two weeks of my life, just destroying people's fences," he said. "It was like anger management class or something."

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