Ford vs. Ferrari: The Stunt Drivers

Robert Nagle started racing cars as soon as he could drive. He drag raced competitively before transitioning to road racing. He says that he was bored with running 10-second passes and then sitting around for hours, but drag racing taught him how to make horsepower, and that gave him an edge on the track. After his racing career he began stunt driving for movies and television. Two decades later he is regarded as one of the best stunt coordinators in the business, and being the man behind some of the best driving stunts to have ever graced the big screen.

Stunt driving and stunt coordination offers challenges. He says that he loves figuring out “How do you do this stunt?” “How do you make it cool?” and ‘How do you make it look exciting and dynamic?” 

Working closely with directors in trying to tell the story, he has found his calling. He’s worked on a vast number of movies, but some of his best-known work includes the movie Collateral with Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox, John Wick, John Wick: Chapter 2, The Dark Knight Rises, Black Panther and the Fast and Furious franchise that he’s been a part of since the movie Fast Five, but his most highly acclaimed work was on the film Baby Driver. 

Baby Driver, the movie that is hailed as the modern-day cinema architype for performance driving was one of Nagle’s masterpieces. He says that he spent a year working on the stunts with Darrin Prescott, the Second Unit Director along with Jeremey Fry, “designing the car chases” and trying to make them cool, but he points out that everything—every stunt— “had to be grounded in reality. We didn’t want anything that couldn’t actually be done.”

They don’t have to act, its actually happening. You watch them, they get thrown around, and everyone is in unison.

With their search to perform stunts that don’t need CGI enhancements, Nagle and Allan Padelford of Allan Pradelford Camera Cars, whom he often collaborates with to design new innovative technology, rely on a drivable camera platform that they call the Biscuit Rig. It allows cars and other movie props to be mounted to it and filmed, all while being driven around by expert drivers. He describes the benefits that the Biscuit Rigs gave were its ability to create reality-based motion, “Everything that you see in the wide, of Jeremey driving the Subaru—the spins and what not—we pretty much duplicated with this,” as he points to a Biscuit Rig, “with the actors in the car. So now when you cut to the actors, the physics and everything that’s going on match what you just saw in the wide, so having those physics, everybody in the car is experiencing that, it keeps you in the story. They don’t have to act, its actually happening. You watch them, they get thrown around, and everyone is in unison.”

The movie Baby Driver showcased Nagle’s stunt coordination and showcased the power of the Biscuit Rig in capturing reality-based motion.

The Biscuit Rig’s origins date back to the 2003 blockbuster movie Seabiscuit. In that movie, the horse racing scenes were filmed on the original biscuit rig which was three times the size of the current 22-foot long units. 

Nicknamed the USS Seabiscuit because of its enormous length, mechanical horses were mounted on the platform with the actors riding on top while real horses and jockeys raced alongside. The giant rig drove down the horse track as film crews, who were also on the platform, captured the action. The Biscuit Rig, Nagle says makes “you really feel like you’re in the middle of the action—because you are.”

The original Biscuit Rig was destroyed in a wildfire during filming of the movie Aviator. 

A few years later Allan contacted Nagle about building a more user-friendly version that could be smaller but more versatile. With both of their backgrounds in racing and vehicle dynamics they created the present-day Biscuits.

The new rigs, first called Biscuit Jr., can be configured to meet the needs of a variety of different films. There are now three Biscuits, two being powered by a Cadillac NorthStar V8 that are tweaked to make 400 hp, and one that is a 650 horsepower Chevy LS powered monster that as Nagle says, “will outrun most cars with a car mounted on it.”

The motors run smoothly and are heavily muffled as to not interfere with the filming and sound work that is occurring on the back of the platform. They utilize air suspension to adjust for the varying weights of its movie payload, and their rear axles are equipped with watts-links to stop any lateral movement. Different brake and tire setups are used depending on the stunt and whether the car needs to be livelier and drift around corners, and yes, they can drift. With an extremely low center of gravity, Nagle likens the Biscuit Rigs to a Go-Kart.

They can either carry an entire car on the back with wheels and tires, but since they are so low to the ground, the actual height of a vehicle being filmed can be mimicked by just removing the wheels and tires and mounting the car directly to the platform, being within inches of the actual height.

The platform of the Biscuit can be configured so that a shell of a vehicle can have its wheels and tires touching the ground which gives the illusion, on camera, that it is under its own power.

A common setup that the Biscuits are arranged in is called a “wheel’s down configuration”. On camera, it appears as if the movie prop car is actually driving. By mounting a shell of a car that has been fitted with rear wheels and tires, the platform’s bed is opened up to allow the tires to touch the ground, rolling with the Biscuit and creating the illusion that it is under its own power. It replicates reality so well that if you are looking through the camera at the actor, “you can see the ground, you can see the wheels—it’s all real,” asserts Nagle.

Something that these smaller Biscuits have that the USS Seabiscuit did not is a movable driver’s pod. Nagle designed the rigs so that the driver’s pod could be mounted on either the front or back of the vehicle. 

In 2015, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences gave an Oscar to Nagle and Padleford saying “The Biscuit Jr.’s unique chassis and portable driver pod enables traveling photography from a greater range of camera positions than previously possible, while keeping actors safe and the rig out of frame.”

The Biscuit Rig features a movable driver pod that can be moved around the vehicle, either being mounted fore or aft.

The Biscuit Rig can carry a varying amount of movie car payloads thanks to its air suspension. Once on the platform, the Biscuit does the driving, but on camera it appears as if the actor is in control. 

The max speed of the high horsepower Biscuit rig is 150 mph, and in filming high speed scenes, it allows other stunt drivers in cars to drive flat out, a capability that would be needed in his most recent film: Ferrari vs. Ford. 

Ferrari vs. Ford

The James Mangold directed movie depicting the iconic battle between Ferrari and Ford has been one of Nagle’s favorite projects. He was the stunt coordinator on the film, being given full creative reign over the design and planning of all of the driving stunts. 

Working with Christian Bale and Matt Damon, he helped tell the story of Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby, as they developed the Ford GT40 in their attempt to topple the 24 Hours of Le Mans goliath, Ferrari S.p.A. 

Robert Nagel drives the Ken Miles movie car around the roads of Riverside, CA to honor Riverside International Raceway and Ken Miles, who died at that track back in ‘66.

In charge of over 22 stunt drivers, he brought together a team that included former UK Top Gear’s famous mysterious racecar driver, the Stig, Ben Collins, who equates what Nagle did in bringing together the stunt team to being more like Marvel’s Nick Fury assembling superheroes, “It kind of was like the Avengers assemble! He pulled together all kinds of different skills, from stunts, motor racing and everything in between. All these different drivers to come and work on the sequence, and I was very—very fortunate to be included on that list, there was some fantastic talent on the team all together.”

Many of the drivers had professional racing experience, and some even had raced and won in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Most notably, Nagle made sure to recruit some drivers who had a familial connection to the 1966 Le Mans race and greater Ford GT40 program. 

Alex Gurney, son of Dan Gurney; Derrick Hill, son of Phil Hill; and Jeff Bucknum, son of Ronnie Bucknum were all conscripted as stunt drivers. Gurney even played is father. Nagle wanted them because it was a special project and it gave the film even more authenticity. 

It kind of was like the Avengers assemble!

Racing driver and former host of the US Top Gear, Tanner Foust, who plays Ronnie Bucknum in the film said of the legacy stunt drivers Gurney, Hill, and Bucknum, “they donated their time to be a part of our stunt crew to pay homage to their dads’ legacies.”

Nagle directed the drivers in a cool and calm fashion, as former Corvette C5R Le Mans racer and stunt driver on the movie, Kelly Collins, states, “Robert is very thorough, doesn’t get excited, which I appreciate. Even when stuff gets ‘push comes to shove’, he keeps it all very calculated.” He says that Nagle’s number one priority is driver safety”.

His demeanor helped to relax the drivers who were driving over 150 mph during some stunts. 

Jeff Bucknum recalls that Nagle’s direction was amazing in what he gave the drivers, “He was so good and specific over the radio, because were sitting in cars with our earphones on, connected to the radio, and our only cue of what to do was what he said. Unless Robert Nagle said to go, which was ‘3—2—1—action—action—action!’, that was his go to thing, I wouldn’t let the clutch out and I wouldn’t move the car at all. He was amazing at truly just giving the information that we needed—and we didn’t need a lot, we just needed to know specifically what he wanted us to do and when to go.”

At the end of filming, all of the stunt drivers along with Bale and Damon signed a helmet and presented it to Nagle as a gift—a helmet that he now treasures.

Nagle approached designing the driving scenes as portraying what the actual drivers would have felt and gone through in the actual 1966 races. “There’s a Willow Springs race, a Daytona race, and a Le Mans race, and they all have a different feel to them. […] I want the audience to feel like they’ve experienced at least some of that,” says Nagle, who claims that they “just drove the cars to their limit” in trying to realize his and Mangold’s dream. 

The stunts for the movie drew their influence from multiple places, but one particular crash scene was derived directly from the real-life experience of Darrin Prescott, the second unit director. He was competing in a celebrity race at Road America, driving a Dodge Viper. In the race, another Viper tried passing, and as Nagle tells it “they went wide on the exit of a very fast corner, then he instantly shot back across the track and began cart wheeling.” All of this occurred directly in front of him. He thought that he had just watched another driver die, thankfully the other driver survived, “which is a testament to modern racecar safety,” asserts Nagle, but the entire crash was captured by the cameras mounted on Prescott’s car. That real-life harrowing experience became the basis of a stunt in Ford vs. Ferrari.

Outside of the pro drivers, he also had to have Bale, who was playing Ken Miles, to be trained to a skill level that would be required for some particular driving sequences. He had the training completed at the Bondurant Driving School in Chandler, Arizona. 

When Bale was in the car, he knew instinctively how to act.

In a 5-day private lesson at the school, Bale was taught precision driving by the school’s namesake, Bob Bondurant. In lessons that lasted from 7am to 1 to 2pm in the afternoon, Bale received an education in what a racecar driver goes through. Nagle had another reason for bringing Bale to meet Bob, he had hoped that he would be able to talk with the driving great, who unknown to Nagle at the time, was close friends with Ken Miles.  

As Nagle recalls, after each lesson they “spent about four to five hours sitting down and chatting with Bob for the whole 5-days that we were there—It was an amazing experience,” and it paid off. When Bale was in the car, he knew instinctively how to act, “when he was on the biscuit rig, and we were out there mixing it up, he knew exactly what to do, when to do it— going into a corner, mid-corner, coming off a corner, whatever,” says Nagle. 

This devotion to being focused and telling the racing story made one stunt driver make a comparison between Ken Miles and Nagle. Ben Collin’s says, “Funny enough, I think Nagle actually has a lot in common with the Ken Miles character, like Robert, Ken Miles was a racer as well as an engineer.” 

Behind the wheel of the Biscuit, Nagle still amazed his stunt drivers as he flung the boat-sized Biscuit Rig around the different tracks and driving locations. “Robert’s driving the thing and I’m alongside,” says Kelly Collins, reminiscing at the filming at Willow Springs Raceway, “and Christian’s in that car acting as if he’s driving, and Robert’s getting sideways at like 70 mph in the Biscuit— down through turn 5, and Robert’s got a smile on his face having a ball with it. He’s very comfortable with those things.”

It’s funny to think that Bale is strapped in to a mockup car that’s bolted to the back of the Biscuit as Nagle powered through corners in his 650 hp rig, Foust commented that “Christian Bale was a motorcycle racer, and seemed to trust Robert.” Laughing he says, “I didn’t hear him complain,” speaking of Bale. 

Nagle started his tribute drive at Raceway Ford in Riverside, CA.

All of the stunts and the list of acclaimed drivers and actors is all for one goal: to assist in telling the story. Nagle says that when he is the coordinator, he gets to design the stunts and work with the director to encapsulate his vision of the movie. It’s important, he says, “to do it in a way to drive the narrative forward—it all needs to marry together for it to be a good film. For me, that’s where it’s about. I want to make a great film. It needs to be a part of the story.”

Riverside

With the movie release nearing, Nagle found himself back behind the wheel of the Ken Miles GT40 hero car, except this time instead of orchestrating stunts he was doing a tribute drive in Riverside and Moreno Valley, CA to honor the Ford GT40 program and Ken Miles. The significance of that location was the long-forgotten race track, Riverside International Raceway, that was the location of the GT40 development program back in the 1960s that led to the victories in Le Mans, and where Ken Miles died in a crash while testing the successor of the 1966 winning GT40s. 

Driving around Moreno Valley, the Ford GT40 honored the historic GT40 program that was based at Riverside International Raceway almost 60 years ago by driving on streets sit atop the path of the old race track.

The GT40 was brought out by Superformance LLC, the company that supplied cars for the movie.

Nagle started his drive at Raceway Ford, a dealership that is named in honor of the racetrack, and he headed down the street towards the Moreno Valley Mall.

Driving down Day Street, the street that used to led to the racetrack, he drove up and down, passing the track where almost 60 years ago, Ford GT40s piloted by Dan Gurney, Bruce McLaren, Ronnie Bucknum, Mario Andretti, and Ken Miles and others drove lap after lap, while they refined the cars. 

For Robert paying homage to these personalities and characters meant a lot. Onlookers didn’t know what to make of it when the gleaming Ford GT40 followed by the Dave MacDonald Cobra came rumbling into the Costco gas station for fuel. That gas station sits atop what used to be Riverside Raceways’ famous high speed esses. 

Onlookers didn’t know what to make of it when the gleaming Ford GT40 followed by the Dave MacDonald Cobra came rumbling into the Costco gas station for fuel.

As the cars left, they posed under the shadow of the same mountain that Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Phil Remington and crew toiled under. History paid—an homage to the past—with the circle closed, the Ken Miles movie car sat on display for 6 days inside Raceway Ford.

Sitting in city traffic on Day Street in Moreno Valley, that used to be the street that led to the track, under the shadow of mountain, the Ford GT40 honors the work of Ken Miles, Carroll Shelby and others who pioneering work led to Ford’s victories in Le Mans.

Nagle and his team of stunt drivers hope that you come out and see their hard work. As they’ve said, it’s not just a story about a race, it’s really a story about a man who rose through the driving ranks and was pivotal in the historic battle of these two Titanic automakers. 

Rich MacDonald, Dave MacDonald’s son drives the movie car that honors his father around Pigeon Pass Road in Moreno Valley/Riverside, CA.

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