The real-life ‘Fast and the Furious’

Professional stunt driver Roger Richman poses with one of his tools of the trade, a Ferrari. Courtesy Roger Richman

When not relaxing at home in Malibu, veteran stunt drivers Roger and Doriana Richman are pushing the limits of automotive driving, straight into a theater near you.

By Darlene Ricker / Special to The Malibu Times

Last weekend was pretty run of the mill for Roger Richman. He got out of bed at 3 a.m., drove down the dark, windy roads from his Malibu Canyon home and arrived two hours later at an empty landing strip at San Bernardino International Airport. There he stepped out of his SUV and boosted a quarter-of-a-million-dollar Ferrari 458 Italia, which he spirited away at 120 miles per hour.

No one called the cops. Richman was just doing what he is renowned for worldwide: precision and stunt driving. He is among the cadre of professionals who get the call when a director needs a driver for a high-performance automobile commercial, or a stunt double for a chase scene in a TV show or a feature film.

“We get paid to do what we used to get tickets for,” said Richman with a laugh. “It’s the best job in the world.”

He and his wife, Doriana Richman, who is also a top professional driver, own LA Motorsports, a group of 12 super speedsters who can make cars stop on a dime, spin, “drift” (slide sideways), hurtle through the air, flip end over end, rocket off cliffs and other daredevil maneuvers. Founded by the couple in 2000, the company also provides high-performance aircraft pilots and equestrian stunt riders.

Their team has appeared in everything from hundreds of award-winning Superbowl half-time commercials to the recent “House Arrest” ad in which Richman speeds incognito through a glitzy mansion filled with partygoers. The person seen emerging from behind the wheel, however, is none other than Charlie Sheen.

The original human crash-test dummy, Richman was hired in 1990 to slam a Chrysler straight into a cement wall to test whether a new invention called an airbag would work. (Lee Iacocca was such a believer in the airbag that he volunteered to perform the test himself, said Richman, but wiser heads prevailed.)

“We [pro drivers] do things with cars that people shouldn’t do,” says Richman, hence the disclaimer: “Professional driver. Closed course. Do not attempt.”

While he may sound like a wild child, Richman is anything but. Safety is his mantra. “Creating a safe environment is a huge part of our job. The most dangerous thing we do can be driving to work,” he said jokingly. Still, he conceded, “There can be moments of extreme danger, and our professionalism is what keeps us and everyone else on the set safe. No one benefits from something going wrong.”

That was never truer than the day a helicopter pilot miscalculated, swooped too low in a maneuver above a car Richman was driving and sheared off the roof. When he saw it coming, Richman positioned the car smack between the skids of the helicopter, held his breath and fortunately walked away with only a concussion and some facial lacerations that required surgery.

Such are the risks of driving at breakneck speed in top action film series such as “Batman,” “Transformers,” “Spiderman,” “The Green Hornet” and “The Dark Knight,” all of which have scenes with LA Motorsports drivers behind the wheel. The team’s list goes on: “The Italian Job,” “Men in Black 3,” “Get Smart,” “Moneyball,” “Salt,” “Inception,” “Meet the Fockers,” “Fast Five” and “Iron Man 2,” among other feature films and TV series.

Which shoots are the most fun? “Any project when we get to do something new and creative,” said Doriana Richman. “Working with new maneuvers and with a director we enjoy and respect-that’s the best.”

Their greatest concern when filming is “getting it right,” she said. “They want us to drive on the edge, and the margin of error is so refined. We’re traveling at high speeds, inches away from a camera suspended in front of us. You can’t imagine how hard it is. The pressure is out of control.”

Choreographing an action sequence takes incredibly precise timing, said Richman. “Formation driving is extremely demanding. If one driver in the front screws up, you can’t fix it. Everyone is going to crash into each other.”

Mike Davison of Los Angeles, executive producer of countless commercials featuring Richman’s driving during the past 20-plus years, calls him a “problem solver.” Said Davison, who has worked with all the top precision drivers in the industry: “When you know what you want but don’t know how to accomplish it, you immediately think, ‘Roger.’ If you ask him to put a car on the mark an inch-and-a-half from the camera and get it there at 90 miles an hour, Roger does it.”

The Richmans’ job is to spin an illusion that makes the director’s vision reality for viewers. That vision is never about the driver, said Doriana Richman, adding that in an automotive commercial “the car is the star.”

The physical demands of their jobs require both Richmans to work out daily. It’s so they can maintain the strength and stamina required to withstand the G-forces and other physical demands on a driver’s body.

Keeping their eyes on the road (and fixed on the future), the Richmans already have the next generation of drivers in the pipeline. Cooper Richman, their 14-year-old son, is a highly accomplished motocross rider who likes nothing more than jumping as high and far through the air as his bike will take him: a chip of the old blocks.

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