Warren Luff is sweating.
This article first published in MOTOR Magazine March 2009.
You know him as MOTOR’s own track driver, our Designated Adult who laughs in the face of danger – and our insurers – as he holds obscene powerslides through some of the fastest corners scattered around Australia’s racetracks.
But Luffy is also handy for a quick laptime, and that’s probably why Dick Johnson Racing has him on its books as a V8 Supercar endurance driver, after a long and successful career in motorsport.
Luffy raced in and won the Mitsubishi Mirage series in the mid-1990s before scoring back-to-back V8 Brute Ute championships to cement himself as one of Australia’s best drivers.
He was also called up to race alongside two-time V8 Supercar champ Marcos Ambrose in the 2005 Bathurst 1000. Considering his pedigree, it’s not that surprising. Son of advanced-driving guru Ian Luff, Wazza spent more of his formative years manipulating an almost out-of-control car than you and I spent in a school bus.
So it’s surprising − yet cruelly satisfying − to finally see him uncomfortable behind the wheel. Especially when it’s only a three-speed Mitsubishi that he’s sitting in, that will probably only do 80km/h. Flat-out. So what’s going on? Has Luffy gone soft? Er, no. Quite the opposite, actually.
He’s one of 10 drivers in Warner Bros Movieworld’s all-new Hollywood Stunt Driver Show. As the name suggests, it’s a stunt-driving production worth $36 million that sees five modified Mitsubishi Lancer Evo Xs drift, spin, jump and two-wheel their way through an action-packed 20-minute performance.
Even for experienced drivers like Luffy − or Ricci Giradi as he’s known in the show − it’s heart-in-mouth stuff. “It’s a tense thing,” says Luff. “A lot of the stunts we do just don’t feel natural. Now we’ve done it so much, it might look easy, but there’s still plenty of high-concentration manoeuvres and intensity there.”
The decision to create a new production wasn’t an easy one for Movieworld. Even after 16 years, the Police Academy Stunt Show was still playing to adoring crowds. But while kids could appreciate the Police Academy show for the colour and action, they wouldn’t have a clue who Mahoney was, let alone why he mightn’t want to be lured into the Blue Oyster Bar.
Something new and fresh was needed. Enter Lights, Motors, Action!, a stunt-driving extravaganza from the backlot of Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the US. John Menzies, CEO of Warner Village Theme Parks in Australia, and Michael Croker, the Aussie show’s creative director, were so impressed with it that they decided it was the perfect foundation on which to finally build the replacement for Police Academy.
But how did they come to fall for Luffy’s supposed charms? Did they book him simply for his name, his driving nous and his Gold Coast hairstyle? “Actually, I saw it advertised in Auto Action a day before applications closed,” laughs Luff. “The first driving audition was out at the Holden Performance Driving Centre at Norwell.
There was a sequence of exercises we had to do in the Commodores. The second audition was at Willowbank Dragway, near Queensland Raceway, and that was where we first tried some two-wheeling. The final stage was a verbal interview. Around 250 people applied initially, and that was eventually culled down to 10.”
The selected drivers come from a diverse range of motoring backgrounds. Luff and former Ironman Guy Andrews are the only steerers with a circuit-racing background, while others hail from the pro-drifting scene or are experienced stunt drivers.
One of them, Shea Adams, has a lengthy stunt history, both in driving and falling off burning buildings. His CV includes films like The Matrix and Wolverine.
But the drivers could only be as good as the tools they were to use, and while the Lights, Motors, Action! show in the US features a range of purpose-built stunt cars and heavily modified previous-gen’ Opel Corsas, Movieworld producers insisted on a vehicle that was both tough and recognisable for Gold Coast theme park punters.
“Our brief from the CEO was to find a car that the general audience was going to recognise as the type of car they would drive,” says the show’s drive co-ordinator, Gavin Coleman. “It had to be instantly recognisable as an everyday car that you’d see out on the roads, as opposed to a spaceframe vehicle with a fibreglass shell that was hand-built.”
The Mitsubishi Lancer Evo X, one of MOTOR’s favourite cars of 2008, was decided to be just the vehicle, a fine balance of the ‘everyday’ look with real performance and dynamic ability underneath. But brilliant cars would be no use without the mutts in them knowing what they’re doing, so Movieworld set about training their litter of stunt-driving pups.
“Yeah, it was hard,” says Luff. “There’s been some changes in regards to what is and isn’t possible, but overall, what we’re doing now remains very true to the original driving script.
“I think for all of us, from the very beginning, the two-wheeling was the hardest thing to learn – for me, with my circuit background, for the other guys that have a drifting background, or even the experienced stunt drivers – none of us had done two-wheeling before. It’s a real confidence thing. You’ve got to be really committed to it.
As you’re driving up the ramp, you’ve actually got to turn into it like you’re trying to tip the thing over, because you’ve got to get it up to that balance point and then be able to catch it. If you start doubting yourself, and all of us had our bad days when we weren’t getting it, it gets really frustrating.”
There might be some frustration on the part of the producers, too, if their would-be showmen kept rolling cars, so instead of issuing security blankets, they developed a fifth wheel protruding from one car’s roof that would prevent it actually rolling if one of the drivers got it wrong.
“But the first time we got on the proper set and we didn’t have the fifth wheel as a back-up, it was a real heart-in-mouth moment, because [previously] you always knew you had the security of it there,” says Luff.
“It was almost like the first time you took your training wheels off your bike as a kid – you knew you could do it, but it was still scary. “But we’ve been practising since August, and all of us now are probably some of the best two-wheelers in the country. We’re even doing both left and right turns on a set that’s only 22 metres wide.
But they made sure we had plenty of practice and rehearsal time, because it’s such a ‘wow’ element of the show. We do a four-car cross-over in the middle and the crowd absolutely loves it.” There’s no room for congratulations on the set, though, and Luff emphasises how crucial the timing of each sequence is.
“It’s not only what you’re doing,” Luff explains, “There are three other cars doing the same thing on set. A lot of the time, until you’re ready to do a crossover, you’re blind as to where the other cars are.
So by the time you turn to do the crossover, you’ve got to make sure your timing’s right, otherwise you’re going to have to put it back down on four wheels in a real hurry or two cars will come together. Biff!
“Each morning, for the role that you’re in that day, we do three full run-throughs of the show so that everyone’s on the same page. For whatever reason, if someone misses a cue, we’re all wired up with intercoms. We’ve got a show-tech that calls out our cues for the whole show, so they’re basically our eyes and ears for what’s going on, on the set.
“In rehearsals, there’ve been times when someone’s forgotten a cue, or driven out when they shouldn’t have. So when that happens, everyone just slows it down and waits until everyone gathers up. But there’s been no problems in an actual show.
Thankfully! ”The Evo Xs required significant modification for their new role. Rear-drive is better than all-wheel drive for skids and drifts, so the driveline was cleverly converted to rear-drive. The cars use only two forward gears and reverse. And there’s a locked diff to prevent the unloaded rear wheel spinning when the cars are on two wheels.
Some engine tuning coaxes out more power and a hydraulic handbrake is fitted, as are roll cages. With the cars built, all that was left for the team to do was to battle through some teething problems. “When we first got the Evos,” says Luff, “our two-wheeling coach tried to two-wheel with the 18-inch rims on and it was just digging the rim into the bitumen.
So, apart from the suspension changes, they actually run on 16-inch wheels and Federal tyres – you need a tyre with a really tall, stiff sidewall. Oh, and we run them at 80psi!” Other problems producers have had to deal with have been the Evos’ penchant for destroying tyres – which is understandable.
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Broken driveshafts are also a consequence of the punishing routines the cars are subjected to, but the rear-wheel drive conversion could also have something to do with it. The engineering team behind the show built the cars for strength, but because of the unique performance requirements and modifications, that development process is still happening.
For instance, they’re currently looking at strengthening the diffs to stop them from breaking. But judging by audience reaction to the show after the first few weeks – it opened at Christmas time – all the money spent and hard work is worth it. Bumper crowds seem to think that the new show is a winner.
“We’re extremely happy,” says Coleman. “From the punters that I’ve spoken to, there’s been a 100-percent success rate. I generally go out after the show and talk to two or three different families. And I’ve had glowing reports. All the guests I’ve spoken to have absolutely loved it.”
“It’s like when you know that you’ve put together a good lap in qualifying,” smiles Luff. “You know when you’ve got it right, and you know when the show’s going well. They can hold up to 2000 people in there and they’re literally only about 10 metres away, so you can hear them cheering and screaming and judge the show’s performance based off the crowd’s energy.”
For Gold Coast-based Luffy, stunt driving is a perfect complement to his other roles as professional racing driver, driver-trainer/race instructor, and MOTOR track tester. He could be excused for thinking Lady Luck has dealt him a kind hand. But you make your own luck.
And besides, a boy who was brought up in Sydney’s Campbelltown would have to know how to drive it like he stole it, wouldn’t he?