Motorcycle stunt riding, known to participants as stunting, involves riders performing tricks on their bikes, sometimes for a paying audience, and sometimes on the streets, just to show off to their friends. Most commonly, stunt riders use sports bikes for the most impressive stunts, although riders can also use dirt bikes to perform aerial stunts.
Perhaps the most famous stunt biker of all time was Evel Knievel, who performed legendary feats of daring in the 1960s and 1970s, first on a Laverda Eagle 750cc bike before moving on to a Harley-Davidson XR-750. He held the record for jumping over the biggest stack of cars – 50 – until 2008, and even his failures, such as his attempt to jump the fountains at the Caesar’s Palace Hotel in the Las Vegas only made him more famous.
Aerial tricks can be part of a modern-day stunt rider’s repertoire, as well as wheelies, switchbacks, where the rider is facing the wrong direction, and the cross, in which a rider stands on the seat of his bike while it is in motion with their arms outstretched.
There are also drivers who perform stunts in four-wheeled vehicles, although the biggest demand for stunt drivers comes from Hollywood, who need these daredevils to create the high-speed chases that make action movies so entertaining.
Whether you are planning a career as a stunt biker or a stunt driver, there are a few key modifications that your vehicle will need before you begin.
Crash cages or crash bars are a motorbike modification that is useful for any rider that is planning on taking their bike off-road, but it is stunt riders who will find their addition must useful and most cost-effective.
Unlike the roll cages in stunt cars, crash bars on bikes are not designed to protect the rider – you just have to rely on your helmet and leathers for that - but to protect the bike’s most important components by dispersing the impact of any crash, hopefully ensuring that you can still make it home even if a stunt does end up going wrong.
The rear sprocket controls a motorbike’s acceleration and top speed, and by adding an aftermarket oversized rear sprocket to a stunt bike, riders can increase the power that they have at their fingertips. In general, the more teeth a sprocket has, the more drive and force it can generate, which allows stunt riders to get the powerful acceleration that they need to have if they want to perform some of the most impressive stunts.
However, there is always a trade-off in these circumstances; in the case of a larger rear sprocket, riders get quicker acceleration but lose out on overall speed.
Normally, when ordinary motorists go to buy a motorbike, the most important thing they look for in a seat is that it is going to be comfortable, especially if they are planning long road trips. However, the best stunt riders never intend to spend much time sitting on their bike, which is where specialized seats come in use.
Some of these seats extend at the rear of the motorcycle, others are flatter, making it easier to stand - while some modified stunt seats even have footholds built in, for those riders who want to carry out the most outrageous stand-up tricks.
In the same way that a normal motorbike seat can get in the way when you’re trying to perform some of the craziest biker stunts, so can the gas tank, which on most models are curved and raised at the front, getting in the way of riders performing some of the best stunts.
Rather than buying and fitting a specially-designed gas tank, which would be a very expensive modification, most stunt riders instead get a trusted mechanic to hammer the tank into a flattering shape, to keep it out of their way when they’re trying to get into standing positions on their stunt motorcycle.
If you’re going to make modifications to your rear sprocket which can lead to an increase in acceleration, then you might also want to think about making some changes that help ensure you can keep control – otherwise you might find your bike accelerating away from you!
Modifications to the brakes set-up are a common option on stunt bikes, including fitting an additional control for the motorcycle’s rear brakes to the handlebars, so that stunt riders can perform wheelies while standing on the seats of their bikes – when the foot pedal that usually controls the rear brakes will be well out of reach.
Custom tires can be the easiest and often one of the cheapest ways to improve your motorbike’s ability to perform stunts. Aside from ensuring that the tires on your bike are tough enough to take the extra wear and tear of wheelies and burning rubber, most stunt riders also advise that you should reduce the pressure in your tires to around 18psi.
This slows the motorbike’s reactions to changes in direction and speed, giving the rider more chance to react. If you are practicing stunts, make sure to check your tires regularly, to see if they need to be replaced.
Given that most stunt bikes start life as ordinary sports motorbikes, there are also a few cosmetic changes that stunt riders like to make to their rides. For one thing, most sports bikes that you buy at the dealership have the instrument panel on the front, between the handlebars, but this is an awkward position if you want to carry out aerial tricks which involve somersaults and handstands.
However, removing the gauges altogether isn’t an option, so many stunt riders create a new framework to attach the speedometer and tachometer to the side of the frame, where it can be tucked out of the way.
Speaking of handlebars, stunt bikers can often modify the original versions in order to increase the maneuverability of the bike, and therefore increase wow factor of the stunts that they can perform.
Some of the best stunt bikers in the world perform jaw-dropping aerial tricks where they let go of their handlebars in mid-air, so wider bars also make it easier for them to safely grab back hold on their way down. You can also fit a stabilizer to your handlebars to make sure that they stay fixed in position while you’re in mid-air, otherwise, they could easily move during the stunt.
Footpegs on production motorcycles all tend to be placed in the same position, where the rider’s feet would most naturally sit when they are in the usual riding position. However, if a stunt rider has installed a crash cage or crash bars, this usually means that the original foot pegs have been covered up.
Moving the pegs further back not only allows the rider to use them in some of the more creative wheelie stunts but by solid mounting them to the bike, you can prevent them from accidentally folding up while the rider is performing an aerial somersault.
Usually, the throttle on a motorbike is controlled by a movement of the wrist, pushing the handle forward to increase acceleration and speed. However, this requires the rider to have a firm hold of their handlebars when they need to accelerate, and that isn’t always convenient when you are in the middle of a stunt which requires a rider to have a tentative hold of their handlebars or even to let go of them altogether.
Luckily for stunters, you can add a small switch which allows them to control the throttle on their bike with just a slight movement of their thumb.
When it comes to cars, most stunt vehicles are used in the movies, although there are a few drivers who perform tricks for audiences, such as jumping off ramps, through fiery hoops or even taking part in demolition derbies.
When it comes to ensuring a vehicle is in tip-top shape to perform stunts, making sure it has the right tires is a good place to start. Whether the car is going to be filmed carrying out a high-speed chase for the film cameras, or simply putting on a show for fellow gearheads, tires need to be worn in but not worn out to make sure that the driver has complete control.
Rolls cages are additional support structures within the bodywork of the car, which stop the side panels or roof from buckling should the vehicle end up being hit side-on or landing on its roof.
Whether the car is being used to perform stunts in a live show, or to take part in filmed Hollywood film chases, roll cages are a must to protect the drivers – though in the latter case, it is also important that such safety features are not visible through the windows or windscreen when the scene is being filmed, as some eagle-eyed viewer will no doubt spot the mistake!
Another relatively cheap and easy modification which can make cars safer for stunt drivers is the installation of racing seats. Some car owners even install these specially-designed bucket-style seats simply for cosmetic reasons; though they offer no real advantage to drivers who only use their car to commute.
Racing seats also come with harness seatbelts help to keep the cars drivers firmly in position, especially if they are recreating road accidents for a Hollywood blockbuster, and can also make it easier for them to keep control of the vehicle during more difficult maneuvers by keeping them in a good driving position.
While vehicles may undergo a lot of changes and modifications in order for them to become stunt cars, once upon a time most of them were just regular, ordinary production cars. And that can be a problem in itself for stunt drivers. After all, many modern cars are fitted with dozens of different safety features that can actually make it difficult for drivers to perform some stunts.
These features can be removed or switched off, but be warned that this could void the warranty on your own car if you do it to your own vehicle so that you can perform some tricks for your friends.
When people think about stunt cars, the first thing they think of is speed. Whether a car is jumping over a row of double-decker buses or being filmed for a car chase through the city streets, speed is all important, but it is just as vital that drivers can retain full control of their vehicles at all times.
The best way to achieve this is to ensure that the braking systems on the car they are using have been properly tuned up or even modified to be more powerful, including features like an extra brake pedal which is only connected to the rear wheels.
As well as roll cages, there are two pretty substantial modifications that stunt drivers have to make to their vehicles before they can perform dramatic stunts safely, and still walk away without a crash. Cars that are going to be used to jump off ramps or over huge distances are going to take a pretty big hit when they eventually land on the other side.
Imagine how much damage that kind of impact would do to a normal production car, and it is easy to see why stunt cars need to have a reinforced frame to prevent them from breaking apart when they finish their performance.
Similarly, stunt drivers who are planning to make record-breaking jumps also need to be driving cars that have a custom suspension, as this also helps to cushion the impact, making for a safer landing.
Depending on the size and height of the jump involved, the chances are that even a customized suspension is going to be completely shot by the time the stunt is finished, but at least the driver has a chance of completing their stunt first, like driver Travis Pastrana who jumped a rally car over a distance of 269 feet or the truck which safely completed a jump over a speeding Formula One car.
When it comes to Hollywood stunt cars, perhaps the most important modification drivers have to make isn’t to make their cars more powerful or to ensure that stunts can be performed safely; it is to ensure that the director gets a clear shot of the stunt, so that they don’t have to keep repeating the maneuver!
Sometimes, vehicles are almost completely rebuilt to accommodate a camera, while some directors prefer to follow the stunt driver in another vehicle. In the golden days of Hollywood, cameramen simply had to ride along with the driver, regardless of the dangers that this involved.
Filming stunts can be an expensive job for movie studios. Not only is there a lot of CGI involved these days, but it can take hours of filming to capture all the angle for a 30-second car chase. Add into the mix that most car chases tens to involve very expensive cars getting smashed up in the process – see any of the Fast and Furious movies for numerous examples – and it isn’t surprising that studios have come up with a cheaper shortcut.
Rather than using real $100,000 Ferrari supercars, studios will often build an exterior shell designed to look like the car in question, fitting it with a rudimentary engine, a roll cage and a racing seat – everything a stunt driver needs to make it look good.
Nevertheless, if a stunt driver knows that they are going to be required to pull off some fancy motoring footwork, then one of the most important modifications that can be made to a car is to improve the steering, increasing their control of the vehicle and ensuring that it can make very specific movements as required by the movie director or the organizer of the stunt show.
Some cars are built with very responsive steering, which means that only minimal changes will be needed to bring the vehicle up to stunt-driving standard. The Lamborghini Gallardo, for example, has an almost perfect balance of power and responsive steering.
Sources - Stunt GP, CBC, Revzilla, Stunt Factory, Cycle World