Paul Swift is one of the UK’s top stunt drivers. Ben Kelly catches up with him at Top Gear’s test track in Dunsfold, and get’s a few minutes to grill him in between his stunt driving lessons. We sit down for a chat in The Sweeney’s star-car prototype Ford Focus ST.
BK: How did the experience days come about?
PS: I started rallying in a MK2 Escort and was doing the national championship. The cost of doing it is quite expensive, going through tyres and stuff like that, so I thought about a way of supplementing what we do with the stunt driving shows, the displays we do with Top Gear and so on, by giving people the opportunity to come along and have a go. It’s a bit of a taster of the sort of things we do for a job. I started off just locally in Darlington and obviously it’s taken off since then and now we’ve got venues in the South as well as in the North.
BK: So what venues have you got?
PS: We’ve got Dunsfold (home of Top Gear) down here, Uxbridge, Staffordshire in the Midlands, we’ve got one in Middlesborough and one in Darlington. We don’t use race tracks, we use stadium type venues and places like the Top Gear test track or Middlesborough’s football stadium and Darlington football stadium, which is a bit different.
BK: How did you get started with stunt driving?
PS: My father has been involved in motor sport all his life and in 1985 he put together a display team for Vauxhall. I wanted to be part of the act so I started practicing on the family lawn mower, a little ride on tractor, and my dad said to me if you can get on 2 wheels for a hundred yards in the field, I’ll build you a miniature car at the croft circuit and we’ll do it on tarmac. He kept his word and before long I was part of the team. At the age of 10 I went to Malaysia and we launched the new Proton Knight in front of the King of Malaysia, and I had a chance to meet him. When I was old enough to compete in motor sport I wanted to make a name for myself as a competition driver before doing stunts for a living. I started in auto testing at 16 and got my competition licence, won the local championship and then started spreading further afield. I got to represent England and eventually won 7 British championships. That’s when I decided to go full time with the stunt driving.
BK: You hold several Guiness World Records
PS: Yeah I have done over the years! I broke the world record for J-turns in Johanasburg, South Africa a couple of years ago – that was for J-turn in the tightest space. I’ve done a bit of doughnuting, and set the world record for most amount of cars doughnuting simultaneously, which was basically a lot of fog and smoke. My father has held the parallel parking record for quite a few years, that’s just recently been broken in China. We’ve been talking to Guiness about trying to get that back in the family. Watch out for that one!
BK: What’s your daily drive at the moment?
PS: We’re sponsored by Ford, all the cars we use for our experience days are Fords and we’ve got the new ST. I drive a Ford Cougar myself as a tow vehicle – the car I drive on two wheels can’t be driven on the road – so I tow that in a trailer behind me in the Cougar. I’ve also got a Mark 1 Escort, in fact I’ve got two Escorts, two classic Mini’s and a motorbike as well.
BK: What does your missus think of your line of work?
PS (laughs): She loves it! She generally doesn’t get away with us on all the events which is shame. She’s always sort of badgering me though, you know, “why don’t you teach me how to park”, she finds it quite embarrassing when people recognise her in town trying to park her car!
BK: From your TV and film work, which scene demonstrates your skill at it’s best?
PS: We choreographed a sequence with 22 drivers a few years ago for the Audi R8 Spyder commercial, and that was definitely the most difficult scene we’ve had to choreograph. The agency said they wanted chaos, but we don’t want chaos as drivers, we want precision driving, and for everybody to know what they are doing. We spent a couple of days rehearsing that. Obviously multi-car sequences prove to be quite difficult, you rely on everybody. I’ve got a great team of drivers, who all know exactly what they are doing. They’re all experienced guys in motor sport and I trust them implicitly so if something does go wrong you know you’re in capable hands.
BK: What have you enjoyed filming the most?
PS: We’ve recently been filming something called the Britalian Job in London which is part of the build up to the Olympics. We had red, white and blue Mini’s going through famous landmarks in London, down steps onto The Mall, through Trafalgar Square, it was fantastic! We ended at the Olympic stadium and did a jump – we were basically trying to go after a baddy who had stolen the gold medals on a motorbike – and had to do a three car jump head to tail. That was definitely one of the highlights of my career.
BK: As a stunt driver, is it better to be fearless, or to remain a bit fearful so you know your limits?
PS: I think I’m probably at a cross-roads at the moment with that. I’m fairly confident in everything I do with the displays, I try and keep within my limits. It’s one of those kind of things where I think it’s healthy to have a certain amount of respect. Especially when you have a lot of people around you with a live audience.
BK: Are there any stunts you’ve attempted that were just too ambitious, and you’ve just had to call off?
PS: Not yet. We work with the producers of Top Gear and they’re always pushing the envelope with things they would like us to do, so we sit in production meetings with them and they’re always saying they’d like to try this on fire, or they’d like to to a doughnut on a plinth that’s a foot longer than the car. We all want to run away to begin with, but then we find engineering solutions and practice getting the car setup right and I don’t think there’s anything that’s beaten us just yet. We’re always looking for new things for the show.
BK: At the start of a new project, what’s the process for planning a new sequence?
PS: We start with a theme. For example at the moment we’re promoting The Sweeney, which has been a lot of fun, touring the country with the actual cars used in the film. We start by getting a few ideas down on paper, get the sequence length, then we put in all the dream moves that we’d like to see in there. Then it’s a case of having a good memory, and trusting all the guys around you. We try and build in a few wow moves to try and get the audience going, get the hairs on the back of their necks standing up!
We’re interrupted briefly, as the car starts up into the air and suddenly I’m in the hot seat.
PS: Have you ever been in a car whilst it’s been jacked up before?
BK: Er, no. (we laugh)
The car settles as they finish changing a tyre before the next stunt driving sessions starts.
BK: What’s the most dangerous stunt you’ve done?
PS: Probably the cars on fire. We have to have a lot of trust in the pyrotechnics guys. Obviously they’re as good at their job as we are at ours. They are the best in the business at special effects. For example, they’ve equipped two Porsche 911’s with basically barbecues throughout them and you’re sitting alongside a calor gas bottle on the inside of the car. Every time I put my balaclava and my fireproof suit on to get in that car, I have a little think, go through the procedure of what to do if something does go wrong. It’s something that I have no control over. It’s fired from the gallery. However, everyones professional, they do what they do best. It’s certainly unnerving but it’s very very spectacular when you see the show.
BK: Have you had any accidents or near misses?
PS: I put a car on its side when I was two-wheeling in 2005 in the millennium stadium in front of about twenty thousand people. It’s probably the biggest cheer I’ve ever had in my life! We found out subsequently that we were running so little fuel, that when the car banked over to go round a right hander all the fuel went to the side of the tank and stopped going to the feed which is at the bottom of the tank. Which is of course the side of the tank when you’re on two wheels. It basically ran out of petrol! Of course you learn from these things and hopefully we won’t make that mistake again – we always run a full tank.
BK: Today you’re doing a series of lessons for people. How should people looking for a career in stunt driving get started?
PS: We offer people a taster of exactly what’s involved – the basics of stunt driving. If you come along, have a go at one of these days and feel that you’ve got natural ability we’ll encourage that and try and get you involved in some of the things we do. I’ve come through a motorsport called auto-testing which teaches you a lot of the moves. I also joined my local motor club when I was old enough to have a competition licence and proved myself through that kind of avenue. I would say if anybody’s interested, try and get involved in motorsport or come and have a go at one of the experience days.
BK: How much can people expect to learn in a day with you?
PS: You saw the smiles on the faces of some of the people going away there. One of the guys there was in his seventies and he’s doing hand brake turns, so by all means if you’ve got the will, we’ll give you the opportunity and if you’ve got the ability you can certainly manage a J-turn in the sessions that we do.
BK: If people go away and think “yes, this great” what can they do to take it to the next level?
PS: I would encourage anybody to get involved in motorsport. It gets out the aggression and the adrenaline in your system and it takes you to your limits as well. You get to find out how far you can actually push it.
BK: What’s your favourite memory as a stunt teacher?
PS: I spent some time with Dom Jolly, the trigger happy TV guy, and that was so funny. He said “is that your real name Paul Swift? Cos I’ve got Jolly and everybody asks me if it’s my real name, and I say would I really call myself Mr Jolly.” He said together we’re Jolly Swift. I certainly enjoyed sitting in with him, he’s a very funny guy but a terrible driver so I was just nervous the whole time.
BK: Do you need natural talent, or can anyone learn the basics?
PS: Anyone can pickup the basics on an experience day with us and it’s up to you how far you take it. We get a whole mix of people. We get guys in their seventies coming along, we have female drivers who often beat the men, which is great to see. It’s just about finding that untapped ability!
BK: Is it feasible for someone to become a member of your stunt team?
PS: Absolutely! At the moment we are looking out for female stunt drivers, who can stunt double in TV commercials and things like that. But in general, if somebody is shining on an event, absolutely. We want to work with the best drivers in the world – sometimes we have twenty or so people in one sequence.
BK: What’s next for you?
PS: We’re about to start the Top Gear live world tour. We start with Birmingham in October, we’ve got Helsinki in November. I’m going to Dubai shortly after that, at the beginning of December doing a separate event for the Dubai motor show. Then we go to Sydney in the new year and possibly to Canada as well, so I’m quite excited about all that.
BK: How can people find out more about the courses you offer?
BK: Anything else you want to add?
PS: Hello mum!
BK: Thanks Paul, this has been ace.