Michelle Rodriguez, Debbie Evans’ bond helps create ‘Furious’ stunts

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The fun behind the wheel Michelle Rodriguez has in the Fast and the Furious series? That isn’t really her.

Thanks to her longtime stunt double, Debbie Evans, it’s Rodriguez who’s among the stars of the franchise but Evans who’s getting to have a lot of the fun.

“If anything happens to her, the movie’s down. If anything happens to me, they get someone else!” Evans laughs.

It’s that immediate chemistry between the two that has allowed them to work together over several films throughout the Universal Pictures’ Fast and the Furious franchise, continuing with the eighth installment of the series The Fate of the Furious, which opens today in theaters nationwide. F. Gary Gray directs this film, which besides Rodriguez also features stars Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron and Tyrese Gibson leading the cast.

Evans is one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen with a resume that sparkles. She’s been Rodriguez’s lead stunt driver for six films in the series and been inducted into the American Motorcyclist (AMA) Hall of Fame and The Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame, among others.

The two also collaborated on another fun feature to help build anticipation for the movie, a Castrol EDGE Titanium Trial video called “Titanium Ice,” a virtual reality display.

“The performance was amazing. I pushed that car to the edge! It performed flawlessly. I thought the engine might blow!” Evans laughed.

Virtual reality is one thing, of course, but the appeal of the Fast and the Furious is the visceral reality of driving. The car connection that has permeated throughout the previous seven movies has appealed to a primarily young audience, but has made waves to such different demographics.

UNIVERSAL CITY, CA – MARCH 12: Actor Vin Diesel (L) and actress Michelle Rodriguez arrive at the premiere Universal’s “Fast & Furious” held at Universal CityWalk Theaters on March 12, 2009 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

Rodriguez has played Leticia “Letty” Ortiz from the start, with the franchise having been an integral part of her career almost straight from the start.

“It was more of an interview than anything, and it was Vin (Diesel) saw me in Girlfight… and the director sought me to cast him as his girlfriend in the franchise,” she told NBC Sports.

“It was my introduction into Hollywood, and it was really my third film as I did another indie in-between. For me it was an introduction to Hollywood features… and I thought I would be having the same kind of fun Debbie does! Little did I realize that insurance says no!

“So half of the cool stuff, working in action movies, which was the realm that as a tomboy, that I just dreamed of, jumping out of windows, doing gun tactical training, racing cars, yeah… no. Debbie has all the fun!”

Since Evans has done the majority of the stunt work, it’s up to her to recap some of her favorite stunt scenes she’s performed. In this series, Evans said one from the original film was best.

LOS ANGELES, CA – MAY 20: Stunt woman Debbie Evans arrives at the 7th Annual Taurus World Stunt Awards at Paramount Pictures on May 20, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Charley Gallay/Getty Images)

“My favorite stunt was on the first one, driving the car underneath the semi-truck and then flipping it! Today to this day I have people ask that was CGI. No, I was in the whole thing. That was all real,” Evans said.

Rodriguez laughed and responded, “I’d love to feel what it’s like to flip a car and land in the roll cage. (I bet) It’s like being in a laundry machine!”

As the Furious franchise isn’t Evans’ only series, there’s been other stunts she’s loved to perform.

“Another one was I turned my car over in a tunnel in What Dreams May Come, a Robin Williams movie,” Evans said. “I had a Porsche 911. The coordinator said it’d be nice if you could hit the top of the tunnel. It was about 18 feet high.

“So we figured out just where I needed to hit the ramp, broke the light at the top of the tunnel, flew 95 feet, then hit the ground.

“I was in the air so long, I’m like, the ground’s coming…”

Evans though, it seems, was destined to drive from birth. Her professional accolades come as she started as a kid, only progressing from there.

“I grew up riding motorcycles; I started riding when I was 6, competing when I was 9, rode against the men, rode for Yamaha, factory-sponsored and all that,” she said. “So I’ve always been into motorsports. I’ve always loved cars. I am just the luckiest person, most fortunate person to drive an Enzo Ferrari, the Jag F Series.”

Rodriguez brought some humor to that description when discussing her own interest in cars and racing, piqued by her role within this franchise.

“I think when Debbie was born, she came out in a Ducati!” she laughed. “Mom gave birth and there was a motor sound… then a cry after the liquid came out!”

It’s that witty banter that has allowed the two to flourish together over the length of the franchise, continuing with today’s release of the latest installment.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”