x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Acclaimed stunt driver gets lift off at air show

Mark Hager, the silver-screen stunt driver, brings his pyrotechnic car show to the Middle East for the first time.

Mark Hager gets airborne at the Al Ain air show.
Mark Hager gets airborne at the Al Ain air show.

While aeroplanes speed, swoop and even stall in the skies over the dunescape of Al Ain, motoring enthusiasts can enjoy an equally entertaining spectacle at ground level as world record breaking, silver-screen stunt driver Mark Hager brings his pyrotechnic car show to the Middle East for the first time at the city's internationally acclaimed aerobatic show. The American stunt driver, who currently holds four world records, including a gravity defying 213-foot bus jump, is a veteran of television and motion pictures, including the Dukes of Hazzard film, where the iconic General Lee seemed to spend more time on two wheels than four. The Al Ain show brings together some of his most daring and dangerous stunts, and should guarantee hearts-in-mouths entertainment for the crowds, as Hagen explains. The National spoke with the daredevil as he prepared for the air show spectacle, which started on Wednesday and ends today.

"I have devised a new show specifically for the event. It has taken two years to prepare and will be different to anything people will have seen before. I have taken inspiration from the movies to devise a dramatic car chase, including wheelies, jumps and pyrotechnics. Two police cars will perform a series of dramatic stunts in a simulation of a movie chase. "Coming to the UAE was a great inspiration for the routine as I know how passionate fans are here. That's why I wanted to prepare something unique and new for the show that includes a lot of skill as well as explosions and crashes."

While to many in the UAE a career behind the wheel conjures images of endless traffic jams and chaotic taxi ranks, a stunt driver's life brings a little more excitement and exhilaration, although driving through fire could never be described as a safe wage. Those thinking of applying should think very carefully, as Hagen explains. "There is a fever for autosport here and I would love to come back to the UAE to work with some of the best drivers and establish stunt driving over here. I know rallying is very popular and that is probably the best preparation an aspiring stunt driver can get.

"Drifting is also very popular and, in my opinion, is the greatest technical challenge for a driver. It requires complete control of the car and a harmony between speed, traction and balance." However, while he was excited about the potential of exhibition driving in the UAE, Hager was keen to stress that stunt driving must be done in controlled conditions on a race-track, and never attempted on the road.

"I have seen clips on YouTube of some amazing stunts performed here. But it is very important that stunts are performed safely and off the road. Safety is the most important part of the preparation schedule. Every stunt is carefully planned, with every safety precaution taken. Although no stunt can ever be 100 per cent safe, we try and cover every eventuality we can. I wear fireproof clothing and the car is checked thoroughly to ensure it is safe to take on a jump or a stunt."

Hager's fame was assured when, as a relatively inexperienced stunt driver, when he broke a world record by making a 213-foot (65-metre) jump in a bus. Looking back, he reflects on how the televised stunt made his career. "The stunt was inspired by the movie Speed, where a bus jumps over a highway. In the film, the bus was travelling at 70 miles per hour [112 kilometres per hour] so we knew if took off at 90mph [145kph] we could clear a greater distance. I can remember sitting at the wheel preparing for the jump with a huge crowd watching, knowing that this would be a career- and life-defining moment. "The jump itself is a bit of a blur, but I remember the exhilaration of landing safely and then taking my helmet off and hearing the roar of the crowd. To be honest, I'm surprised my body didn't buckle on impact. It was the most perfect day of my life and it was that world record that launched my career.

"The movies are moving away from car jumps now, partly because of the costs and the danger, but also because CGI technology is so advanced. "The stunt I performed in the Dukes of Hazzard movie in 2006 will probably be the last ever filmed, so I'm proud that I could be a part of history. I remember being glued to the television watching the [original TV] show as a kid, so to be a part of the movie was a dream come true and something I will always remember.

"Some older stunt drivers were on the set and we were all feeling quite nostalgic, because the days of car stunts in movies is coming to an end. " For me the real thrill is not in the explosions or the crashes but in having complete control of the car. It isn't clever or entertaining to drive fast or recklessly, it takes precision and preparation." tbrooks@thenational.ae