VOLUME XII,  ISSUE 3 - SEPTEMBER,  2017

mopar memos The latest news, rumours & Info!

Hollywood and the Drag Strip

My Name is Jennifer Caputo-Armstrong

 

Photos courtesy Jennifer Caputo-Armstrong

 

 

My name is Jennifer Caputo-Armstrong and I am a drag racer…

 

…doesn’t roll off the tongue just yet but, “What do you expect?” I ask myself. It’s taken me nearly 25 years and a very long, hard earned resume of seized opportunities before I felt comfortable calling myself a professional movie Stuntwoman.

 

A Stuntwoman; what is a Stuntwoman? Some people think daredevil, people with zero regard for life and limb. Others picture fearless super humans that don’t break or burn or fall prey to the laws of physics like normal human beings. Neither of these perceptions could be further from the truth.

 

I was born in Hempstead, Long Island, and transplanted to Longwood, Florida, age about a year and a half. My father was an entrepreneur, my mother a teacher. I lived, what I believe to be, a fantastic childhood and my teenage years taught me good life lessons. All in all I’d say pretty normal. No daredevil tendencies, no super powers, just a regular everyday person.

 

Growing up I participated in numerous sporting activities and although I never stuck with anything for very long it did give me a solid base for trying new things. This trait proved to be the best training ground for my future profession of stunts. I can honestly attribute being a well rounded stuntwoman to a constant desire to try new things.

 

Music, specifically percussion, was also a part of my childhood that eventually led me to a college scholarship. I think a lot of the same attributes that make a good stunt performer and drag racer apply to music as well. Practice, preparation, precision, confidence and teamwork are all major components in being a successful player, racer and performer.

 

I ended up graduating with a degree in Hotel and Restaurant Management from the University of Nevada Las Vegas. Thinking that I wanted to be a chef I was gearing up to further my education in that area when I got a call from my brother Jay.

 

Jay was an Olympic caliber gymnast living and training at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.  He’d competed in the 1992 Olympic trials for the United States but unfortunately did not make the team. Unsure of what to do with a lifetime of gymnastics experience he figured now was the time to venture out west and fulfill his childhood dream of becoming a Hollywood stuntman.

 

The phone call went something like this, “I’m going to go to Hollywood and become a stuntman, do you want to go?” My answer, a simple “Yes.” One month later I arrived in Los Angeles.

 

Getting into stunts is no easy task and the path is different for everyone. It’s a very close knit group of Type A personalities that don’t necessarily like each other, let alone a young female trying to break into their business. It can be a difficult road to navigate.

 

I remember when I first showed up in L.A. being discouraged by those already established in the business. It’s truly an amazing feeling for someone to look you in the eye, tell you not to bother to try, then years later they’re asking you for a job.

 

Good rule to live by, always be nice to everyone. You never know who you’re talking with and always remember you’ll see the same people on the way up as you do on the way down.

Jennifer Caputo-Armstrong in the airborne BMW for 20th Century Fox's "Bang Bang" filmed in the desert of the UAE outside Abu Dhabi

Jen and husband/stuntman/stunt coordinator and director, Andy Armstrong pose for a photo amidst the wreckage. Editor-Publisher, Richard Kratz, watched the video of the stunt and said to Jen, “That looked like it hurt.” Jen laconically replied, “I felt it the next day.”

Jen doubling for Cameron Diaz in Charlie’s Angels.

Jen performing a Full Burn on the TV series, “11th Hour." [Editor’s note: Jen will be sharing with us what it is like to be on fire in an article on race suits in a future issue.]

 

Being a stuntwoman, in my opinion, is a fantastic way to make a living. It’s kept me in shape, keeps me constantly eager to try new things and has introduced me to the most amazingly talented, diversified group of fun people. I’ve traveled to amazing places, seen incredible things, and participated in activities few have ever gotten a chance to sample and learned a lot of important life lessons.

 

Important stuff like…

 

When George Clooney gives you a hug and takes a photo with you on one of your first big movies (“Dusk til Dawn”) that you most likely won’t be able to form complete sentences.

 

I’ve learned that when you’re asked to jump on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shoulders and tackle him to the ground (“Collateral Damage”) that you’ll not actually tackle him but hit, stop and slide down him like an oak tree.

 

I’ve learned that when Gabriel Byrne leans over you with onion breath (“End of Days”) that you politely hold your breath and pray the actress returns to replace you very promptly.

 

I’ve learned that when you’re told to “stand on it” by the stunt coordinator while at the wheel of a 500 Horsepower single seat race car (“Charlie’s Angels”), it means dent the floor until the rear tires melt.

 

I’ve learned that very few actresses are like Susan Sarandon who will stand by while you perform a stunt for them and actually have constructive criticism so you perform the stunt the way they see their character doing it (“Elizabethtown”).

 

I’ve learned that when Stellan Skarsgård (“Thor”) throws a glass beer stein and it bounces off the floor, hits me in the face and splits my eyebrow, I can catch the blood in the mug until the scene is over.

 

I’ve learned when you’re strapped in a car as it sinks into a swimming pool, (“11th Hour”) you can hold your breath a lot longer if you’re calm and relaxed.

 

I’ve learned that when falling 25 feet on a cable to mimic breaking your back and neck (“The Amazing Spiderman”) that I’m glad I did all of those sit ups!

 

I’ve learned when you’re engulfed in fire during a full body burn, (“Eleventh Hour”) that it happens much faster than you ever imagine and that it scares people around you far more than it scares you.

 

Believe me, it’s much easier to stay calm and focused if you have confidence in the team around you.

In addition to performing stunts, Jen is also a stunt rigger. A stunt rigger is involved with the planning, set up, testing and execution of stunts involving various cables, harnesses, and devices needed to perform certain stunts. Here Jen is putting a safety cable on Spiderman as he prepares to walk the ledge.

Jen catching some air while practicing before a Motocross race. She spent six years racing at the Pro level.

 

More than half my life has been spent planning for worst case scenarios. I plan to continue this method with my drag racing career. Same concept…different venue.

 

With stunts I know the car or motorcycle is going to crash, that I’m going to be lit on fire or fall off of a building. Knowing this, I plan for the worst case scenario and work backwards. One of the reasons I’m comfortable stepping into the driving role for the MoparMax Maulin’ Magnum is crew chief and MoparMax Editor-Publisher Richard Kratz’s overall focus on safety.

 

One of his philosophies is that the rules are only the minimum needed for safety and protection; too many racers take them as a maximum. Another philosophy is that it’s best for Sportsman racers to think like Pros; assume you will blow up or crash anytime you go to the line and be prepared for it to happen. This is the way I always approach stunt work and I like and very much appreciate that Richard runs his racing program this way as well.

 

Repetition, I believe, is one of the vital keys to success. Doing things the same way over and over again the same exact way until something different is needed. This is one of the key elements to being a proficient stunt performer and a skill that will transfer over nicely to drag racing.

 

For me the chance to be apart of the drag racing community is an amazing opportunity to combine three loves, stunts, cars and speed.

 

Stunts is about being smart; it’s about setting yourself up the best you can to successfully accomplish what you’ve been asked to do. We are calculated risk takers much like drag racing.

 

I’m really looking forward to getting behind the wheel of the Magnum.

 

I’ve had my seat fitted with Dave at Mountain View Performance in Rancho Cucamonga, California. We had a documentary crew join us as well; great group of gals putting together a documentary about stuntwomen. They started with me at the seat fitting and will join me again at my first race October 15 at Fontana Raceway.

 

Marc Lewis at Hedman Hedders was kind enough to give me a tour of their fantastic facility in Whittier, California. I was impressed with the way their headers combine state-of-the-art computer controlled design, tube bending and quality assurance with amazing craftspeople who take the precise computer made components and use old school American manufacturing skills to weld, finish, test, and coat the products. It’s fascinating to see how things are made and after seeing everything that went into the long tube Hedman Hedders that were made for the Magnum, the confidence in my new racecar’s performance has definitely increased.

 

The next week I got go to Magnuson Superchargers in Ventura, California where Jesse Iwuji gave me a tour of their amazing facility. So many castings and components coming in through the receiving dock. Parts racks towering 20 feet high with bins, shelves, and racks all carefully numbered in an ISO quality control system. A machine shop with all kinds of CNC machine stations running two shifts a day to fulfill the demand and make the parts that go into Magnuson Superchargers like the one on the top of my new race car’s Arrington Performance engine.

 

Magnuson has engineers with multiple big screen monitors doing CAD/CAM work, an amazing R&D department—which I am unfortunately not allowed to tell you anything about other than to say that some very cool HEMI stuff is coming soon! A supercharger dyno where testing is done and superchargers are QA checked. A chassis dyno where engine controller calibration tuning is done and where I know the Maulin’ Magnum has spent a lot of time with Magnuson support to become the drag racing weapon it is today. It is an amazing feeling to know there are so many great partners supporting our team and racecar.

 

In October, I’ll be attending Frank Hawley’s drag racing school at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Richard raves about Frank, so I’m excited to get to spend two days soaking up his wisdom and lessons. I’ll be getting my Super Gas license in my new race car, the Maulin’ Magnum. I’ll be reporting in these pages about my experience in the school and what it’s like to learn from Mr. Hawley.

 

After attending Frank Hawley’s Drag Race School I’ll make the trip to Fontana, California where I’ll be racing in the last NMCA West series race of the year in the Quick Street class and the Bracket 2 class on Saturday and Sunday.  It’s gonna be a “welcome to drag racing” week for me and I couldn’t be more thrilled.

 

I’m really excited for this chance to merge the worlds of Stuntwoman and Drag Racer and I plan to make the most of the opportunity.

 

A big thank you to Ken Latka and the Television Motion Picture Car Club (of which Richard and I are members) for making all this possible. Without Ken reintroducing Richard and I this would not have happened. Yes, I said “reintroducing,” Richard and I were neighbors in the same condominium building in Burbank, California 20 years ago. But that’s a story for another column.

 

Life’s a garden, dig it!

 

 - Jennifer Caputo-Armstrong

Jen and Andy posing by an upside-down police car after yet another successful stunt, [Editor’s note: The race team has a new favorite inside joke, “Hey, did anyone remind Jen that it’s traditional to cross the finish line rubber side down?”] 

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