The cars in the action-thriller “Death Race” are not just an extension of the men driving them;
they are characters themselves. It was key to the production that the Death Race autos
were insane modifications of expected models. It was like designing two movies in one. Creating the cars was just as difficult as developing the characters.
Look and Specs
Director Anderson and Austerberry worked with two concept illustrators to begin the process. “We had to pick cars you could easily recognize in the fray of the racethose that have different silhouettes,” explains the designer. “We also wanted cars that would appeal to a broad range of ages.”
The industrial character of the autos came from the gritty, bashed-up aesthetic, as these are machines built by the criminals. The actors loved their respective rides, complete with napalm, nitrous-oxide (NOS) tanks and ejector seats. Says Statham, who, as Ames, drives a tricked-out 2006 Ford Mustang GT known as The Monsterarmed with a 3/4-inch steel tombstone and two mounted mini-guns that spit out 3,000 rounds per minute: “The Mustang's the signature all-American muscle car. Just the drawings were
enough to seduce any man, so to get to see what was available behind the door.”
Tyrese Gibson as Machine Gun Joe drives a weaponized, armor-plated 2004 Dodge Ram 1500 Quad Cab 4WD. His truck was designed to incorporate a Vulcan machine gun pulled from a helicopter gunship, which makes the car slower than the others but heavier all around. “It's a big piece of metal, and that makes sense. My car was a reflection of my character in the movie,” says Gibson. “I have the biggest car because I'm a bully.”
1966 Buick Riviera
Neo-Nazi Pachenko drives a 1966 Buick Riviera chop top, lovingly known as the “Death Machine.” “The arch-villain's car is quite different; it's like a Hot Wheels car,” says Austerberry, adding that inspiration came from a picture of a Riviera with a chopped-down roof in Hot Rod magazine. “We combined those things together and created Pachenko's villainous car. It has a bright 1960s color on the side and matte
charcoal gray on the top to squish it down, with a low roof and narrow windscreen.”
The other cars driven by Death Race principal competitors were a variety of fiendish makes and models. They include 14K's 1978 Porsche 911, outfitted with four hellfire missiles on the roof and four mini-rocket clusters on the hood; Travis Colt's 1989 XJS Jaguar V12 with two M2s (.50 cal.) on the hood front; Grimm's 300 monster car, a 2006 Chrysler 300C with three MAG 58s (.308 cal.), rocket-tube machine guns on the
hood front and hellfire missiles on the back.
Of course, the deciding factor in the design was maneuverability, but that didn't mean drivers couldn't die in style.
Others who meet an early death in the race roll out in a 7 Series BMW (1989 BMW 735i) made to look like an aircraft cockpit. The design team imagined one-half would be cut out of it, and they put the navigator behind the driver (with a mini-gun on the side) to create a different silhouette. There was also a 1971 Buick Riviera “boat tail with a pointed back nose, quite the contrast to Pachenko's '66 Riviera chop topwith its points on either side, front and back.
1979 Pontiac Trans
Alongside these beauties, Anderson commissioned a rebuilt 1979 Pontiac Trans Am with a cattle guard, .50-cal. gun on the hood front and .308-cal. mini-gun. They were designed to be painted in a way that kept them looking like battered, rusty machines that have seen and done some damage over the six years since the Death Race began. When all cars were lined up in the Bleeker Tunnel, they made an impressive sight.
Finally, Warden Hennessey has control over the biggest, meanest vehicle of them all. The Dreadnought is the monster of all monsters. It's painted battleship gray and comes smoking down the track, guns blazing and fire spitting. With its flamethrower, six heat-guided rockets, PKM machine gun and wheels of solid Dayton Kevlar, the Dreadnought is designed as a weapon of last resort, to be unleashed in a fury of destruction whenever Hennessey feels the playing field is getting tooeven or boring.
Building the Racers
It took approximately eight weeks of working through concepts before the team began assembling and set up in a Montreal fabrication shop. Explains Austerberry: “We had four draftsmen and two concept artists working in Toronto, then we came to Montreal. There was a huge team of 50 crew members who set up the auto fabrication shop, then we started getting the base cars, the real cars.
Special effects foreman JASON HANSON and picture-car mechanic BRIAN LOUIS and his crew worked with 30 base cars to gut and get them ready for production. This meant destroying electrical systems, airbags and antilock braking systems. “We stripped them down to bare metal, then built them from the ground up, doing roll cages, fuel cells and racing seats, he says. “Then the special-effects crew took over and did their body fabrication on the cars.
Austerberry describes the high-tech process of translating the raw materials into a Death Race car design on computer. “A handheld 3-D scanner (known as AndiScan) was passed over the raw car itself. Then another team in the effects design shop took the concepts and drawings and elaborated on those in 3-D, so they could send them out for cutting and fabrication of the various pieces. While that outsourcing took place, each base car was stripped of its gas tanks and a fuel cell was installedas were safety features such as full roll cages that were fitted for specific stunts.
JEAN-MARTIN DESMARAIS, special effects designer and fabrication manager, describes the efficacy of the AndiScan process (which takes approximately one-half day per car) as “highly accurate; it scans within a thousandth of an inch. It uses three optical cameras and three laser sources to find all the points on the surface that are being scanned. It weighs three pounds and scans anywhere you can get the scanner into.”
The 3-D modeling enabled DesMarais' team to validate placement for all partsfrom armored plates and racing seats to weaponsand to find potential conflicts among them. It also allowed Anderson to get a feel for the shots he would be able to achieve with each car, and the visibility actors and stunt drivers would have when driving. The process saved the production about three months of work, about how long it would have taken to hand-fit the 500 to 900 parts put on each of the cars.
It took approximately six weeks per car for the mechanics and fabricators to put the racers together, then another week to make the thin sheet metal that was used to imitate the thick-plate steel armor necessary to survive any blast from enemies. Death Race drivers wouldn't last long without heavy armoring on their rides. Not to mention the fact that viewers get annoyed when a competitor is blown apart in two minutes.
To account for the armor and guns added onto the cars, Louis and his crew added in heavy-duty suspension. To illustrate, he offers: “On the Dodge Rams, we changed over from a 1,500-pound to a one-ton rear dual axle to take all the weight. On those, we added almost 2,500 pounds with the steel, guns, excess ammo batteries and whatnot in back of that truck. The cannons on the back are almost 800 poundsjust between the two Vulcan cannons on each side of the Dodge.”
Explains MARTIN MANDEVILLE, in charge of building interiors for The Monster, “The inmates scrounge and make cars with whatever they can find, so it was appropriate for us to make this up with stuff from the scrap yard.” His team used a variety of parts, including those from other modes of transport. “I found aluminum
aircraft parts and built the napalm dispense. There's also a series of tanks used for defensive weapons.” The ejection seats were another main feature of Frank's Monster and play into the story arc. As an actual ejection seat can be quite mammoth, Mandeville simplified its elements so Frank could feasibly eject a couple of seats from his Mustang.
In total, 34 carsincluding six Mustangs, five Dodge Rams, four Porsches, three Jaguars, three BMWs and three of each-style Buickwere used to portray the 11 main cars and a few extras from the Death Race. The Fords, Chryslers and Dodges were primarily acquired from manufacturers, while the Rivieras, Porsches and Jaguars were
secured online. Additional cars were found through auto-trader magazines.
Building and then arming the bombastically loud and lethal Dreadnought was a massive task: two tractors were shipped from L.A., and the shell of a tanker was obtained in Canada. The Dreadnought was built in Calgary in a shop with facilities to contain the colossus. NIGEL CHURCHER, in charge of the process, notes: “We wanted it to seem as if it was a reconfigured existing truck, as opposed to something that had been specifically designed and built so that it would suit the rest of the film.”
Though the crew saw pictures of the Dreadnought before it arrived, no one, including Anderson, knew what was coming. The noise of the guns, blazing at once, was deafening. The concussion shook the cast and crew, who cheered when it first drove by.
Arming the Cars
As head armorer, it was CHARLES TAYLOR's job to weaponize the cars. “The challenge was to take firearms never meant to be mounted on cars and mount them on cars like the Dodge Ram, explains Taylor. “In the original artwork, they had big Vulcan cannons on the side. They didn't know they were actually available to put on the car. I said, 'A friend of mine has two of them, and I can make it work.'”
Originally, the production intended to fake the weapons' gunfire, but Taylor convinced them otherwise. “There's no better way than to just fire them the way they were meant to be fired,” he says. “We put a very simple mechanical or electrical system in, based on the type of gun, so that it would fire the way it was supposed to.”
He asserted that, to achieve the proper effect, it should be very noisy. “It had to be that loud because it had to have that kind of pressure to make the guns operate,” Taylor states. “On the Ram, we had four .30-caliber 1919 machine guns, along with the two 20 mm Vulcan cannons. That firepower alone would make anybody that knows weapons say, 'Oh my God, what's on the next one'”
The loudest of all, though, had to be Hennessey's Dreadnought, commissioned by the warden to be created purely for destruction and ratings grabs. With huge, extremely noisy guns, the Dreadnought's weapons were the most impressive guns to fire because the muzzle flash was so large. Taylor mounted a full-on arsenal on the Dreadnought. He explains, “You have the cowcatcher on the front and two M3 high speed, .50- caliber machine guns on the hood. In the sleeper cab are two M134 mini-guns, and then
on top are a .50-caliber machine gun in the front and a .50-caliber machine gun in the
middle. Underneath that is a flamethrower. In the back, there's a 76 mm tank turret, andon top of the turretis the PKM machine gun. When this thing lights up and is firing all guns and using the flamethrower, it's beyond impressive. It's hell on wheels.”