Lea Croteau is driving down a city street in Georgia while a Shelby GT500 threads its way against traffic. Croteau is careful to hold her mark knowing that the car will soon be coming precariously close to her vehicle. The adrenaline-fueled scene is all by design to keep moviegoers on the edge of their seats and Croteau couldn’t be happier to have a supporting role.
“I was thinking back on it, and everything I’ve done led me to that moment in the movie,” she said.
If you race in NASA’s Rocky Mountain Region, chances are you’ll recognize Croteau from the track. If you caught the video-game-turned-action-flick “Need for Speed” in theaters early this year, you won’t see Croteau, but her driving skills were all over the big screen.
That’s the life of a professional stunt driver, where the actors get the accolades, but the drivers get the adrenaline. How Croteau ended up driving in a feature film is a Hollywood story unto itself.
In the Beginning
When Croteau tells people she is a professional driver and racer, they assume she got into motorsports because of her father. That’s not the entire story. Croteau’s father was in the military and took his 6-year-old daughter along on his quest to ski the European Alps. Croteau loved the sensation of speeding down the hillside.
“Today I mostly blame it on my father for taking me skiing and making me go down the Alps at top speed,” she says of her love for motorsports.
Croteau played soccer growing up, but gravitated toward ski racing because team sports didn’t provide her the same satisfaction. As a teenager, she had posters of trucks on her wall and even made a chair using old tires. When she was 15, her father was on a weekend skiing trip and her friends convinced her to take out the car. Her dad later found out and forbade her from getting a driver’s license until just before she graduated high school.
“I scared plenty of boyfriends early on once I did get my license,” she joked.
She went on to start working in graphic design, but grew frustrated by her daily commute in Washington, D.C. After meeting her ex-husband, Croteau got into motorcycles and went to her first track event in 1992. She was blown away.
“Here I am and I’m like, ‘This is really cool. This is something I’ve basically been doing on the street, but illegally — going too fast,’” she said. “Now here’s a place I can go fast and not have the cops pull me over.”
Croteau kicked her racing career into high gear. She learned everything she could about racing and got on track at every opportunity. By 1995 she had gotten her racing license and started competing in showroom stock and finished second her first season.
“I would have won, but I was gone for two of the races. Oh, well,” she said.
She went on to compete in the Neon Challenge Series, going to the runoffs several times. Croteau said that her marriage couldn’t “weather the storm of racing,” so she ended up getting divorced and moving to Steamboat Springs, Colo., a picturesque small town renowned for its ski resorts. It was there that her luck quickly turned.
She started working as an instructor at Skip Barber Racing School and landed a gig as a pace car driver for PPG of the IndyCar series. Croteau traveled the world and, more importantly, drove some of the top performance cars in the world.
“That was easily one of the best experiences I’ve ever had,” Croteau said. “I wish I had relaxed a little more and just kind of taken it all in. I was trying to push myself forward in pro racing and looking for different opportunities to promote myself.”
When DreamWorks Pictures decided to turn the successful videogame Need for Speed into a movie franchise, they tapped director Scott Waugh. A former stunt performer and director of the war film “Act of Valor,” Waugh didn’t want computer graphics for the various driving scenes. “Need for Speed” is one of the few automotive movies to use limited computer graphics.
Croteau’s friend, Tanner Foust, asked her if she would be interested in working on the movie. Tanner, a well-known racer and host of the erstwhile TV show “Top Gear USA,” approached the movie’s stunt coordinator and Croteau was eventually hired.
Croteau had done a couple of car commercials, primarily because of her ability to drive vehicles in the snow. But this was the first time she had worked on a feature film and served as a stunt driver for the female star Imogen Poots, who played Julia Maddon and Carmela Zumbado who portrayed Jeny ‘B’.
Filming began in April 2013 and Croteau spent a week in Macon, Ga., shooting various action scenes — and the days were long. Croteau had to arrive early to get fitted for a wig to match the actress she was handling stunt-driving duties for.
The stunt crew would discuss a scene and often run a low-speed version before turning it on for the cameras. Waugh reportedly uses multiple cameras, so many of the auto scenes only had to be filmed once.
“He’s kind of unique in the way he shoots, because he’s so efficient about his shot list,” she said. “I think the caliber of people he hired … had to be able to turn it around and do it again exactly the same or make subtle changes he wanted.”
After filming in Georgia, Croteau rejoined the crew in Moab, Utah, for additional filming, including the scene where the Mustang goes off the cliff. Croteau spent 15-plus days filming various scenes, but approximately one minute with her driving made the final cut. Croteau drove for Zumbado in the yellow Porsche 944 early in the film, and for Poots in the 2015 Ford Mustang at the end of the movie.
“For them to welcome me into their family, it was just a couple of amazing weeks,” she said. “I trusted my life with them for two-and-a-half weeks and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”
“Need for Speed” held its own domestically, but the movie was a monster internationally. Overall, the movie brought in $203 million worldwide since it was released in early March, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com. The movie is set to come out on DVD August 5 and is expected to include extended behind-the-scenes footage.
Keeping It Quiet
Few of Croteau’s friends knew she was even working on the film until she started posting photos on Facebook as the release date neared.
Fellow racer and good friend Robert Ames calls Croteau a top-notch instructor and one of the better drivers out on track. They competed together in NASA’s 25 Hours of Thunderhill in Willows, Calif., using Ames’ car. He called her a great teammate.
“She’s not hard on the equipment,” Ames said. “She won’t risk the car. For somebody else, they’ll see a gap, whether it’s good or bad, they’ll drive into it. She’s good at reading a situation and placing the car where it’s reasonable.”
To understand how much of a car enthusiast Croteau is, she created a blog a few years back where she tried to drive a different car every day. Friends — and strangers —in Colorado’s Steamboat Springs let her drive everything from a 1982 Volvo turbo wagon to a Porsche RS America, and she blogged about it. It was Croteau’s way of getting reconnected to the automotive community. Dave Balingit, Regional Director for NASA Rocky Mountain and Texas, said he met Croteau through some mutual friends.
“She said she wanted to drive as many cars as she could,” Balingit said. “I like innovative ideas like that. So I said, ‘Why don’t you drive my Mustang in this endurance race?’”
Ames and Balingit said her low-key demeanor makes her an excellent instructor, especially with male driving-school students who are eager to impress a female teacher.
“If a student doesn’t understand one concept, she’s quick to realize that and can change it so they understand it,” Ames said.
When it comes to NASA racing, Croteau no longer owns her own racecar and jokes that she’s a “driver for hire.” While her day job involves instructing youth and adults at driving schools, Croteau longs for the day when she can be back on a movie set driving in action sequences. So far, there is no talk of a sequel for “Need for Speed,” but she’s optimistic.
“I felt like a sponge learning this new thing,” Croteau said. “This was my first movie, hopefully not my last.”
“Need for Speed” Ford Mustang GT Fetches Big Money at Auction for Charity
In the movie “Need for Speed,” the characters claim the 2013 Ford Mustang GT is worth “at least $2 million.” We know better than that, but the hot rod in the movie did fetch a substantial price — all in the name of charity.
The customized movie car sold for $300,000 during a charity auction hosted by Barrett-Jackson Auction Company in April, with proceeds benefiting the Henry Ford Health System, a nonprofit founded by Henry Ford to support the Edith and Benson Ford Heart and Vascular Institute.
Dave Flynn of Columbiana, Ohio, bought the Mustang, which reportedly was only one of two Ford Mustangs to survive filming.
The Mustang was the centerpiece of the “Get Your Heart Racing” fundraiser, which brought in more than $600,000 during the Barrett-Jackson weekend in West Palm Beach, Fla. Ford Motor Co. said the V8 Mustang boasted a custom-designed wide body rolling on 22-inch alloy wheels.
Additional design elements included an enlarged lower grille with new air intakes, extended rocker panels, a twin-snorkel hood and low-profile mirrors, Ford said. It was finished in silver paint with Kona Blue racing stripes.
Bidding on the car, which was used in the movie and on the promotional tour, started at $215,000. The bidding quickly heated up, with Flynn taking home the Ford Mustang GT with a winning bid of $300,000.
“Dave Flynn did much more than just purchase a new car. His purchase will help so many people get access to healthcare,” said Sandy Hudson, chief development officer for Henry Ford Health System, in a press release.