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Six-figure job: Stunt driver
Professional, precision and stunt drivers take more risk than most to earn their 6 figures.
July 19, 2005: 1:01 PM EDT
By Jeanne Sahadi, CNN/Money senior writer
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NEW YORK (CNN/Money) Careening, crashing, doing 360s, driving under the trailer of a semi or sailing through the air in a car constitutes a good day at the office for some people.

If they're in the elite group of professional drivers who work full-time on commercials, television shows and movies, they can make a generous six-figure living.

You would think the job requires a stiff dose of bravery. But you'd be better off having smarts, technical skills and a healthy respect for danger.

"Brave will get you hurt," said Conrad Palmisano, president of the Stuntmen's Association of Motion Pictures.

By "hurt" he means seriously injured. Note he said nothing about pain. Like a professional football player, professional drivers come to expect plenty of it when doing organ-jarring moves for the camera.

Being able to withstand aches and pains isn't the only physical requirement.

Typically, it's better to be under 6-feet-tall, said Hubie Kerns, a precision and stunt driver who works in commercials, television and film. If you're too tall, he said, your head is more likely to hit the car roof during a stunt; and in car commercials, a shorter driver makes the car look roomier.

Being fit and young-looking is also a plus if not a must, at least in the movies, where you're often asked to double for a 22-year-old star.

That's why, both Palmisano and Kern said, you want to make sure you've established yourself as a stunt coordinator or what's called second-unit director by your 40s, because come 50, the driving opportunities are limited.

The 30s are the peak working years for professional drivers because it takes five or more years in your 20s to make a name for yourself. Doing so is a must, whether you train at a professional driving school, hail from the racing world, or are carrying on family tradition like Kerns, whose father was a stuntman.

You need to build a reputation as someone who can handle the vehicle and the stunt safely and efficiently.

"Time is money," Palmisano said. So on a movie, a good driver will get the stunt right in three takes or fewer, barring any takes the director wants for different camera angles.

On a commercial, time is also money, but so is the vehicle. If you're driving a new car that's being advertised (or a hand-made prototype that costs $1 million), you have to be able to perform the stunts without damaging the vehicle, Kerns said.

That can also hold true in the movies. For example, Kerns drove a $6 million Cadillac concept car in the new movie "The Island."

Not every job requires death-defying feats, just really precise ones. Consider all those car commercials showing a high-end luxury car driving down an empty desert highway or winding mountain road.

It's not as easy as it looks. Kerns estimates that it takes a day of filming to get up to a minute of usable footage in commercials and features.

Here's why: what's required is precision driving, which includes working in sync with the camera vehicle filming your every move, sometimes within a foot or two of your car.

Not only do you need to steer clear of the camera no simple task when you're doing complicated maneuvers like a 180 at an intersection. But you may need to drive at speeds as high as 140 mph to compensate for the fact that a car's speed always appears slower when viewed on screen.

Working in formation with other cars is also part of the job. In one commercial, Kerns' car had to "dance" in a ballroom with five other cars.

The field of professional drivers is quite small, and only about 20 percent of those in the profession make six figures, Palmisano said. But the top guys, Kerns said, easily can make north of $300,000, in part because they get a majority of the jobs available.

But there's one thing they can't get: disability insurance.

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You probably have a favorite movie car-chase scene. One survey found Steve McQueen's chase scene in "Bullitt" still tops the list for most. Whether you agree or not, check out the demo reel and behind-the-scenes footage at Driversinc.com for a high-octane look at some of the best stunt and precision driving today.

And if you're interested in learning about other interesting and unusual six-figure jobs, check out other installments in CNN/Money's six-figure jobs series. Among them, crime-scene cleaner, auctioneer, matchmaker and fashion-trend forecaster.

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