Trials Guru tells the story of a trials rider turned movie stunt performer …
Over the years there have been numerous female riders compete in the annual Scottish Six Days Trial, which had traditionally been a male dominated sport. Times have now changed with female competitors very much the norm.
Before the Second World War, there was Louie McLean, Edyth Foley and Marjorie Cottle. Post-war, the 1950’s had Mollie Briggs, Lesley Blackburn, Olga Kevelos and Gwen Wickham; the 1960’s had Jill Savage and Renee Bennett. They had one thing in common, they were all British, but in the late seventies a female rider emerged who inspired even more women to compete in trials and the ‘Scottish’ than ever before, and she was the first female rider from overseas to compete in the SSDT, an American called Debbie Evans.
Trials Guru was fortunate to catch up with Debbie, now Evans-Leavitt having married her trials riding boyfriend Lane Leavitt, during a hectic schedule in Glasgow city centre, Scotland in September 2012 when filming for ‘The Fast & the Furious 6’ an action-packed movie which was released in May 2013.
Debbie refuses to slow down in an amazingly tight schedule which took her to England, twice, Scotland and Tenerife for filming plus a short break to go home to the United States to see her first grandchild born. I still couldn’t believe that I was talking with a stunt-performing grand-mother!
Born in 1958, Debbie, originally from Lakewood, now resident in Santa Clarita, California has been in the movie business for just over thirty-three years. She has stunt-doubled for some of the world’s best known superstars including Carrie-Ann Moss in ‘Matrix Reloaded’ – 2003; Linda Hamilton in ‘The Terminator: Judgement Day’ – 1991 and many more. Have a look at the credits of some of the world’s most famous action-packed films and you will see the name ‘Debbie Evans’ appear in more than just a few. Her speciality is car and motorcycle stunt performance and she has appeared in over two-hundred movies and TV programmes which included ‘CHiPS’ & ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’.
The Scottish connection…
Having followed the history of the SSDT and watched Lane in action at the Six Days, I got to know Debbie and her three time AMA National Trials Champion husband back in 2007, when I put together an audio-visual presentation of the SSDT in the February of that year for the Fort William Mountain Film Festival.
Permission was sought to use material from Debbie’s website as part of the presentation, just for a bit of extra interest for the audience, which she willingly gave.
Debbie had entered the 1978 Scottish Six Days Trial on a TY175 Yamaha supplied by Gordon Farley Motorcycles, Aldershot, Hmpshire, England and her airline ticket was paid for by Yamaha USA. Lane had also competed in previous Scottish Six Days his first being 1973, as a supported rider for both the Spanish Bultaco and laterly Montesa factories.
Having discovered that she would be in the UK during filming for the forthcoming ‘Fast 6’ movie, Debbie sent me a message via Lane through facebook which read: “Hi John, I’m sending my wife to Scotland in a few days. Maybe you guys can get together? She may have some cool stuff for you!”
On making contact upon her arrival in England, she suggested that we meet up with her one Sunday afternoon, when she was between filming schedules in Glasgow. Part of the car chase footage was shot late at night in city-centre Glasgow, including the famous George Square area.
After a pleasant lunch in Glasgow’s Princes Square, we all go back to Debbie’s hotel and ‘Skype call’ Lane in the USA, who takes us a virtual tour around the couple’s home. Lane picks out their Scottish Six Days trophies and Debbie’s stunt trophies and awards; culminating in a quick tour of their impressive garage.
Debbie was an accomplished trials rider when she began motion picture stunt performing at the age of twenty. I asked her how she entered into the movie business.
She explained: “I wondered why so many stunts involving women were carried out by male performers dressed to look like females? I thought… hey, I could do that… I researched it further and eventually obtained the necessary regulatory permissions and began training for my new chosen career with established professional stunt performers.”
The rest is history, Evans-Leavitt is a multiple award winner obtaining seven Red Bull Stunt ‘Taurus awards’ and was inducted into the American Motorcycle Association – Motorcyclist Hall of Fame in 2003.
Debbie is probably the only competitor world-wide who can static balance a trials motorcycle upside down with her head on the seat, the bike is not supported in any way and the only extra piece of equipment is a rubber band on the front brake lever! Eric Kitchen was on hand in 1978 to photograph this very stunt, right in the middle of the traffic roundabout at the West End of Fort William, now an iconic SSDT photo.
In movies, she is best known for the 2001 award-winning scene where she doubled for actress Michelle Rodriguez in the Fast & the Furious. Debbie drove a tuned Honda Civic hatch-back under an artic semi-trailer at high speed, ending in a barrel-roll when emerging out the other side.
Debbie says: “I have to keep physically fit and in shape but the real neat part about being a stunt-woman is that you get to ride fast motorcycles and drive real cool cars!”
Back to that Scottish Six Days ride at Fort William in May 1978, it was for Debbie the event of her lifetime. Debbie takes up the story:
“I had harboured a secret wish to ride in the ‘Scottish’ when I was quite young. I got into trials at the age of six with the help of my father Dave Evans, who was already an established trials and enduro rider in the USA and it was he who taught me all I know about bike control. I then read all about the Scottish Six Days in the American motorcycle press. I never really thought it was possible until an Englishman called Bill Emmison of BERM Specialities, a UK company which imported US off-road products. Bill on a visit to source parts asked me what I really wanted to do and on hearing my crazy wish said he could arrange the trip to Scotland and make it all happen. I was overjoyed at the thought of actually competing in the Six Days, for me it was truly a real dream come true. I hadn’t told anyone previously, because I believed it to be too wild to ever come true!
I packed my heavy bags and took a pair of handlebars, grips, foot-pegs and my Bell helmet and spent a few days sight-seeing in London on my own, before heading north to Fort William.
Bill supplied me with some riding suits, my riding number was one-hundred and twelve and so I rode all week in the company of Mick Wilkinson and Rob Shepherd, two of the best riders in Britain at the time and guys who knew their way around Scotland. The whole experience for a nineteen year old girl was really awesome; the Scottish was a great adventure!”
She continued: “Riding over the tracks and moors with Mick as my guide was great fun, Lane told me to ‘stick to this guy like glue’, which I did! However, I probably stuck to him too well and one day when hauling across a moor, Mick suddenly pulled up, I sat and waited for a little while, then he turned around and said, ‘Debbie! Can you sort of disappear for a minute, the call of nature beckons’ – or words to that effect?”
Mick Wilkinson remembers all too well the 1978 event with Debbie Evans in tow!
Mick recounts: “Soon after the trial started, I said to Rob (Shepherd), come on Rob let’s have a bit of fun, let’s leave this American lass on’t moor. We took off at a cracking rate as we knew where we were going and after a few miles we looked round. To our surprise, there she was, slap bang on our back mudguards. We didn’t try to pull that trick again!”
After their marriage Lane and Debbie had planned to ride once more in the 1980 Scottish together, but when they discovered that she was expecting their first child, Steve, this put paid to that idea and she reluctantly but sensibly withdrew her entry. The couple had another son, Daniel born in 1994.
But by then, Evans had already unwittingly captivated a whole new generation of women trials riders, one of which was Lisa Bayley (then Lisa Jones) from Sutton, Surrey who herself was inspired by reading about Debbie’s 1978 ride to compete herself in the 1981 Scottish at the tender age of eighteen on a 200cc SWM modified from a 125cc by her Father, Derek Jones.
Having read and been inspired by Evans, Lisa never actually met Debbie in person, although she did get to know former US National and World Champion, Bernie Schreiber during his time at Comerfords, Thames Ditton in 1979 and later, when on trips to the US riding Fantic.
Fitness coach Lisa commented: “I was truly inspired by Debbie Evans’ 1978 ride at the Scottish which I did twice. For me it is the most brilliant event in the world. I have run in both the New York & London Marathons in 2005 and 2006; they were far easier by a long shot than the 600 miles and 180 Scottish sections of fantastic challenging and on some-days, impossible terrain. In my lifetime I have risen to the challenge of the hardest marathon and finished New York in three hours forty-eight minutes and London in three hours thirty-eight minutes, well within a veterans’ respectable timeframe, but still the SSDT was the hardest ever human achievement and the most enjoyable I have ever undertaken.”
Motorcycle observed trials is in Debbie’s blood, her father, Dave Evans is the guy who wheelies a Bultaco Sherpa for miles near the beginning of the Bruce Brown film ‘On Any Sunday’ the definitive bike-sport movie of all time. Her sister, Donna Evans is also a stunt performer, having worked with Debbie in a number of motion pictures.
Debbie: “Being a trials rider really helped me throughout my stunt career, because you walk the section and memorise in your head many things, like when to go up or down a gear, where to brake, where to make the turn or change direction, which part is slippery and so on. The same thing applies when performing a motion picture stunt; you walk the set and plan everything, very carefully. It’s technical, just like trials. However, I knew that I would never make a living from just riding trials, at that time there were very few who were professional riders world-wide, whereas I could at movie stunt-performing. I grew up with trials riding ‘no-stop’; stop-allowed was alien to me. We do stunts no-stop too!”
Debbie stayed fairly loyal to the Yamaha brand during her riding years, having gained support from the company via their USA importers and promoted the brand wherever she rode.
After a eighteen years away from the sport, Debbie made a brief return to competitive trials in 1998, when she rode in the Women’s World Trials Championships. She was now forty years of age, but came a creditable eighth place overall, riding a 250cc Gas Gas.
Lane, now a respected stunt technician in the US movie business still has a collection of interesting Bultaco trials machines and some modern road bikes to hand, as the area in which the Leavitts live is ‘canyon country’ and a Sunday afternoon ride out with the family is very much the order of the day.
Leavitt reckons Debbie would still be riding in trials competitively today had she not suffered a very serious accident when stunt doubling for the 2008 movie “Yes Man” starring Jim Carrey in which she was hit by a car when riding a bike during a sequence which went horribly wrong.
British actress Amanda Holden was trained by Debbie and Lane to do stunts for the UK TV series ‘Amanda Holden – Fantasy Lives’ in 2010 in which Debbie and Lane both appeared.
Debbie really enjoyed her film work in Glasgow; she even cultivated a Scots accent during her stay. Both she and Lane are planning a return trip to spectate at the SSDT in a few years time, once their youngest child, daughter Rebecca, graduates from high-school. It will be really nice to have the couple back at the SSDT where they have so many happy memories of competing many years ago.
Both Debbie and Lane felt honoured to be asked to write a few lines each for the one-hundred years celebration book on the SSDT that the Edinburgh Club produced in 2011. Only problem was they didn’t get a copy, as the limited edition book was quickly sold out! However, after a plea, Kinlochleven trials enthusiasts David & Lorna Dougan who had a pristine copy, came to the rescue and gifted their copy to Lane and Debbie. The photo of Debbie in the book was taken by Eric Kitchen on Grey Mare’s Ridge, only half a mile from the Dougan’s home.
Oh yes and finally, the ‘cool stuff’ she gave me as a memento of our Glasgow meeting? A commemorative tee-shirt and poster from the ‘On Any Sunday Re-union’, all signed by some of the all-time greats of USA bike-sport – now that’s what I call neat!
© – Copyright Information:
© – Words: Trials Guru / Moffat Racing, John Moffat – 2015.
© – Photographic Copyrights & acknowledgements:
– Iain Lawrie, Kinlochleven, Scotland.
– Eric Kitchen, Cumbria, England.
– Lane Leavitt, California, USA.
– Michael Vendrel, USA.
– Iain C. Clark, Fort William, Scotland.
– Derek Jones, Sutton, Surrey, England.
– Jimmy Young, Armadale, Scotland.
With special thanks to John Hulme and Trial Magazine, England as part of this article appeared in Issue 41, 2013.