Dennis McCarthy’s official credit on F9: The Fast Saga is “Picture Car Coordinator,” but his job is way more than that. He’s the car guy whose automotive tastes have powered the most dominant blockbuster car-movie franchise in history. McCarthy has been involved with the Fast franchise since Tokyo Drift, but his wide-ranging movie credits include everything from big-ticket Marvel projects to Damien Chazelle’s Oscar-nominated musical La La Land. For F9, he again took up the responsibility of finding, casting, and preparing the vast majority of the hero cars seen in the film.
Road & Track spoke with McCarthy right as F9 debuted in the U.S. to find out the backstory behind the cars that define the latest installment of this juggernaut series.
And just because it bears mentioning: This interview may include some mild spoilers about F9: The Fast Saga. We won’t give away any major plot lines, and just about everything we discuss here has been shown repeatedly in F9 trailers. So, you’ve been warned.
Road & Track: How does your team select a car for a new character? How does Helen Mirren end up in a Noble?
Dennis McCarthy: She ends up in a Noble because she’s very British, and there’s not that many British supercars out there. It just seemed like an obvious choice and a very cool car. The thinking is, “what’s a good British car, what haven’t we used, what’s extremely cool?” And that’s where we landed.
R&T: Jakob Toretto (played by John Cena) has a Mustang GT350. What led to that choice?
DM: Justin Lin, the director, felt the Mustang was a good competitor for the Charger. If you see the movie, you find out later in the film that there’s a connection to that, a flashback scene that ties everything together with the Charger and the Mustang. I thought it was a great choice. Justin called me, he said “I thought this is the car we should use.” I said it was a great car to go up against the Charger, and it just worked.
R&T: Speaking of Chargers… Dom (Vin Diesel) has at least two new Chargers in this film. What’s his total Charger tally add up to at this point?
DM: He actually has four different Chargers in F9 that we haven’t seen before. For me to give the total would take at least ten minutes of thinking and taking notes, but if I had to guess, I would say somewhere in the 16, 18 range. For Chargers. That might include a Challenger or ‘Cuda, too.
R&T: One of those new Chargers is mid-engined. What was the build process like for that car?
DM: It started at SEMA. I was hanging out with some friends of mine at SpeedKore, they had a car in development that was like a widebody Charger. When I saw it, I thought, “that’s different, that’s cool.” Much different from the style in Fast 8, more in line with the wide, flared Fast 7 body but as a street car, not an off-road car. You do so many of these movies and, as you said, there’s been so many Chargers, so we asked what we could do to change it up.
As for the engine, I was at a SEMA show probably four or five years ago where there was a Mach 1 or maybe ’67 or ’68 Mustang with that same kind of concept. I don’t know the builder’s name to give him credit, but it was the same concept: Put the motor where the back seat would normally be. I thought it was a great way to mix things up, and I wanted to capture that Sixties Le Mans-style car. It has a little European flair to it, if you look at the gauges, the switches, and the upholstery we did on the seats.
Our original intent was to build three fully functional mid-engined cars, but we barely got through two. There’s two that are identical, we finished them at the very last possible moment to get them on a plane and get them to location. One of the guys at my shop, his name is Johnny Miller, he’s one of our top fabricators. The hard line work on it is impeccable. That’s a car built like a real car, built for a person that wanted to daily drive it. With the Hellcat motor with the Demon tune, you have 800 hp, but it will start and idle at 800 rpm and run all day long. We ran a six-speed Lamborghini manual transaxle in that thing. It’s probably not a car you’d want to sit there at 4000, 5000 rpm and dump the clutch to launch it, but it’s a durable trans and a really fun car to drive.
R&T: You built two. Did both survive?
DM: Yes, both those cars did survive. We built an additional seven that were more for the stunts and the hard, heavy abuse. I did everything I could to keep both of those cars intact. If you see the stunt cars, from ten feet away they look 100-percent perfect. The body, wheels, tires, we even did a fiberglass mock-up motor in the rear. Magnaflow, who built the headers for the real cars, built us some quicker, down-and-dirty matching headers for the stunt cars. You can’t see a real difference unless you zoom in tight to that back glass.
DM: That’s my number one Fast 9 question. I didn’t pick the Fiero, but there must be some connection for Justin [Lin]. I’ll have to give him a call and ask him why, but he was set on that vehicle. I think it’s a great choice because it’s pretty hilarious—Roman [Tyrese Gibson] & Tej [Chris “Ludacris” Bridges] in that Fiero out there in the middle of space. Pretty funny, but you’d have to hit up Justin Lin to find out what the thinking behind it was.
R&T: There’s a stunt in F9 where a Toyota 86 is thrown through a building using powerful magnets. Is that 86 a stock car, or was that something built just for the stunt?
DM: That was a stock car. It’s from the factory as a great looking car. I stared at it for a while, considered some body mods to enhance it, but the car looks great the way it is. I was searching for the right wheel for the cars, and spent a bunch of time going through different options when I happened to be watching a NASCAR race. I saw a Supra with these great looking wheels on it, and I found they were made by HRE. We put the HREs on, and lowered it just slightly.
We also do a lot of computer work and stunt rigging to make sure the cars work properly with a hydraulic handbrake. Those cars are tricky to outsmart when you want to remove things from their programming. I have an amazing tech from Toyota who traveled with them, so wherever those Toyotas went he was there with his laptop. I call it “making the car dumber”—those cars are so smart and safety-conscious because the car is there to help and prevent accidents. But we need to eliminate that. We need the car to slide, the tires to skid, to do big burnouts, so we need to eliminate everything engineered into the vehicles. Any time you use these brand-new cars, it’s good to have a factory tech with the software to make these changes on the fly as needed.
R&T: The final sequence takes place in something like a road-going train. How much of that was built as a practical truck?
DM: All of it. That was a fully-functional truck, tractor-trailer combination. That was built out in London. The cars are built out of my shop in L.A., but that was built in London primarily because it would be far too costly to transport it. Alex King headed up that project, built off of a Mercedes truck. Just the frame rails and the axles, everything else was built from scratch. It was mammoth.
R&T: Did that survive filming?
DM: It did.
R&T: Were there any cars you wanted for Fast 9 but weren’t able to source?
DM: I always start off with a pretty big selection of cars, but I think we got everything in there. We just keep doing these movies and there is another one coming up, so we don’t want to blow through everything. There will be chances to get anything I did miss into the next one, but I think we got everything in there. The opening sequence with the off-road cars, those were pretty amazing vehicles, Class 1 desert off-road cars with military-looking bodies on them.
I love mixing it up with cars and bikes. In that sequence, we had Yamaha 450s, and Letty [Michelle Rodriguez] has a style to her, so we didn’t want to put her on a factory-looking bike. We gave it a vintage feel. We adapted an early Eighties YZ tank and headlight, then changed up the seat to give it more of a classic look. Obviously, the Hellcat Widebody Charger in the same scene is a perfect car for Dom, too. And Roman in something really big and really slow. I was happy with the variety and final selection on everything.
R&T: In previous entries, you have some pretty unique cars. One stand-out is a Mk. 1 Escort in Fast 6. How are you selling those to people who aren’t necessarily familiar with these more niche cars, less obvious than American enthusiast cars like the Chargers and the Novas?
DM: At the end of the day, there is a huge portion of the audience that loves Fast & Furious for more than just the cars. I think they just don’t ask or care, they see a great looking car and don’t know the history but they understand the cool factor. It’s great, because the movies are more than just the cars, but my job is to get the cool stuff in if we can. [The Mk.1 Escort] was a perfect car for the location—we were in London so it made sense that it would be the car. When I was in London, the best way I can put it is, that car in London is like a ‘69 Z28 or ‘70 Dodge Challenger in that world. When we would pull up to locations in London, we would have the Dodge Daytona that Dom drove, the Mustang that Roman was in, but everyone would flock to our Escort. That was the hit car in London.
The other interesting thing in London is that everything was sourced and prepped in our shop there, but every mechanic wanted to work on the Escort. They all had a story: “This is what I had when I was a kid,” or “My dad used to rally these things.” It was a cool car, and it was far more popular than I would have imagined, but once you’re in London with that car, you’re the popular guy on the block.
R&T: Away from Fast, are you working on anything else interesting right now?
DM: We are working on something, but I can’t go into details. While Fast is the biggest car franchise there is, we are working on what might be in second place. I’m not quite at liberty to discuss that project, but it’s another big one.
R&T: Back in 2015, you daily drove a Suburban. Is that still your daily?
DM: I have a wide variety of cars, but my current daily driver is inspired by the movie. I have a Dodge Charger we transplanted a Hellcat motor and a six-speed manual into. It’s my go-to right now, but I also have on order the new Cadillac CT5-V Blackwing. Another four-door with a manual, and probably the last gasoline car that Cadillac is ever going to make.
My other go-to is another Suburban, though. It’s a rare Suburban, a 2018 FBI-style 1-ton, but still a Suburban. It’s always something different. I own more cars than you can count, a lot of muscle cars and fun stuff. Some cars that are just a Sunday here or a Sunday there, but I like to mix it up.
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