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From show-off to stunt driver

LUTZ — He's got no office. No schedule. And best of all, no boss. • Still, Jesse Toler's job has some downsides. • Like breaking both legs. And both ankles. And both arms, twice each. • Plus an elbow, plenty of ribs, his wrists, his hands, his clavicles and his tailbone. • But those, and a shoulder that stays on with rods and pins, won't take him away from the job. • He's a stunt driver. • Or, as Toler says, a professional show-off.

Toler, 26, has been showing off since he was a kid, his mom says. Jan Toler, 52, watched him tear across the porch on a tricycle at 9 months old, until it tipped, and he tumbled and broke his nose.

She watched him compete in bicycle motocross, or BMX, at age 7, until he flipped a few times and broke his arm.

She watched him learn to pick himself up when he falls.

"I say, 'Get up, try it again,' " she said. "I've always done that since he was able to crawl."

She always called him a daredevil. And she always knew he'd graduate from bikes and skateboards to motorcycles.

"Oooh, I want one of those," he'd say when he'd see a motorcycle pass the car.

So, after he graduated from high school in 1997, he worked full time for a construction company to save some cash. A couple of months later, he bought his first bike. A green Kawasaki ZX6R, which he laughs about now and calls a piece of junk.

He learned to ride, but riding wasn't enough. He had set his heart on doing stunts. So he bought a video called Urban Assault, popped it into the VCR and watched skilled stunts by motorcyclists like Jason Britton and Todd Colbert.

Not long after, Toler flagged down a fellow rider on the street. Toler, still new to bikes, asked the stranger for advice. The stranger, a veteran rider, invited him to a barbecue.

Toler parked his piece of junk amid something like 75 bikes outside the barbecue in Land O'Lakes, he said. That's where he saw a couple of familiar faces.

Britton's and Colbert's.

He got to know the group of guys whose stunts he had admired on the video. And he started stunt driving with them. In the beginning, the biggest trick was finding places to practice. But it got easier after the sport started to flourish, after Toler's career took off.

No fear factor

He joined a stunt riding team called Redline Xtreme, competed in Stunt Wars and Stuntoberfest, both at the U.S. International Speedway in Lakeland. Since then, he has done stunt shows at bike rallies and dealerships nationwide. He has done charity shows, shows for children and shows for people with disabilities. And he does stunts for videos and independent movies.

On the bike, he does burnouts, wheelies and rolls it on its front wheel. He flips off it while he rides, jumps off it while it's moving and, sometimes, he rides it backwards. And for each of the tricks, he says, there are about a million variations.

In cars, he does a lot of what's called precision driving. That's high-speed chases, 180-degree turns and high-speed parallel parking. It's also fender benders, and, sometimes, full-blown wrecks.

Because he makes regular trips to the chiropractor, a nutritionist and a personal trainer to prepare his body for injury, Toler doesn't really worry. And because his stunts are choreographed and paramedics are close just in case, his parents don't really worry, either.

"I have a lot of faith in the good Lord to take care of him," his mom said. "A lot of parents don't want to see their children do these stunts. I'd rather stand behind him, and be there when he falls."

And falling is part of the job.

"Every once in awhile, you're going to break a bone. It's definitely dangerous," Toler said. "(But) the street's the most dangerous place."

The street is where his accidents haven't been choreographed. On his motorcycle, he has been hit three times.

The third time, in 2005, he'd just replaced his Kawasaki with a Honda CBR 600 RR. Fifteen-hundred miles on it and flawless until a minivan pulled out in front of him on U.S. 98 in Lakeland.

"I tried to dodge it, ended up hitting the back, and lofted over it," said Toler. "I'm pretty sure I flew right by the window and yelled at the guy when I passed him."

He went home with a wrecked bike, road rash, two broken arms and two broken hands.

"I go out, I do stunts for a living," he said. "And I get taken out by some car because they weren't paying attention."

It took six months to recover, and he started riding again the day he knew he could. But now he tries to stay off the street.

"I'd rather him get on a movie set or a track, where it's all controlled," his mom said. "Doing 150 mph on the Howard Frankland is more scary than doing 200 (mph) on a track."

And on tracks, despite the expected broken bones, Toler hasn't had a lot of serious scares.

"I don't think it has anything to do with luck," Jan Toler said. "He's got a natural gift. Everybody says that about Jesse."

Everybody includes stunt driver Kyle Woods.

"He's got a really fast, really dangerous style," said Woods, 30, who has worked as a stunt driver in Hollywood flicks like The Invasion, Miami Vice and 2 Fast 2 Furious. "You think, this guy is about to win the competition. Or end up in a stretcher."

But when he does, Toler dissects the wreck and corrects the stunt so it doesn't happen again.

"Most riders in the industry get in a nasty crash, and you never see them again," he said.

After injury, Woods said, Toler always bounces back.

Back in the saddle

In the garage outside his parents' house on Livingston Avenue, Toler bent down to hug one of his bikes. He hadn't ridden in awhile; he had a broken leg.

A couple of days before a competition in January, Toler had practiced his stunts on a track in Brandon.

During one of them, he came off the bike incorrectly.

"Man," he'd said, on the ground next to his bike. "I just broke my leg."

Now the cast is off, and Toler is riding.

"I ride because I love to," he said. "Obviously, breaking bones, I'm not going to be able to do this forever.

But he plans to ride as much as possible.

"Kind of got to think short-term," he said. "I already get out of bed and feel like I'm 80."

Arleen Spenceley can be reached at (813) 269-5301 or aspenceley@sptimes.com.

Ride, Jesse, ride

Watch Jesse Toler show off during a stunt show from noon to 10 p.m. April 26 at Quaker Steak & Lube, 10400 49th St. N in Clearwater. Call (727) 572-9464.

From show-off to stunt driver 04/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 14, 2008 2:45pm]

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