Although he was only five years old at the time Snooks Wentzel was killed, Joie Chitwood Jr. was traveling with his father's show then and was even a small part of the Danger Angels. He would ride a little motorcycle and, at the start of the show, Joie Sr. would take him along when he would roar around the track and spin up to the front of the grandstand with the conventional screech. Then father and son would come out together for bows. Joie Jr. was a real trouper. They were playing a ball park one day in Wilmington, Del. when he and his father came flying across the infield in a car and it caught on the pitcher's mound and flipped completely over. Surprisingly, the two of them squirmed out safely, and, while standing there to wild applause, little Junior said: "Hey, Dad, we ought to leave that in the show."
Snooks and old Mickey Rieder were Junior's best friends on the tour. They would watch him when his parents weren't around, and he would trail happily about after them. Suddenly, after Snooks was killed that day in Haverhill, Mass., Junior found only revulsion for his father's business. He said he would not travel anymore with the show; he did not even want to hear his father talk about it. "Well, he'll never be a thrill driver," Joie Sr. told Marie, his wife. She nodded with relief.
"My mother's always been a nervous wreck," Junior explains now. "You've got to remember, she was around my dad when he was perfecting all this stuff." And so she was around when the horror of that day in Haverhill began to fade from Junior's mind, and she watched her son grow up—with fear and pride—it was her husband all over again. By the time he was only 12 years old, Junior was driving. He was rolling cars over at 15 and doing the high-speed precision hell driving soon after that. One Friday in June of 1964, when Junior was 20, his father took him out to the Sunshine Dragway near Tampa and taught him how to jump a car ramp to ramp. That is the indispensable act of the thrill-show business, and it has been ever since the late Lucky Teter devised it back in the '30s.
"I never thought I'd jump," Junior says, "but then suddenly one day I just wanted to be the jump man. He was always the most respected fellow in the show, and that's what I wanted to be." The next day, a Saturday, Junior jumped for the first time in a show, and the day after that he got married. Few men have the essence of their whole lives compressed into one weekend.
Now his wife Noreen travels with Junior as his mother Marie did with his father. Marie would never watch her man jump, and Joie Sr. went off the ramp a couple of thousand times. Noreen, however, leaves the family camper, which is parked in the infield, just before the final act and moves closer to see. A huge explosion is detonated as Junior's car leaves the ramp, and Noreen never fails to jab her fingers into her ears and grimace as Junior roars toward takeoff. It is as if she is trying desperately to believe that the danger can only come from what she hears, not from what she might see.
Sometimes, too, at a window in the Chitwood camper, curtains are parted and a small, bright face peers curiously into the night, wondering at all the commotion and the public-address voice saying: "...only a helmet and his ever-present seat belt..." and "unfortunately, Lucky Teter met his untimely death...." The child is Joie Chitwood III, and he is standing in his crib in the camper to see his father jump a car, just as the father—as a child—stood in the back seat of an old junk car, where he often slept, to watch his father jump ramp to ramp.
The thrill show does not change much, not even from generation to generation. Most of the standard stunts were devised before World War II by a wily, vigorous old promoter named B. Ward Beam, the man who conceived the thrill show and promoted the first one at the Lucas County Fairgrounds, near Toledo, in August 1923.
Teter added the ramp-to-ramp jump to the enduring repertoire, and Joie Jr. perfected a two-wheel drive stunt early in this decade. Otherwise, the bill is nearly the same as always. Even the clown acts—"a little comedy relief interspersed between the dangerous action"—transcend change. Hap and Dave Roberts, a father-son act, have been with Joie Sr. almost from the day he started in the business in 1943. Hap is not old, only ageless, having played with Buffalo Bill himself, a disclosure that creates approximately the same sensation as if some politician were to explain matter-of-factly that he got his start sitting in the Illinois legislature with Abraham Lincoln.
The routine of the thrill show is so repetitive that the Chitwoods open up their summer tour without bothering to practice. Timmy Chitwood—who is Joie Sr.'s other child, Junior's younger brother, Joie III's uncle and the only male member of the clan not named Joie—is called "The First of May." It is an old carney expression indicating a novice: Timmy drives in the show only when he is not required in class at the University of Florida. "If we're going to mess up," says Timmy of the no-practice policy, "we might as well do it in front of people. My dad always tells us that." When Junior assembled all drivers and ramp hands for a little organization talk prior to the season's debut at Albany, Ga., the major issue appeared to be the logistics of obtaining Cokes at intermission.
The thrill show thrives on this constancy, and Ward Beam looks on what he wrought with as much awe as skepticism. "I keep thinking it's going to die out because the people will tire of the hell driving," he says. "It's the same thing over and over. All they're trying to do is sell automobiles. But I don't understand it. Receipts are always going up."
Besides Junior's unit, the Chitwoods have a Western troupe, too, and the two companies will play more than 200 dates a summer before as many as two million people. Promoter Jack Kochman of Paterson, N.J. has three units running in competition with Chitwood, and there are always less established acts performing with varying success. A fellow by the name of Crash Dick pops up sporadically, and an all-girl show also plies the trade.
A thrill show can be thrown together with a few nervy guys and a bunch of junk cars, so there has never been any dearth of imitators, there being plenty of both nerve and junk about. Beam says that in the Depression at least 250 thrill shows tried to make a go of it. In the entire 47-year-history of the art, however, only a handful of organizations have thrived, and to succeed on any permanent basis now it is imperative to be associated with an automobile company. The Chitwoods are affiliated with Chevrolet, driving only Camaros, Corvettes and Vegas; Kochman has a comparable arrangement with Dodge.
Lucky Teter was the first to work out a deal with Detroit for new cars. "We went after the fairs in '33," Beam says. "We were playing on a percentage basis and taking out nothing but money." Horsemen were so jealous of the appeal of the motorized shows that they would throw two-by-fours out in front of the cars. Teter was following Beam around, taking notes. Then he obtained backing from Plymouth, and with the new cars was soon the biggest name in the crash field.
Beam was a promoter; Teter was a showman. "I was a farm boy from Indiana, and I like to tear things up," Chitwood heard Teter say once, but it was more than that, for he was an electric personality. "He could hold up a finger and hypnotize a crowd," Beam recalls. Teter was short and not physically prepossessing, but he was charged with élan. "He marched out like the American Legion," Joie Sr. says. He strutted in jodhpurs, with a scarf around his neck, and in the driver's seat he would make an ordinary handkerchief into a talisman and wave it like bravery.
Before Teter's jump a special "heat man" would take over the microphone and rouse the crowd into a frenzy. Teter's wife would come out and kiss him, possibly goodby forever. When Teter thought the simple ramp to ramp was getting jaded, he inserted a Greyhound bus between the ramps and started jumping over that, clearing it only by inches.
Teter's personality and the circumstances surrounding his fatal jump on July 5, 1942 have also helped to stock his legend. His mother and sister were in the stands along with his wife and many friends; it was, after all, going to be Lucky's last jump. He had been drafted and, it is said, he had his induction papers in his pocket.
Old Mickey Rieder, who sells programs and builds fire walls and performs other chores for the Chitwoods, was there the day Lucky was killed. Mickey is 68 now, but his age has only sharpened the memory. He says that Teter was flagged down but would not stop. "You get a feeling when someone isn't right on it. You get that feeling," he says. The theory is that Teter was too much the showman or too imbued with fatalism to pull up in his swan song.
His car fell short, crashing under the landing ramp. It had been constructed with the beams lengthwise, which was a fatal error, for in the collison they were thrust forward into the driver. He died instantly. A short time later Mrs. Teter called up Joie Chitwood, who had known her husband well and had often seen him jump, and asked him to handle the sale of the equipment.
Orphaned at 14, Joie Chitwood (which is his full name) left school after the eighth grade to find employment where he could in the Depression era dust bowl of Topeka, Kans. The sere times of his youth still press upon him. Whatever pride he takes that his oldest son chose to follow in his footsteps is tempered by the fact that Junior was so anxious to emulate his father that he abandoned college to accept that challenge. Junior's brother Timmy, 21 now, is in the fourth year of a five-year mechanical engineering course at Florida. Timmy is unlike his older brother in many ways. He is a redhead, of slight build, and retains the hint of a limp from childhood polio. Junior is dark and stocky like his father, and prefers a crew cut. Junior is a businessman; driving is hardly more than a diversion in the day's work. Timmy is more technically oriented. He wants to design cars. But whatever the differences, Timmy is addicted to the driving and the speed, just like his brother and his father, and Joie Sr. accepts this with chagrin. He is a man who has enjoyed a great deal more danger than education, and it baffles Joie that anyone—his sons or anyone—would forgo the latter for the former.
As a 14-year-old dropout in 1930, Joie Sr. turned to shining shoes, supplementing his income as a candy butcher in Topeka's burlesque theater. Then he began hanging around a welding shop and learned that trade. Even now he will say: "I'm a welder by profession," which recalls Ben Franklin, who considered having only PRINTER on his tombstone.
Joie built his first race car out of an old Essex frame, cutting off the nose, and drove it to a second-place finish in a local event when the driver failed to appear. That was in 1935. In 1939 and the following year he was the AAA Eastern sprint car champion and was recognized by the ultimate measure of those times when he was selected to appear in a national "I'd walk a mile for a Camel" ad. He qualified a car in the Indianapolis 500 seven times, and as late as 1950 he finished fifth at the Brickyard behind the winner, Johnnie Parsons.
It was his last chance there, for by then the thrill show business was thriving and Mrs. Chitwood was after him to give up racing. Lovely and petite, Marie had been dancing professionally as Tiny Harris when they met. Her specialty was to dance up a flight of stairs, then lean over backward and, off the top stair, pick up a glass of water in her mouth. Not surprisingly, she hurt her back in this pursuit, and her theatrical career ended with her marriage. Besides, Joie was making up to $40,000 a year as a driver. Only the war, which terminated racing because of gas and tire rationing, and the coincidence that he could not find a buyer for Teter's equipment pushed him into stunt driving.
He was 4-F and teaching welding at defense plants when he decided to buy Teter's equipment himself. He practiced the more prosaic stunts and then set out to perfect a ramp-to-ramp jump. The question, essentially, was how fast to go and how far away to place a landing ramp. Joie proceeded pragmatically, which is to say that he got a bunch of junkers and started running them off the takeoff ramp.
He discusses this with approximately the same sort of emotion that a man might exhibit in describing how he tried various screwdrivers before finding one of proper size. Joie would get in an old car, run it headlong off the ramp and crash 100 feet or so away, the automobile smashing to pieces. He would climb out, have the wreck dragged aside, make calculations and try it again. It took him nine cars to be sure of his measurements. Then he built a ramp—with the beams going crossways. He opened July 4, 1943 at Williams Grove, Pa. It was a year, short one day, to the anniversary of Lucky Teter's death.
At first it was a one-man show, and often Joie had to run it on butane gas and with steel cleats instead of tires. Then, as the war drew to a close, he began to expand, hiring many of Teter's best drivers—Doggie Arthrouph, Lucky Heffelfinger, A. B. Daniels, Rocky Fisher. He was a postwar sensation. Even the movies called him. Clark Gable played a stunt driver opposite Barbara Stanwyck in To Please a Lady in 1950, and Joie doubled for Gable. By the mid-'50s he had as many as six units working, and he would shuttle between them in his own private plane.
The show was still basically Teter out of beam, but Joie tried some new specialty acts, too. For instance, he hired a Captain Frank Frakes, whose role it was to get in a coffin and then have it blown up. Another divertissement featured Captain Tommy Walker, an ex-Flying Tiger. He crashed an airplane in the infield. Chitwood would buy an old plane for $500, and the old China hand would negotiate it over the light stanchions and the concession stands and bring it down between two strategically placed telephone poles. This would rip off the wings, and the bare fuselage would come skidding home. It was very big box office until the CAA said it was giving flying a bad name and ordered a halt.
Crashing remained the rage. Precision hell driving was not yet in its ascendancy. Beam had thought up the head-on crash as far back as the 1920s and this was the staple of any thrill-show diet, though some devotees of the art have traditionally gone for another Beam creation, the Wreck 'em Race, or Demolition Derby as it is known today. At first head-ons were easy to manage since drivers could stand on the running boards and leap at the last moment. When running boards disappeared, the head-on men were ensconced among mattresses in the back seats. The trick—though it really wasn't a trick; it was just a matter of doing the best you could in an imperfect setting—was to make sure you hit absolutely head on with both cars moving at the same speed. This distributed the crunch as evenly as possible. One independent hell driver worked up an even more memorable head-on, perhaps the most dashing of all. He drove a motorcycle full speed into a sedan coming from the other direction. At the last second before impact, the daredevil cyclist would leap forward and go flying over the car as it demolished his cycle. "It was spectacular, really an incredible act," Joie Sr. says. "The only thing was that it had to be done absolutely perfectly every time." One time it was not done in this manner.
The head-on crash has passed from the thrill-show repertoire in the last few years because, despite all the people who kick tires and slam doors at used-car lots and exclaim sadly, "They don't make 'em like they used to," they do, in fact, make 'em stronger. Today's cars are too solid to hit head on, at least as long as any occupants want to escape fatality on a regular basis. In fact, if there is one thing that raises Joie Chitwood's hackles, it is what Ralph Nader did to the Corvair. "He was wrong about that car," Joie says. "That was a tough little car. I know. I jumped it more than 200 times."
Even such a mild outburst is uncharacteristic, for Chitwood is a placid man. Probably this is an essential for survival in the breed; there are, remember, no old, bold pilots. Joie, 57 now, has grown comfortable and serene. He smokes a pipe and wears glasses, regularly misplacing both. He is up at 7 every morning, a man of moderate habits. Fishing is his passion. He will eat anything, so long as it is barbecued. He is church-going, a 32nd degree Mason, happily married and a grandfather. He buckles his seat belt every time. His wife calls him Dad and, after he has had a couple of martinis, she warns him to drive carefully, just like Dad was some insurance salesman, not a man who had made 2,000 death-defying leaps and wheeled his share at seven Indy 500s.
The Chitwoods' new house, which Marie designed herself, sits by Tampa Bay. It has a pool table, a sunken bathtub, a specially lighted palm tree and the first AstroGrass in Tampa. In the marina, directly across the bay, Joie's deep-sea fishing boat tosses on the swells, waiting for him to get back off the tour. He is so tan from using her that the tattoo of his teens is nearly bronzed over. So, for that matter, are most of his scars. His face bespeaks not the glamour of his profession, but the rugged facts of it, for the lesions that remain most visible are the unromantic ones—crescent imprints where clods of dirt drove his goggles into his face, or the slight imperfections made by pebbles flying up from dirt tracks. This is in character. Pressed to recount some of his more spectacular injuries, he dwells only on those touched by humor. He recalls, as the highlight of missing a ramp at Arlington, Texas and taking 50 stitches in his neck from where the glove compartment door almost severed his head, that, in speeding to the hospital, the ambulance driver "burnt his sireen out." And his favorite story of all is about the time in Springfield, Ill. when he jumped out of the car for his introduction, tripped and broke his left wrist in the fall.
He is a man of much personal perspective. "I haven't been driving full-time now for over three years," he says. "I fill in on the two-car and the four-car [close-order high-speed precision driving over ramps] when Timmy is in school. I'm not doing anything anybody couldn't do. My eyes aren't so good anymore. I still think my reflexes are pretty good. Maybe slowed down, but it seems to me the trouble is all with my eyes—especially at night. But it doesn't matter. In the two-car and four-car, there's always another car only two, three inches away, and you don't have to have good eyes to see that, do you?"
Joie Sr.'s prime function now, as he sees it, is to maintain good relations with Chevrolet. The Chitwoods could not make money unless they got a good price on all the cars they need. A unit must gross $7,000 a week to break even, and to make a profit it is necessary to play a selective schedule with guerrilla movements to distant one-night stands. It is all packed into the summer vacation period now, those warm days and nights when kids are loose with spending money. The schedule is often a show a day. A night in a motel bed becomes only an occasional luxury. Usually, sleep is found curled up in a back seat. But there has never been any lack of young men willing to give up their comforts and risk their lives in the endeavor. Occasionally scoff laws have been drawn to the violent and transient life, but their number is few. Mostly the thrill show attracts otherwise normal young men who simply have one curious penchant, for automotive mayhem.
Joie lately has been taking on college boys as ramp hands. These roustabouts start at about $100 a week, and if they show any sustained interest in the vocation they can get a shot at stunt work, beginning with something mundane like The Slide for Life. From there they move to Rollovers, which involves driving an old junker off a ramp and then trying to turn it over. Terrifying as this sounds, a rollover man should endure nothing more than huge bruises at the hips, where the seat belt digs in with the several impacts.
After the Chitwoods, Don Peters, 35, is the veteran driver in the troupe, and typical of the group, being clean-cut, sincere and a respected member of his community, which, in the off sea—son, is Newport News, Va. There his wife Pat is a fifth-grade schoolteacher and Peters drives a Citizens Rapid Transit bus; he has earned several safe-driving awards. He makes as much as $500 a week as a senior stunt driver, but he is also responsible for many odious maintenance and caretaker tasks. Only Chitwood's clowns and the announcer, Al (Zany) Dohany, escape these dull daily responsibilities.
The one thing Peters does not like about the life of a stunt driver is that it is so dirty. He is fastidious, and what concerns him most about rolling cars over is whether he will have time and room to brush his hair down afterward before he jumps out of the wreck to take bows. He refuses to dwell on the possibility of injury or death. Stunt men will admit to a recognition of their danger and they will acknowledge "concern" or "butterflies," but mostly they appear willing to concede that they might be a little bit afraid only because they realize it is sensible to be so. Besides, not that many drivers do get killed. "You tell a man how to do a stunt," Beam says. "If he doesn't listen, you get rid of him. We're not in the business of killing people, even if you do want the public to think you are."
Accordingly, at thrill shows death is honored in the breach. While the announcers, the advertising—subliminally and otherwise—and the whole approach is to suggest that the price of admission all but assures the ticket bearer of the keen privilege of watching some driving fool meet a violent end, the fact is, disappointing as it may be for some thrill-show buffs, that a fatal accident is more likely to happen en route to the show than during one. Snooks Wentzel is the only Danger Angel to die in 7,000 or so Chitwood performances. "What scares you is not the spectacular accident, but the freak things that can happen," Marie Chitwood says. Joie Sr. nods. A driver in another show got killed once doing a simple reverse spin; Joie goes out and does these for relaxation, like watering the plants.
Mercifully, the Chitwoods do not play up the macabre angle the way it has been featured in the past. There are no more skull and crossbones, and the suggested radio ads limit themselves to "death-defying." Zany Dohany does, however, make sure that the fans are aware that the driver "is risking his very own life" and before Don Peters' Sidewinder crash and Junior's jump, every other member of the troupe gathers around the car and solemnly shakes the hand of the life-risker, proffering luck and a provisional farewell.
Old Mickey Rieder sees no come-on. "The people still come out to see someone get killed. They always have. It's blood they all want," he says. Addressing himself directly to this attraction, Beam used to lead off his advertising campaign with newspaper teasers that said only DEATH. And then DEATH IS COMING TO TOWN. He still has a newspaper mat advertisement that showed head shots of four racing drivers. The headline said: THREE ARE STILL ALIVE. Only, to make it even more effective, the THREE was crossed out, and the word TWO was written above it. In the Beam souvenir programs, fans were beseeched to cheer loudly for the drivers: "Give them this inspiration now, for tomorrow they may not hear it."
Beam was first an entrepreneur, and it was his business to know that this sort of appeal really did work. Tall and distinguished looking, he now lives in Goshen, N.Y. in the very midst of the horsemen who used to harass his show. Still, while he conceived the thrill show and devoted much of his life to it—until he sold out to Kochman a few years ago—he never felt any deep allegiance to it as an art. "What I enjoyed was putting the thing on," he says. "Once it started, I lost interest. A lot of times I wouldn't go across the street to see my own show." The drivers are mostly one-dimensional cardboard cutouts to him. "My feeling and that of psychiatrists," Beam says assuredly, "is that almost all of them have a death wish."
On the other hand, although he does not necessarily approve of the ticket-buying public's taste, Beam identifies more with spectators and exhibits an inclusive and warm understanding of them. "It's not hard to understand why people are attracted to these shows," he says. "Very basic responses. When I was growing up, it was a rein you held in your hands. Now everybody grows up holding a steering wheel. That's the first thing the horseman couldn't understand. And none of it's complicated. One time I decided to put in a new clown act. The act we were using was real old stuff—pants falling off, the little firecracker making a big noise, the big firecracker just sputtering. They loved that. But we really went out to develop something fresh. I paid a professional $1,000 to devise a good one. And it was good. It was very well received, too. The people laughed exactly as hard as they had with the big firecracker and the little firecracker, which they had seen 100 times.
"That taught me something. I don't know. It's a different breed that likes thrill shows, but they're very loyal. Very loyal. And don't mistake this: it ain't monkeys out there in the stands. It's just home folks."
By contrast, Chitwood's view has been that of the performer: inside out. He is an expert on every phase of the business. He can evaluate clowns and announcers with just as much authority as he rates drivers or mechanics or cars. He is not, though (and neither are his sons), a student of the crowds. To tell Joie Sr. that the crowd liked the show is of no solace whatsoever to him if he feels that the performance was technically imperfect.
"There's a fair we play in Dunkirk, N.Y.," Joie says. "They had these Army tanks there at the track, and they wanted to run over the junk cars we were done with. I said it didn't make any difference to me; we had to get rid of the junkers somehow, though to tell you the truth, I couldn't understand why they wanted to go through all that.
"It showed me I didn't know what I was talking about. You should have heard those people scream when the tanks started rolling over those cars and grinding them up. Everyone stayed to see it, and they do it every year now, because it was such a success. The people just shout and scream when those tanks start grinding those cars up. I turn my back. It's sickening."
Still, the thrill show is not as morbid as it once was, and the proof is the popularity of the two-wheel stunt. It is an entirely fresh concept in the business. It breaks all the rules. There is no great danger involved. It is not done at high speed. It is not a quick sensation, over in seconds. It is not humorous. It is accompanied by neither fireworks nor other special effects. It is pure. When the fans see Junior or Timmy go over the high skis with the right tires and suddenly realize that the car is actually going to stay tilted that way and travel for some distance, they are nearly dumfounded. They rise slowly, in awe, and stand, as a body, openmouthed. On the P.A., Zany Dohany must remind them to applaud, which they do thereafter with uncommon zeal.
Junior has driven 2.6 miles for the two-wheel record at Daytona Beach before 100,000 and is so accomplished that he could go much farther if he were ever challenged to. Even now, he often fails purposely to get balance right away so that when at last he does it appears a more genuine accomplishment. "Timmy's just as good as Junior," Joie Sr. says, "but he's all over the track. Actually, this is better for us, because Junior's so smooth people think that it's got to be a trick."
When the brothers are both up and moving together, in close formation around a track, the effect is marvelously eerie. Everything seems so out of joint, with cars moving in tandem, rakishly tilted like straw hats on a buck-and-wing team. The Chitwoods complete the circuit and, still gliding on edge, bring the Camaros right up facing the center of the grandstand, poise them in salute and then let them come down, as if the automobiles were bowing themselves. It is much like when Roy Rogers would dismount and stand aside as Trigger would duck his head and paw at the ground, indicating "thank you" or "pleased to meet you" or whatever he had in mind.
As sure as Chevrolet makes cars, though, a man sells more tickets by defying death than by defying balance. The two-wheel closes the first act; the jump closes the show the way it always has.
Now it is time to jump again. Junior is ready to open a new thrill-show season. It is Albany, Ga., the New Albany Dragway and Junior has not jumped in eight months. "I asked him this afternoon," Noreen says. "You're jumping a new car. Don't you want to make at least one practice jump? He just said 'No,' and that was that." Like his son, Joie Sr. did not exhibit any special concern. He did map out the town for good barbecue.
Late in the afternoon Junior does go out and run the car that is reserved strictly for jumping. Timmy rides along with his brother. They hitch up a fifth wheel behind the jump car and drive up and down the drag strip. The fifth wheel is calibrated to measure the speedometer delicately, which is vital. To make the jump without error, Junior's car must be going 42 mph when it takes off. He says he has only half-a-mile-per-hour tolerance either way for safety. This is a far cry from the offhand reckoning his father depended on. Joie Sr. claims that he went 70 mph when he made his record 125' jumps. Junior laughs. "My dad always says that," he says, "but the truth is he didn't really know how fast he was going. He just measured it by going wide open in second gear—whatever that was." The jump man who served in the transitional period between Joie Sr. and Junior relinquished the job after he overshot the ramp by 40 feet one night, proving conclusively that it is not wise to drink and jump.
The Albany crowd trickles in and Joie Sr., playing with his grandchild by the clowns' trailer, eyes it with disgust. The first night of the 28th annual Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, and there are 363 paying customers sitting on their car hoods to watch. The worst thing is that Junior has signed for a percentage, not a flat guarantee. Joie shrugs. At least he does not have much to do. Timmy has come up from school, so all Joie has to drive is in the four-car.
Down the drag strip, but still visible in the twilight, sits The Space Rocket truck, Florida license 3L-1373. The Space Rocket, an imposing sight, is the fancy apparatus that Joie designed a few years ago to replace the passé takeoff ramps. It is a huge steel tube, and Junior must shoot into it on runners that are barely wide enough for the Camaro's tires. "If I miss the runners," he says, "it would be just like hitting a brick wall." He has never pulled up, though, even though he realizes that in an instant he must have the car aligned with the runners and the speedometer at 42 mph. Past that point, the die is cast. He flies out the other end of the rocket, 20 feet above ground, soars over the rest of the flatbed, crosses about 40 feet of open space and lands on the ramp. The whole jump is about 65 feet long.
The jump is made with all the stadium lights out. Only the rocket shines, gaudy Day-Glo. In addition to his car's headlights, Junior also has white rocket sparkles shooting out of the back sides of the car and, just as he soars, Dave Roberts detonates a huge explosion so that it appears the car is being blasted out of the rocket. Junior is concentrating so hard, though, that he has never once heard this monster noise. "A few times," he says, "just as I took off, I've felt that something was wrong. Then, when I've landed, they've told me that the rocket didn't explode."
Junior has made the jump more than 700 times and has had only four close calls. He does not feel threatened by the law of averages, though, and jumping is something that is just not discussed in the Chitwood trailer. "He has told me," Noreen explains, "that if I am scared, all that means is that I have no confidence in his ability." She surely knows, anyway, that a man who would start this sort of activity virtually on his wedding day is not going to be dissuaded from it by anyone.
Noreen looks up now as The Space Rocket is moved onto the track. The baby is in his crib, and she watches, through the front window of the camper, with her chin cupped in her hands. She is thin but not fragile—lean and supple, with soft, but searching eyes. Now she leaves the camper and moves closer to the spectacle.
On the track her husband is all over the rocket, for not only does he supervise the preparatory work, he handles the more delicate chores himself. He pumps up the tube to its proper pitch. He stands, like a kicker lining up a field-goal try, to check alignment. He measures the correct distance to the landing ramp. He checks the runners. Joie Sr. is close to the scene, too, a professor emeritus, inspecting yet not intruding. At the last, he and Timmy reach in, along with all the others, to shake Junior's hand when he finally settles in the driver's seat.
In the camper, though, the next and only other Joie Chitwood is asleep. He has gotten too tired, even in all this excitement, to pull the curtains one more time. "If my son wants to do this, too, when he grows up," Junior has said, "—well, I feel like my dad. First, I would try to talk him out of it, the way he did me. Not because of the danger, but because of the way of life—the traveling all the time, the moving. Not the danger. But then, after that, if I saw that he still liked it, and this is what he wanted, then I would encourage him, the way my dad did."
Junior roars off down the drag strip, and lights his sparkles when he turns, far down the straightaway, to face The Space Rocket, Florida license 3L-1373. It is all done in a flash. Far in advance it seems—though she knows the timing exactly—Noreen places her fingers in her ears and presses hard. Her husband, going very nearly 42 mph, roars onto the runners, and in the next instant, with a blast, the rocket is behind him and he is soaring. "The perfect jump." Junior has said. "Maybe I do 10 a year, 10 perfect jumps. You don't even hear the car land. And the back wheels touch down exactly where the front wheels did."
This is not a perfect jump at Albany, Ga. Junior is perhaps two feet short of the mark, but he clatters safely onto the breast of the slope, rattling lightly. Anyway, it is a good jump. "A good jump," Joie Sr. says, "is any jump you walk away from." He watches across the way as his son pulls the car to a halt and tears off his seat belt and his helmet for a bow. "Where all the Chitwood stunt men are superb," Zany Dohany cries into the P.A., "Joie Chitwood JUNIORRR is magnificent!"
Noreen's fingers fall from her ears, and she smiles as he comes to her and gives her a perfunctory kiss. After all, he has done this 700 times. He does this every night. "Good," she says.
"A little short," Junior replies, and he is gone to settle accounts with the local promoters.
Moving across the track, Joie Sr. packs his pipe, lights it and thinks of getting a good barbecue sandwich as soon as he has made sure that Timmy has left the Danger Angels and is driving back to the University of Florida, back for that degree.
Amid fireworks, a thrill car emerges from The Space Rocket at left, soars 40 feet through the air and approaches a landing in hell driving's premier act.
Three generations of Chitwoods: Joie, Joie III and Joie Jr., with Junior's wife Noreen.
Joie Jr. wows 'em by driving a car on two wheels, a balancing act that he performs with ease.