Saturday, June 15, 2013

But First, Jumpin' Johnny....

Dave and I had planned to leave for Portland as soon as I could get off work Thursday, say 4PM or so. His pickup was running hot so we decided to rent an econobox for the trip and we were scheduled to grab the rental at 5PM.  Then, Jumpin' Johnny called.

Johnny Crasharama has come up on the blog before. He's a friend of mine - a professional stuntman who has been wrecking, rolling and racing cars for outfits like Chitwood's Tournament of Thrills and King Kovaz Auto Daredevils since about 1972.  He had semi-retired some time back because he hated the last guy he'd worked for, but he never quit doing stunts - he'd just block off the street in front of his house and do stunt wrecks for free until the cops made him stop.

A few years ago he was talking to a friend who was still in the business and he found out that the Hell Drivers, the very last old time Auto Thrill Show still on the circuit, was about to close down.  Johnny looks hard as nails, but really, he's the sentimental type; the idea that there wouldn't be a thrill show barnstorming across America the next year - for the first time since 1934 - bothered him deeply.  Two weeks later he had bought the Hell Drivers and was gearing up for life on the road again.
Things have been tough- the economy sucks, fuel is expensive, and it's hard to keep an experienced team of stunt drivers together.  And, times have changed.  The County Fairs and rural dirt tracks that made up most of that Stunt Show circuit tend to book Extreme Motocross, Monster Trucks and other more contemporary shows these days.  Still, Johnny and his Hell Drivers head out each season, doing their best and keeping an American tradition alive.

That tradition is a big deal to Johnny.  He knows about all of the old time Stunt Shows and can rattle off stories of long-dead stunt drivers - most of them killed in action - for hours. I mentioned the photo I saw labeled 'Jimmy Leach and his Death Duckers' and Johnny says, "Do you mean Jimmy Lynch and his Death Dodgers?" This stuff is in his blood (after all his accidents, literally).  Johnny worked for many of the old timers in his early days, and back then he was driving '40s and 50's cars nearly every show, just like his heroes did before him.
One of Johnny's biggest heroes is Lucky Teter, the first really successful Thrill Show driver and first Hell Driver.  Teter was a big star in the thirties and early forties - until his spectacular death on July 4, 1942.  The July 4 show was billed as his farewell to Thrill Shows- he was scheduled to enlist in the military the next day.  He never made it.  On his third jump of the day, Teter was attempting to set a ramp-to-ramp jump record: 150 feet.   Spectators heard his '38 Plymouth misfiring as he approached the ramp, but he tried to jump anyway.  The Plymouth fell short, hitting the landing ramp at windshield height, killing Teter instantly in front of thousands of spectators.

When Johnny told me that he was thinking of fixing up a 1938 Plymouth and taking it out on the circuit with him as a tribute to Teter I thought it was pretty cool.    Then when he told me he'd probably try some stunts with it I thought it was kinda nuts - jumping a four year old car in 1942 is one thing - jumping a 75 year old car in 2013 is a whole other level of 'Extreme.'  But not to Johnny.  He had trouble finding a suitable '38 Plymouth, so he settled on someone's stalled '37 Dodge project.  It had been sitting for 30+ years, but Johnny had it running and driving in a few months and local artist Bruce Gossett painted it up to look like a forties Thrill Show car.  Only thing left was to test it with a few small jumps.  He called to see if I wanted to check it out before he headed for the East Coast.  Dave and I postponed our departure.
Johnny set up ramps on the street in front of his house and a small group of us waited around while he got everything set up.  He'd replaced the shocks since the car had been bottoming out in earlier tests and he wanted to make sure it was sorted.  By about 7PM everyone was there and he fired up the stock 217 flat six and drove to the end of the street - a quick U turn and he was barreling toward the ramps, straight pipe roaring.

He hit the ramps going about 50 and the car sailed through the air as clean as can be... planting firmly 20-30 feet down the street.  No bottoming out.  After that it was just fun.   He made another half dozen jumps, with the car performing perfectly each time.  Then a cop rolled up, looked at Johnny's car, the ramps and all of us.  He and Johnny talked for a second and the cop left, smiling.  Show was over.  Dave and I got in the rental and headed for Portland...

1 comment:

Justin Other Smith said...

Saw the Hell Drivers in the late '50s in southern Ohio...