CAN THE GREAT AMERICAN THRILL SHOW BE SAVED?
It is not featured in any tourist books and the locals don’t brag about it, but from an elevated stretch of Route 6 in rural Maine, you can see Jim “Crash” Moreau’s junk car sculpture garden. Painted red, white and blue, the 1970s sedans are frozen in action poses from Moreau’s illustrious 40-year-plus daredevil career.
It’s the New England version of Nebraska’s magnificent Carhenge.
“When I die,” the aging stuntman says, “whoever puts my obituary in the paper has to put the name ‘Crash’ in there or nobody would know me.”
Known as the “Maine Maniac,” Moreau is one of the last auto thrill show veterans still on the road. Back in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, there were several dozen “Hell Driver” stunt teams who criss-crossed North America and staged elaborate auto accidents for family entertainment. The most successful operation, the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, had up to five daredevil units simultaneously performing at race tracks, sports stadiums and county fairs.
The late Evel Knievel, inarguably the biggest name in daredevil history, was inspired to jump motorcycles after he saw the Chitwood Show visit his hometown fair in Montana. Before Knievel launched his spectacular mega-events, such as the ill-fated jump over Snake River Canyon, less ambitious motorcycle leaps over a few cars were enchanting the regular thrill show crowds.
Regardless of whether a stuntman was driving on four wheels or two, there was one sacred principle about the level of risk involved. Unlike Knievel, who had several months of hospital time to recuperate between events, the thrill show guys had to repeat their stunts night after night. But before new live audiences, the repetition was far from boring.
Hell Drivers smashed through tunnels of fire – and barreled through walls of ice.
Animal rights activists be damned, they also jumped cars and pick-up trucks over circus elephants — with the elephant’s trainer assuming a much higher risk of getting smushed.
In their heyday, Hell Drivers were sex symbols, the closest small town folks would ever get to seeing a movie star. Joie Chitwood, Sr. doubled for heartthrob Clark Gable in the 1950s movie, “To Please a Lady,” the first film to use complex automobile stunts. Several thrill show-influenced James Bond movies would later follow.
Automobile manufacturers used to fight with each other for the sponsorship rights to Hell Driving shows. Nash Motors signed a long-term deal with Lucky Lee Lott. Ford and later, Chevrolet chose the Chitwoods to represent their brands. Plymouth had the Hurricane Hell Drivers. And Ford also advertised with the Aut Swenson Thrillcade (the elephant guys) and the Rotroff All-Girl Auto Thrill Show.
Today, the lucrative sponsorships are all gone. The money dried up as Hollywood special effects made old-school style stunts appear less impressive – and cable TV specials seemed to feature more dangerous acts 24/7. Demolition derbies, which are much cheaper to produce than a thrill show, have since taken over as the premiere event at county fairs.
These economic realities have made it extremely tough for the thrill show to thrive, but luckily the tradition is not dead. Crash’s cross-country seatbelt survival tour is captured in the new independent documentary, “Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies.”
“Monster trucks have come in, demo derbies, extreme bike riders. They’ve all taken over a piece of the pie,” Moreau admits. “But as long as you’re doing the stunts that people see on TV, there are still many people who want to see a live stunt show.”
The Maine Maniac pays tribute to the thrill shows of old with his divebomber act, which involves driving a car off a ramp directly into a pile of junk cars. The hood of the airborne car usually sticks into the windshield of a junk car like an arrow.
He has also attracted a cult following for his Steel Wall stunt, which involves racing a car into vertically propped-up vehicles balanced on their front bumpers. The magnificent chain reaction crash looks like a motorhead’s fantasy game of dominoes.
Realizing the fickleness of young crowds raised on video games, Crash is adding a new car trick to his repertoire in 2008. It’s called the Kamikaze Death Drop, and like it is branded, it seems to be a suicidal.
At county fairs in Delaware, Maine and Pennsylvania, Crash plans to be strapped inside a car dangling from the top of a crane – and then released into a frightening free fall into a pile of junk cars. He’s still booking this act for future dates this summer and fall, so he’s probably lined up a decent chiropractor!
The 59-year-old Crash undoubtedly lumbers on with his career for deep personal reasons – the roar of the crowd, the thrill of life on the road – but each time he performs, he honors the memory of the original Hell Drivers. To the countless millions of kids who grew up looking forward to the county fair every year, auto thrill show stars were superhuman.
They kept our childhood sense of wonder alive for a little longer. And let us vicariously live on the edge that (fortunately) few of us dare to experience. For a small and gutsy group of automobile lovers, almost dying is the only way to live.
Darren Garnick is the producer of “Hell Drivers: America’s Original Crash Test Dummies,” which premieres on June 13 at the New Jersey International Film Festival. To be advised of upcoming screenings, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org