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The Daredevils Who Crash & Burn For Your Entertainment
He floored the gas pedal and the car headed straight for the dirt ramp. Five thousand fans at the speedway cheered. A timed pyrotechnics explosion gave a large BOOM as he hit the ramp. Launch. Fly through the air. Everything has to be just right. The car landed, crashing into a pile of wrecked vehicles. The crowd gasped. Is the driver OK? The paramedics raced to the crash site. Yes, somehow, the driver climbed out of the car and waved to the cheering audience.
That, after all, is the point. Danger-defying drivers who travel the country in events like “The Thrillseekers Show” get an adrenaline rush from the stunt itself, but they always want to please the folks in the stands.
“The biggest reward is the appreciation the crowd has when I do it right,” says Crash Moreau, whose stunt career began at a dirt track in Unity, Maine, in 1973. He’s still driving today, performing several shows a year, and even made an appearance on America’s Got Talent.
“First time I did a stunt, I took a stock car, filled up the trunk with gas, set it on fire, drove it around the track and jumped a ramp,” he recalls. “You get the applause, and to me that’s worth it. People think I’m crazy and all that, because they wouldn’t even dare do the stuff that I do.”
The shows have grown from the earliest days of the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, a traveling display of death-defying car stunts, including drivers who could keep a moving car balanced on its side. Those shows inspired the most famous daredevil of them all, Evel Knievel, who could jump a dozen school buses with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Today’s driving tricks involve a combination of pyrotechnics, physics, willpower and mechanical carnage. The current crop of daredevil drivers, who work dozens of dates at county fairs and dirt tracks, wouldn’t want it any other way.
“My dad started in stunt shows in 1949,” says John “Rocky Hardcore” Hauri, who has crashed cars, jumped cars and wrecked cars for the past four decades. “I saw my first stunt show when I was 9 years old, and right then I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up. It fascinated me to see what they were doing with cars. Drivers were taking factory vehicles and driving them on two side wheels, then they were jumping the cars off ramps. I actually had a show with my dad, and we did all of those things. But I enjoy the crash work more. It amazes people to see a vehicle getting destroyed, and someone walking away from it.”
Daredevil driving takes more than just building a dirt ramp and filling a car with gasoline. Hauri started out as a ramp-hand for other stunt drivers, doing set-up and prep work, before he ever got behind the wheel himself.
Driving talent is just a part of the act. Every single factor, from the safety of the driver to the excitement of the stunt, must be carefully choreographed. In a recent show in New York, Hauri drove a convertible — with the roof down — into the center of four flaming cars that were standing straight up. He had to hit the exact spot between the two front cars to take out all the vehicles like a bowling ball converting a spare.
“You have to figure your angle and what could possibly go wrong,” he says. “If something doesn’t seem right, you have to have a gut instinct as to whether you want to complete the stunt or not.”
Despite all of the preparation and practice beforehand, things can and do go wrong — and the driver usually has only a few moments to get out of danger. Luck plays a part. Moreau remembers a stunt that had him riding through a flaming steel wall — two cars standing on their rear bumpers and set on fire.
“When I hit them, the second car hit me twice,” he says. “The doors were jammed and the flames were coming into the side windows, the headliner was burning. It got so hot inside the car, the windshield melted. You know somebody’s watching over you when you can walk away from that.”
But after all the wreckage, after all the crashes, after every mangled, wrecked vehicle that gave its life for a final stunt for the crowd, the stunt drivers and daredevils still appreciate the thrill of a successful feat.
“I was the first person to crash into a school bus steel wall with an ambulance. I’ve jumped a garbage truck off a ramp. I’ve taken out a steel wall with a Ford F-150 pickup,” says Hauri. “I’m competing with TV and movies, with computer-generated stuff, tricks using belts and harnesses and cages. I want to be the first person to do new real stunts each time, every night.”