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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.