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 pass� 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.