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Although he was only five years old at the time Snooks Wentzel was killed, Joie Chitwood Jr. was traveling with his father's show then and was even a small part of the Danger Angels. He would ride a little motorcycle and, at the start of the show, Joie Sr. would take him along when he would roar around the track and spin up to the front of the grandstand with the conventional screech. Then father and son would come out together for bows. Joie Jr. was a real trouper. They were playing a ball park one day in Wilmington, Del. when he and his father came flying across the infield in a car and it caught on the pitcher's mound and flipped completely over. Surprisingly, the two of them squirmed out safely, and, while standing there to wild applause, little Junior said: "Hey, Dad, we ought to leave that in the show."
Snooks and old Mickey Rieder were Junior's best friends on the tour. They would watch him when his parents weren't around, and he would trail happily about after them. Suddenly, after Snooks was killed that day in Haverhill, Mass., Junior found only revulsion for his father's business. He said he would not travel anymore with the show; he did not even want to hear his father talk about it. "Well, he'll never be a thrill driver," Joie Sr. told Marie, his wife. She nodded with relief.
"My mother's always been a nervous wreck," Junior explains now. "You've got to remember, she was around my dad when he was perfecting all this stuff." And so she was around when the horror of that day in Haverhill began to fade from Junior's mind, and she watched her son grow up—with fear and pride—it was her husband all over again. By the time he was only 12 years old, Junior was driving. He was rolling cars over at 15 and doing the high-speed precision hell driving soon after that. One Friday in June of 1964, when Junior was 20, his father took him out to the Sunshine Dragway near Tampa and taught him how to jump a car ramp to ramp. That is the indispensable act of the thrill-show business, and it has been ever since the late Lucky Teter devised it back in the '30s.
"I never thought I'd jump," Junior says, "but then suddenly one day I just wanted to be the jump man. He was always the most respected fellow in the show, and that's what I wanted to be." The next day, a Saturday, Junior jumped for the first time in a show, and the day after that he got married. Few men have the essence of their whole lives compressed into one weekend.
Now his wife Noreen travels with Junior as his mother Marie did with his father. Marie would never watch her man jump, and Joie Sr. went off the ramp a couple of thousand times. Noreen, however, leaves the family camper, which is parked in the infield, just before the final act and moves closer to see. A huge explosion is detonated as Junior's car leaves the ramp, and Noreen never fails to jab her fingers into her ears and grimace as Junior roars toward takeoff. It is as if she is trying desperately to believe that the danger can only come from what she hears, not from what she might see.
Sometimes, too, at a window in the Chitwood camper, curtains are parted and a small, bright face peers curiously into the night, wondering at all the commotion and the public-address voice saying: "...only a helmet and his ever-present seat belt..." and "unfortunately, Lucky Teter met his untimely death...." The child is Joie Chitwood III, and he is standing in his crib in the camper to see his father jump a car, just as the father—as a child—stood in the back seat of an old junk car, where he often slept, to watch his father jump ramp to ramp.
The thrill show does not change much, not even from generation to generation. Most of the standard stunts were devised before World War II by a wily, vigorous old promoter named B. Ward Beam, the man who conceived the thrill show and promoted the first one at the Lucas County Fairgrounds, near Toledo, in August 1923.
Teter added the ramp-to-ramp jump to the enduring repertoire, and Joie Jr. perfected a two-wheel drive stunt early in this decade. Otherwise, the bill is nearly the same as always. Even the clown acts—"a little comedy relief interspersed between the dangerous action"—transcend change. Hap and Dave Roberts, a father-son act, have been with Joie Sr. almost from the day he started in the business in 1943. Hap is not old, only ageless, having played with Buffalo Bill himself, a disclosure that creates approximately the same sensation as if some politician were to explain matter-of-factly that he got his start sitting in the Illinois legislature with Abraham Lincoln.
The routine of the thrill show is so repetitive that the Chitwoods open up their summer tour without bothering to practice. Timmy Chitwood—who is Joie Sr.'s other child, Junior's younger brother, Joie III's uncle and the only male member of the clan not named Joie—is called "The First of May." It is an old carney expression indicating a novice: Timmy drives in the show only when he is not required in class at the University of Florida. "If we're going to mess up," says Timmy of the no-practice policy, "we might as well do it in front of people. My dad always tells us that." When Junior assembled all drivers and ramp hands for a little organization talk prior to the season's debut at Albany, Ga., the major issue appeared to be the logistics of obtaining Cokes at intermission.
The thrill show thrives on this constancy, and Ward Beam looks on what he wrought with as much awe as skepticism. "I keep thinking it's going to die out because the people will tire of the hell driving," he says. "It's the same thing over and over. All they're trying to do is sell automobiles. But I don't understand it. Receipts are always going up."