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"I'm going to wake up in the middle of the night one night and give a loud scream," says Strange. "Then I'll be all right."
So Chuck Strange is on the beach, which is where a lot of people think somebody who is crazy enough to jump from one ramp to another in a pickup truck belongs permanently. Obviously, Strange is not among them, nor were the 59,000 people who congregated in the Astrodome on the night of Jan. 13, 1978—a Friday—to see him "Do It in the Dome."
Two months earlier, at the Ontario Motor Speedway, Strange had set a world record for a ramp-to-ramp flight by a pickup truck. The jump was seen by more than 65,000 Californians who had come to watch a NASCAR stock-car race. But before Neil Bonnett would win the Los Angeles Times 500 by driving his Dodge at an average speed of 128.296 mph, Strange and his Star Truck, flying at about 50 mph after taking off from a ramp pitched precisely 17 degrees, cleared 18 huddled Datsuns—a span of 98 feet. His flight, actually covering 107 feet, was slightly off-center, which almost made him miss the landing ramp entirely. As Strange says of his brutal touchdown, "I broke my rear end and the truck's, both."
Still, by the standards of the profession, it was a clean flight. "I've never really had a ho-hum jump," Strange says. "The fans think I've crashed even if I haven't."
The Houston jump was billed as the centerpiece of the 12th Annual Astrodome Thrill Show, which is to daredeviltry what a heavyweight-title fight is to boxing. It was planned as a routine flight. Strange would attempt to clear just 16 cars provided by A. J. Foyt, a noted local Chevrolet dealer.
The only hitch was that the Dome's sunken arena floor was not nearly big enough for Strange to make a straight and level approach. He had to begin his run in a parking lot at ground level, build speed as he drove 19 feet down a three-tiered service ramp to the Dome's floor, and then aim Star Truck at the takeoff ramp. He did this several times in practice, without incident.
Strange always makes one false pass at the takeoff ramp; that's show biz. On the night of Friday the 13th he made three. Star Truck was misfiring.
When Strange bounced down to the arena floor the fourth time. Star Truck bottomed out, sending up a shower of sparks from beneath the pickup bed. At that point, however, Strange felt nothing was seriously amiss. His speed was good and he was determined to go—in his words, "I wanted to nail the sucker." He didn't know that the jolt had peeled back a steel shield beneath Star Truck's right front A-arm (a suspension part that more or less connects the wheel with the chassis). When Strange reached the top of his takeoff ramp, the bent shield dug in. A split second after Star Truck took flight, it began to yaw to the right.
Strange almost made it. He cleared all the cars—or at least the gap represented by 16 cars, as some soul far more cautious than Strange had seen to it that they weren't placed directly under his proposed flight path but slightly to one side—but Star Truck came in low on the glide path and slammed into the back side of the landing ramp. The impact broke one of Strange's ribs, bruised a kidney, dislocated his elbows and shattered his forearms. The landing ramp's five-foot safety deck splintered Star Truck's windshield and broke Strange's nose. Star Truck settled back on top of the 16th car, a brand new 1978 Chevrolet Monza that despite its cautious positioning was not far enough out of harm's way.
The Dome was silent. It took 30 minutes for a paramedic team to extricate Strange from the wreckage. He remained conscious during the short trip to Hermann Hospital, which was a good thing because he was able to tell the doctors that he didn't have any internal injuries—their primary concern—and that they could get right to work on his arms.