"I remember the feeling of the warm blood—my blood—and seeing the bones sticking out," he says. "I remember I got mad when a nurse cut off my leathers. They had to cut my jacket but they didn't have to touch my pants. My legs weren't hurt. I remember the lights in the operating room and the doctor saying, 'Boy, is he messed up. He's going to be in here a long time.' That's about it until the next day."
The next day, Strange was all over page one of the Houston Chronicle; the news that Hubert Humphrey had just died received far less front-page notice.
Strange had seven major operations over the next four weeks, most of them to implant the metal that would hold his arms together for so many months. (And confuse airport weapons detectors. "It's inside my arms," Strange had to keep telling skeptical security guards. "The metal's in my arms!") During his second week at Hermann he signed a promissory note to ensure his stay in the hospital. He did this by weakly grasping a pen with his left hand and, because his arms were immobile, having a nurse move the clipboard, to which the note was attached, up against the pen in an X pattern.
The doctors all agreed that by rights Strange should have been killed. It was the third time in his short violent career that Strange had heard that remark.
Chuck Strange was born in Los Angeles, Calif. 28 years ago under the name Charles Othon and grew up in Phoenix with an overwhelming urge to be different. At South Mountain High School, he was a smart but highly selective student. "I was good—dynamite—at what I wanted to be good at," he says. "The rest, I just didn't care. It was mostly music, girls and cars."
He played lead guitar in three local rock bands, The Knightkaps, US (for "Universal Sound") and Twentieth Century Zoo. He drove to school in an old, immaculate limousine. One day during lunch hour he drove down a dirt road on South Mountain (the mountain, not the high school) and missed a turn, and wondered why. He later tried the turn again, slowly, and made it. He got to the point where he felt comfortable when the car's rear end broke loose, and in time he was taking the turn at a far greater speed than that at which he had crashed. He graduated to putting the two right side tires of his limo up on a curb and seeing how far he could ride the curb. "It's not as easy as it sounds," he says. "All those driveways, curves...it's tough." He'd see how many telephone poles he could clip with the right side of his rear bumper, listening for that pleasant ping...ping and going back to check the nicks in the poles just to make sure. "Then I might go slam a garbage can just for the hell of it," he adds.
Oversimply put, for whatever psychological reasons, Chuck Othon grew up fascinated by the sound of grinding metal. "I love a good crash," he says. Especially, it seems, one in which he is involved.
If there is such a thing as a demolition-derby natural. Chuck Othon was it, and after his release from high school he advanced the state of that dubious art to unimagined heights. During one stretch, he won something like 19 of 23 derbies in Arizona, New Mexico and California, and even formed his own demo derby team, which, just because he wanted to be different, he called the Strange Racing Team. One night a sign painter was supposed to paint on the side of his junker, to indicate its driver and his affiliation:
CHUCK STRANGE RACING TEAM
But the painter got the spacing all wrong and the sign came out: