CHUCK STRANGE RACING TEAM
Chuck Othon was annoyed at first, but the public-address announcers had a field day. "Hey, look at that strange Chuck Strange, will you," they'd say. "He's really doing some strange things out there."
By this happenstance did Chuck Othon acquire a stage name. All he needed was an act.
In his first years as a stunt driver, Strange did the usual daredevil stuff you can still see at any middling-sized county fair. He would call a promoter, wrangle for a while over his cut of the gate, then arrange to have four junkers waiting at the track, and he'd do spins and crashes and sideswipes—the basics—for as long as the cars would hold out, which usually wasn't very long. His finale was the "Wall of Fire," an act devised by Lucky Teter, the godfather of all stunt drivers. For this number Strange would have to find somebody willing to strap himself to the hood of the last drivable car while he crashed it through a flaming plywood barrier. Usually the stunt was harder on the driver than it was on the rider, because when the car splintered the wall, the flaming debris often flew back into the driver's face. (For safety's sake, windshields are taken out.) But sometimes Strange's last car would have maybe two flat tires and be missing so badly that it would barely get up enough steam to break the barrier; in which case the unfortunate rider often got more heat than he had bargained for.
On Jan. 5, 1975, in Yuma, Ariz., Strange decided it was time to get serious. He proposed to fly a car over 12 other cars, a distance of approximately 85 feet—from a takeoff ramp to the ground. This was a jump nobody had ever tried before, Strange claims, at least not one of that magnitude. Ramp stunts had always been from ramp to ramp, or from a ramp onto a bed of parked cars—anything to cushion the landing. But what he set out to do was fall 30 or so feet out of the sky directly onto the hard, unyielding earth. "The stunt was really impossible," he says. Now.
The venue was a quarter-mile dirt racetrack. He took three warmup laps, broadsiding through the turns in true stock-car fashion to build his speed, and then he went for it. Well, his speed was all right, but he had calculated the angle of the takeoff ramp—34 degrees—pretty much by trial and error. Only there had been no trial. When Strange took off, his car did a mid-ramp wheelstand. The car landed on its rear end, its nose still pointed to the heavens. Strange later figured he had achieved an altitude of 40 feet and flown a distance of 116 feet. He claims that both are world records for a ramp-to-ground jump by a car, and he plans to petition the
Guinness Book of Records about them one of these days. He got out of the car and collapsed. He was suffering from several broken ribs and a broken back. It was his first "fatal," and he was paralyzed from the waist down for three months.
"There's no reason I shouldn't have jammed my spine right into my head," he says.
Despite Strange's temporary paralysis, he was unwilling to accept the fact that a ramp-to-ground jump in a car is tantamount to suicide, and he scheduled another one as soon as he could. This time he planned to fly over 18 Porsches at the Phoenix Fairgrounds. Fortunately, nobody much showed up and he canceled his flight.
"If I had jumped that day, there is no doubt in my mind that I would have died," says Strange, adopting the same fatalistic hyperbole that Evel Knievel developed into a highly commercial art form.
It is an ongoing and unfortunate irony of the stunt-driving business that a daredevil's act appears difficult only when he messes up. In fact, it can be argued that an act loses its appeal in direct proportion to how well it is performed. As Strange candidly admits, "You've got to near kill yourself or people don't pay no attention."