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Promoter [long pause]: Damn, we got somebody to pick up junk for a lot less than that. Sometimes for nothing, just so he can sell it.
But after the Phoenix Dragway show, promoters who did not confuse jump with junk started calling Strange, and during the next 18 months he made about 45 flights, all of which were more or less successful. By the time of the Astrodome show, he felt confident that at last his career was firmly in the ascendancy.
Late in 1976 Strange moved to Huntington Beach, Calif., and not long after that he met the future Sommer Shadoe. He turned up in Riverside one afternoon to destroy a Maverick as part of a promotion for a Ford dealership. Part of his act at such events was to hire as his "bodyguards" one or two attractive, scantily clad women he would pick out from the audience. His choice that particular day was a blonde by the name of Judy Jensen, who sold cars for the dealership. They hit it off immediately, and once she settled on her new name (which can be pronounced "Shadow" or "Shadoe," your choice), she became a permanent part of his show.
Sommer Shadoe is a 24-year-old native of Southern California, something of a loner, and divorced. (Strange has been divorced three times, and—by one of his former wives—has a daughter whom he has never seen.) She also has an unpredictable crazy streak that many find delightful. Among other things, Sommer Shadoe is an avowed nudist—she was a semifinalist in the 1978 Miss Nude California pageant—and in restaurants she has been known to calmly eat dinner through a slit in a napkin she has tied over her face. Either that or flash her butterfly.
"I am an exhibitionist," she says. "Chuck probably won't admit it, but he is, too. We want to be remembered."
Strange is something of a daredevil historian. He can recite the accomplishments of the great stuntmen from Harold Lloyd and Charlie Chaplin (remember those car-vs.-locomotive races to a railroad crossing and the walls of houses collapsing but the comic star is unharmed because there is an open window where he is standing?) to moderns such as stunt pilot Dale Van Sickel and, of course, Knievel.
For better or worse, Knievel is the premier daredevil showman of our time (which is not to say he is the best, only the most visible). This is a title Strange passionately seeks to claim for himself. In many ways the two men are very much alike, from their raucous personal lives and their flair for the dramatic to their affectations. At one time Strange took to using a gentleman's walking stick, the kind with a dagger concealed in its handle, until he found out that Knievel had one, too. Strange threw his away.
Although Knievel's career is in eclipse following his Snake River fiasco in 1974 and his later incarceration for taking a baseball bat to his biographer, to Strange it seems logical and inevitable that the two should meet in head-to-head combat. He has challenged Knievel to a $1 million jumpoff—the young pretender vs. the old king; Strange in his pickup and Knievel on his motorcycle—with each man anteing up half the pot. They would begin with something easy, like 12 cars, and after each jump the distance would be increased by two cars, until one or the other crashes or backs down. So far, Knievel has declined.
Says Strange, "I call him 'Evel Sominex,' because he puts me to sleep, and 'The Montana Bigmouth.' I admire him to the extent that he did create something—he was the first great bike jumper—and he did it on his own. But he's blown it so many times, and that's the sad part. The man has lost his nerve. The challenge would be good for both of us, though. He deserves to be back."
For the moment, however, the Knievel challenge and nearly everything else in Chuck Strange's life is very much up in the air. He is at the crossroads. Should he seek a second medical opinion on his shattered arms? Or pop calcium tablets in an effort to speed their healing? Should he put together a new show, one that doesn't involve quite so much potential crashing? He is, in fact, working on doing wheelies in his pickup. Not those things you see at drag races where the car rears up on its back tires and roars down the track like a duck trying to take off. Oh no, Strange rides with the right side wheels of his immaculate pickup high up off the ground, with Shadoe, clad in a cape and knee-high boots and precious little else, standing in the truck bed. His goal is to ride 12 miles this way, which he claims would be another world's record. But he admits, "It's a $2 act." Or should he announce he will make a comeback at the Astrodome in January of 1980 and just spend the rest of this year promoting that?