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October 22, 2012

Latter-day stunt men still knew how to thrill

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The Daily Star

---- — What is it with all these crazy stuntmen all of a sudden?

Just this year, we watched Nik Wallenda, age 33, walk across the watery cauldron that is Niagara Falls. Just this month, we witnessed two more latter-day P.T. Barnums strut their stuff.

Recently, we witnessed 39-year-old David Blaine stay awake for three days while being shot through with a million volts of electricity. And just last week, we saw 43-year old Felix Baumgartner step out on a skateboard-sized ledge at the edge of space and free-fall to earth while breaking the sound barrier with just his body.

We, of course, have no idea why these knuckleheads chose to do these silly things.

But these guys are the stunt heroes for today’s generation to marvel at. They’re the direct descendants of Evel Knievel, who soared over gaping canyons on a red-white-and-blue motorcycle, and David Copperfield, who once came “10 seconds from drowning” during a water trick, and another time lopped off the end of his finger with scissors while trying a rope stunt.

Sure plummeting from space is attention-getting (although in my opinion “Fearless Felix” should have worn a cape for dramatic effect), but for my money the greatest stuntman of them all was a guy I saw several times in person when I was a kid in the early 1960s. He didn’t wear a spangled outfit, he didn’t have a glitzy stage to perform his stunt from, and he didn’t mine millions of dollars worth of sponsorships from his exploits.

But what he did do was give a 10-year-old kid the thrill of a lifetime just watching him do the impossible. And what was his stunt?

He rode around a horse racetrack in a car on two wheels. Talk about breathtaking!

The stuntman’s name was Joie Chitwood, and he brought his auto thrill show to virtually every county fairground in America for nearly 40 years. I first saw him in 1960 at the Afton Fair. I was 10, he was 50. The rickety old wooden grandstands were packed with an overflowing Saturday night crowd. The air was thick with humidity and anticipation. I was with my Dad and my brother. We endured an endless procession of dancing horses and million-clown clown cars before the main event.

Joie would show up with three or four of his stuntmen, and they’d go through their paces with a precision that left us all breathless. Near misses, rollovers, “flaming hoops of death,” crazy-eights, you name it, and the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show did it.

But this was really just the warmup for his magnum opus.

When the show was over, the announcer hollered into the PA system, “And now ladies and gentleman watch closely as Joie Chitwood attempts to circle the entire racetrack on just two wheels! You heard me right ... on two wheels!”

His assistants set up a wooden incline in the center of the track. Joie made several practice passes in front of the crowd. We cheered lustily at each passing, and he would grin and wave back at us all. And then the moment came.

The stuntman came barreling down the dirt track and “boom,” hit the wooden incline. His car tipped up perilously close to rolling over but somehow stayed suspended on two wheels in mid air. He then gingerly urged the car slowly around the track on two wheels, not once, not twice but three times. Each time he came by we screamed louder and louder. “Joie! Joie!”

And then after three laps the car slowly rolled to a spot in front of the grandstand and with a “thump” it fell back down onto all four tires. The door would open and Joie would bounce out with a big grin and a big wave. Women in the crowd wiped tears from their eyes. Dads clapped so hard their hands turned red. And us little ones stood there with our eyes and our mouths wide open.

It was positively the most exhilarating thing a 10-year-old kid could witness live and in person in 1960.

Sure it wasn’t a man strolling across Niagara, or a guy being electrocuted in front of a live television audience, and it sure wasn’t a man falling to Earth from the heavens.

But it was Joie Chitwood, the greatest stuntman of his time. And by golly in 1960 I saw him ride his car around the Afton Racetrack on two wheels!

And I will never forget it.

I’ll catch you in two ...

“Big Chuck” D’IMPERIO can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his “Oldies Jukebox Show.” You can find “Big Chuck” on Facebook, and he invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.