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Big Chuck

October 22, 2012

Latter-day stunt men still knew how to thrill


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.

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