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Hell on Wheels

www.thrillchampions.com 

From barnstorming thrill driver to local underground hero, the unlikely legend of Johnny Crasharama

By Bill Forman

"I'm really dreading driving out there," says the man known as Jumpin’ Johnny Crasharama, moments before climbing into his old station wagon and hitting the back roads of Sacramento County. It’s an odd choice of words coming from a veteran thrill driver whose most treasured--and terrifying--moments have been spent behind the wheel.

On a mid-August afternoon, as Johnny drives to the location of the Crasharama event he’s been preparing for the last five weeks, it’s hard not to think of the many other cars Johnny has rolled over, driven on two wheels or crashed into each other in countless crescendos of shrieking violence--all, seemingly, for the sheer fun of it.

Come to think of it, station wagons have figured prominently in a number of Johnny’s crashes. Didn’t he once deploy his own grandmother’s station wagon, driving it off a ramp and into the side of a van--what’s known in the stunt world as a T-bone?

“I wouldn’t ever do a T-bone in a little car like this--you’d die,” Johnny says reassuringly, as the dusty Honda wagon rolls past parched rural landscape that is slowly evolving into suburbia. “I’d do a roller or a jump, but not a T-bone.”

Great.

The Sacramento native and veteran professional thrill car driver’s homegrown spectacles have been the stuff of legend for two decades now. A culturally, ethnically and biologically diverse mix of spectators have come to embrace Johnny as their own folk hero, gathering together to witness the insane spectacle of a man who risks life and limb in order to intentionally cause car crashes. There are no special effects here, no hidden flashpots or cutaway side panels. Unlike Hollywood action sequences, his look like, well, real car accidents, except larger than life, with Johnny emerging from the wreckage to wave to the crowd.

But wait--there’s more: See Johnny’s motorcycle wall-of-fire stunt! Hear garage-influenced rock bands performing on a flatbed truck! Watch Johnny’s between-stunt pitches for Gunther’s ice cream! (Yes, Johnny’s day job for the last four years--in addition to owning his own junkyard--has been making wholesale deliveries for the venerable local ice-cream parlor.)

Folks, it only gets stranger from here on.

A Sacramento tradition for 20 years, the Crasharama event is equal parts automotive apocalypse and small-town community day. Who needs the beleaguered Burning Man when you’ve got a living, breathing legend putting on what Michael Blanchard, publisher of the local hotrod-culture publication Rust, calls “the coolest counterculture lowbrow gearhead there is”?

What began as the homecoming hobby of an affable auto stuntman has evolved into a unique, unsanctioned and--until recently--under-the-radar cultural tradition. And therein lies the rub. Johnny Crasharama, at age 53, and his outlaw gatherings evoke the spirit of another era--what artist Ed “Big Daddy” Roth used to call the “365-day sunny” of mythic California laced with the dead-man’s-curve drama of Jan & Dean. With his folksy, soft-spoken manner (think Jimmy Stewart in one of those Frank Capra movies, but super-sized and with a bonus goatee), Johnny is an idiosyncratically heroic figure who now finds himself trapped in an era marked by authorities and officials with their rules and requirements.

What leads a small-town Sacramento boy to engage in acts of automotive destruction that would make J.G. Ballard, David Lynch and David Cronenberg each raise an eyebrow? (Ironically, Johnny remembers seeing a 50-cent carny sideshow exhibit that purported to be the car Jayne Mansfield died in, complete with mannequin head on the dashboard--the very scene characters gleefully reenacted in Cronenberg’s cinematic adaptation of Ballard’s Crash.) Yet, even when distilling the old auto thrill shows down to their core essence--the brush with death--Johnny pursues his craft with a wide-eyed innocence that seems to transcend its inherent morbidity. He’s almost like a comic-book hero who knows that, no matter how crashingly bad the going gets, a happy ending is surely in sight.

While attending Hiram W. Johnson High School, Johnny Wisner had dreamed of becoming a race-car driver. He spent a number of teenage evenings sneaking into the old state fairgrounds at the corner of Broadway and Stockton Boulevard, where he and his friends would tear up the tracks and then hide from the police. His father--a structural engineer who designed bridges and airplane hangars for the state--didn’t necessarily approve, but his mom’s side of the family carried the gearhead gene.

“My grandfather was an old truck mechanic, and my uncle--my mother’s brother--had been a hot rodder,” Johnny recalls. “I was building a race car, but I couldn’t afford to finish it. So, when I was 20, I just loaded my car up, and I headed back east, because that’s where the thrill shows were still. I’d stop at carnivals and make a little gas money working the fair selling tickets or running the rides or whatever.”

Johnny recalls that as a kid, it would take him forever to get up the nerve to try out a scary new ride. But then, after he overcame that initial fear and took his first plunge, all he’d want to do from then on was just keep taking that same ride. Returning to those surroundings, transient as they were, he began to feel at home.

When he got to Lincoln, Neb., Johnny saw a poster for King Kovaz Auto Daredevils, a thrill show in which a team of drivers would show off precision driving, pull off spectacular stunts and--in most cases--cheat death. He got a job selling tickets in front of a ride for $7 a day, and on the last day of the fair, when the thrill show arrived, he asked the owner for a job. Kovaz told him to come back when he turned 21, and a year later, convinced he’d find his true calling in the thrill of the stunts and the cheers of the crowd, Johnny did just that.

“My very first job was at Vero Beach, Fla.’s speedway, and the first stunt I did was to jump over seven guys on an old motorcycle,” recalls Johnny. “They laid down in front of the ramp. We called it the seven-man leap, and the clown would come in and get on the end and stick his butt in the air. We used to get people from the audience to lay down.”

It was more clown shtick than a genuinely dangerous stunt--“He’d lower his rear end just before the tire hit it,” says Johnny--but you still have to wonder about those audience volunteers. Would Johnny have volunteered? If he did, he says, laughing, “I’d wanna be close to the ramp. It was some old Sears Allstate bike that couldn’t hold any oil anymore.”

After a week of successfully clearing clown butt, Johnny declared his intention to roll cars. He also would drive a motorcycle through a wall of blazing fire, and, in his second year, he was elevated to the rank of thrill driver, joining with three veteran drivers in an auto rendition of formation flying in which the cars would go racing around on two wheels, engage in extreme tailgating and attempt to defy the laws of gravity.

After two seasons with the thrill drivers, during which he performed seven days a week for seven-month stretches, Johnny was back home in Sacramento when he got the letter saying King Kovaz Auto Daredevils was out of business.

Johnny was down but not out. In the spring of 1974, he went to Florida to pick up his car and gear from King Kovaz’s warehouse, just as Jack Kochman--who owned the Kovaz franchise’s equipment--was getting rid of a driver. As Johnny recalls, “Kovaz said, 'He’s a good guy right there. Why don’t you take him with you?’ So, I ended up with the Kochman’s Hell Drivers.”

Suddenly, Johnny had hit the big time. In business since 1942, the Hell Drivers were a legendary outfit that had crashed hundreds of cars at the 1964 world’s fair. To Johnny’s surprise, the Hell Drivers turned out to be very different from their competition, placing considerably more emphasis on action than on appearance. Drivers stood around with their uniforms half unzipped and smoking cigarettes, with little regard for the professional sheen that Kovaz or Hollywood stunt mogul Joey Chitwood projected. But Kochman’s Hell Drivers could drive. And people loved them.

Off duty, many of them also had a knack for drinking and fighting.

And so it was that Johnny joined a cast of characters straight out of a pulp novel. “We had a clown named Happy. His real name was Larry Kramer, and he was a mess. He was stoned and drunk pretty much every show in the ’70s. He always kept a half gallon of vodka and a half gallon of cranapple right next to the driver’s seat in his van.”

“One time, he got knocked like 30 feet in the air, and he was critically injured, but he recovered from that,” recalls Johnny. “But then, around 1987, he got killed when his motorcycle went head on into a truck.” Johnny says Happy’s parents buried him with his pool stick and hat.

And then there was Pete Groce. A veteran driver some 25 years older than Johnny, Groce comes up frequently in Johnny’s stories. “Old Pete, he’s the one that drove over me,” says Johnny, before rattling off a list of his own injuries that’s horrible verging on hysterical. “I’ve had burns, not third-degree luckily. I’ve had first- and second-degree burns on the face and arms a few times. And I’ve lost an eye. I’ve had head injuries, got my legs run over, got my foot smashed, broken bones in the hand there, broke my nose a few times, all kinds of bruises and scrapes through the years.

“But that’s the last 32 years,” points out Johnny, by way of explanation.

Johnny took his worst punishment during that first year with the Hell Drivers, when his left eye met with the bolt at the center of his steering wheel at the Oneida County Fair in upstate New York. “Kramer the clown helped me walk over to a first-aid stand in the fair,” recalls Johnny, who ended up in a hospital being treated without anesthesia. “Nowadays, you could maybe freeze it or something,” says Johnny, “but back then, the doctor just said hold onto the side of the table and try to keep the top part of your body still. And then he sewed my eye together.”

And then there was 1988. At Meadowlands, N.J., a woman came up to him with a program he had signed for her brother on a previous tour, which was kind of unusual because Johnny, being shy, usually would “hide after the show, so as not to have to sign autographs.” Turns out her brother, who was in his 20s, had gone home and tried to emulate Johnny’s T-bone stunt and was killed doing it. Johnny says he and the woman sat for a while and talked. “I felt kinda bad that that happened,” he says. “She said he was crazy about that T-bone.”

The next year, Groce made his last ride. Then 63, he was doing three-car thrill driving with Johnny and another driver at the New Hampshire State Fair, when they noticed that little kids were poking their heads through the bottom of the fence. Johnny was happy when his part of the show finished without mishap. But Groce wasn’t so lucky. On the next stunt, he lost control of his vehicle and slammed through the fence into the audience. Some 33 people in the stands were injured, a doughnut vendor was burned from the waist up (Johnny saw his skin falling off), and two infants originally were pronounced dead at the scene but ended up surviving. Johnny remembers carrying one of the kids out of there on a piece of plywood, after which he says he broke down pretty bad.

Groce was found in his truck, dead from a massive heart attack. “Pete’s wife said he was always saying how he’d probably die behind the wheel,” says Johnny. “And he did.”

And yet Johnny misses all this? “I don’t miss that part,” he says quietly. “But I do miss the fairs and the driving.”

Johnny would continue professional thrill driving for another 10 years, but the writing was already on the wall. Increasing insurance rates and new promoters who were more interested in young, pretty faces than in seasoned drivers were on the horizon. And the rugged individualism of the thrill show was giving way to a safer, more predictable world.

"If you're gonna crash, you might as well do it in front of a crowd,” says Johnny.

It’s not a bad epitaph, really--practically the premise for a self-help book--but, for Johnny, it’s also a matter of pragmatism. “I don’t believe in practicing, unless you’re trying a new ramp or something,” says Johnny, recalling how pissed Kochman was when a younger driver wound up in the hospital after insisting on doing a practice run.

Nevertheless, Johnny found himself missing a certain something during off-seasons, so he began hosting crashes outside his house in an area east of Sacramento that once was called Brighton (Johnny has news clippings about its legendary bars and bordello), a town that literally vanished into the industrial wasteland.

On August 12--three days before showtime--Johnny is sitting in his modest living room, which somehow manages to contain several worn overstuffed chairs and couches, a vintage motorcycle, an extremely large moose head and hundreds of neatly framed photos from racing and thrill-car history.

“The first ones in the early ’80s were basically people that rode choppers,” says Johnny of his early Crasharamas. “And then I started to notice, about five years ago, we started getting a younger crowd. I started getting a lot of young, really tattooed-up people, and more families would start coming out.” The amount of phone numbers in Johnny’s guest book continued to grow. “I noticed that there were all these tattoo shops in there, and more and more came out each time.”

Crasharamas were fun and free and surprisingly safe (if you weren’t Johnny), with hundreds of folks gathering on his lawn to watch his solo crashes from a safe distance. Johnny says he’s had off-duty police officers in the crowd, and he recalls how one time, a patrol helicopter circled overhead to watch a stunt. “It turned out someone had drowned, and they were coming back from the rescue when they saw us, but they let the show go on.” Even the nearby California Youth Authority detention center, which since has closed, would let its kids out in the exercise yard to watch the unauthorized crashes. To live outside the law, said Bob Dylan, you must be honest. Maybe the authorities understood something about Johnny’s character; they basically looked the other way through 20 years of Crasharamas.

Until recently, that is, when the farmland surrounding Johnny’s property was bought up by a developer. Surrounded by storage facilities on three sides, Johnny no longer had any safe place for his audience to watch from. Crasharama was homeless, until a fan offered his property in a rural area of Wilton, out near Elk Grove. Johnny was back in business with a show last November and another slated for August 15.

But now, in mid-interview, the telephone rings.

“It’s a no-go,” he says, after talking on the phone with a judge friend who told him that following up on a neighbor’s complaint, sheriff’s officers and code-enforcement inspectors had visited the site and were calling the event off. “If we go through with it, they’re gonna have the sheriffs and everybody out there.”

In 20 years, Johnny had never let his fans down. “Donny [the new site’s property owner] said the guy from Sac raceway was supposed to come watch this one, and I was hoping maybe he’d wanna hire me later on and do something at his little track there. That’s what we need to do,” Johnny says.

And so it is, on a Sunday afternoon in mid-August, that Johnny has to leave behind the big 1976 Lincoln Town Coupe he was going to crash into a 1968 Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser (“just like the one in That ’70s Show,” he notes), as well as the 1973 Chevy Nova he was going to T-bone into a van, and the 1979 Chevy Citation that survived last November’s jump and was ready to go again.

Arriving at the short-lived Crasharama site, Johnny personally explains to fans who haven’t been reached by telephone or word of mouth that there’s no show. Donny, a large man in a Rat Fink T-shirt, argues with Sacramento sheriff’s officers, trying to negotiate at least a dirt-bike show, while neighbors and little kids on bicycles ask Johnny when the show’s starting. “My mom,” says one, shaking his head, “she’s gonna be really pissed.” Johnny’s elderly uncle, likely among the world’s oldest hot rodders, stops by with his fifth wife, who also races cars. It’s cordial but sad. Johnny can’t wait to get out of there.

Back on the road--“I hear there are a lot of deadly crashes on this here Green Road,” says Johnny--the station wagon pulls up to a nearby diner, where Johnny’s cousin did all the stainless-steel metalwork. In a shiny retro diner booth, Johnny thinks, briefly, of the future. He wants to do another Crasharama before the year’s out, but it’s going to be tougher than ever now. A private airport would be good. There’s still Gunther’s and his junkyard, and a friend was talking about trying to start some kind of school where he could teach auto work, but Johnny can’t really see himself as a teacher.

Many performers, when their talent and drive survive longer than the context in which they arose, must choose to become something else, be it conceptual artist or willing purveyor of kitsch. But Johnny seems too honest, too thoughtful for any measure of contrived self-reinvention. Throughout it all, Johnny is still just Johnny, a man who likes to tell stories and smash cars--and is very good at both.

Maybe more Sacramentans will come around to embracing him as the hometown hero he truly is. But in the meantime, Johnny’s still dreaming of the road. “Some fellas were supposed to start a show a couple years ago, and they told me that I’d have a job when they started,” he says, but that plan fell by the wayside after its motivating force--a Hollywood stuntman named Flyin’ Brian Carson--had a roll cage collapse on him during a TV sitcom stunt.

Still, says Johnny, if he got the chance, he’d go out there and go through it all again. “It just seems like the only thing I really enjoy doing thoroughly,” he says.

 

 
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