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Sport: Joie Chitwood's Indianapolis Thrill Show

 

0511_sport_covers.jpg"It was a good publicity stunt, and it made good reading," the elder Chitwood recalled. He  didn't really need the extra publicity. Joie Sr. was an outstanding racer who won several sprint-car championships before World War II and raced in seven Indy 500s, two before the war and five after, placing fifth three times.

The foundation for Chitwood's greatest legacy, his thrill show, was set in the last show ever presented by the great Lucky Teter, who pioneered auto stunt shows with his Hell Drivers thrill show of the late 1930s. On July 5, 1942, the day before his scheduled induction into military service, Teter was to give a final benefit performance for the Army Emergency Relief fund that would culminate with a record 125-foot car jump. The car misfired during the run to the jump, and Lucky came down a few yards short, the driver's compartment hitting the receiving ramp. Lucky Teter's widow sold the thrill show to Chitwood in 1943.

Chitwood, who was then 31, had to figure out how to do all the stunts by himself, since Teter wasn't around to teach him. He managed to get the show up and running during the war, and after the war pursued a dual career as race-car driver and thrill-show impresario. When Chitwood retired as a driver in 1950, a fundamental change was occurring in the racing scene that made it a perfect time for the auto thrill show.

"What very few people know about auto racing is that the essence of auto racing before World War II was at agricultural fairs," said Chris Economaki, publisher emeritus of National Speed Sport News and longtime friend of the elder Chitwood, who died at age 75 in 1988. "Ninety percent of the touring auto races were held at fairground racetracks, and in almost every instance it was the biggest money-making day that the fairs had. So racing was a very important facet of the agricultural-fair business. That prevailed until the early 1950s, when the concerts began to come in, as well as events like Chitwood's thrill show."

For more than 50 years, the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show was part of the fabric of American culture. It was part of the plot in the 1950 movie To Please a Lady, starring Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck, and a generation later was featured in the 1973 James Bond thriller Live and Let Die. In the 1980s, it was featured on the television show Miami Vice.

As many as 110,000 people packed Soldier Field in Chicago for a single presentation in the 1950s. An estimated 25-million-to-30-million people saw the show during its 55-year run, which ended in 1998. At the height of its popularity in the 1950s, five separate shows toured the country. Local newspapers ran ads with photos of the Chitwood stuntmen under a headline that shouted: "These Men Are Candidates for DEATH!" When one of those shows played in Butte, Montana, around 1953, teenager Robert "Evel" Knievel was captivated by Chitwood's showmanship and knew at that moment what his life's work had to be.

The show became a family tradition. Parents, who as kids in the 1950s had seen Chitwood's smartly dressed thrill drivers do Precision Driving and the Slide for Life, took their own children to see the same stunts in the 1970s and 1980s. Nowhere was family more evident than in the show itself. Chitwood's sons, Joie Jr. and Tim, grew up with it and became regular performers as children. Even Joie's wife, Maria, briefly appeared in the show in 1949, riding atop a car in a mock chariot race. Thus, on February 20, 1969, when Joie Jr.'s own son was born, two things were certain: He would be known as Joie III, and he would follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather.

"My first memory is driving a little go-kart, a Corvette," Joie III recalls while sitting in his speedway office, where he displays some of the items in his extensive collection of Chitwood Thrill Show memorabilia. (He carries a 1942 Lucky Teter medallion in his pocket.) Chitwood looks younger than 36, with a full head of dark hair. He and his wife of 11 years, Susan, have a 5-year-old son, Joel McFadden (known as "Joie IV"). "I was five years old, and I would do a 180-degree spin with the clown-act segment. By the time I was in high school, I pretty much did everything, like driving cars on two wheels, wrecking cars in sidewinder crashes, and doing the Human Battering Ram."

 

 
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