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Auto Thrill Shows / Ken Carter

The Mad Canadian

Ken Carter; As The Devil at Your Heels progresses. He's a bit of a know-it-all who seems uncomfortable with silence, so he constantly rambles on about himself or his stunts, anything to avoid dead air. However, he really has just one thing to say: "I'm looking for the ultimate statement: 'Ken Carter, World's Greatest Daredevil.' Really, that's what it's about."

Carter grew up in a Montreal , where he played with toy cars as a child. As a teenager with little education, he dropped out of school to perform car stunts with a team of traveling daredevils. Soon he was a solo act, jumping at racetracks all over North America. He developed into a consummate showman, earning the nickname "The Mad Canadian" for his death-defying antics.

Now, after 20 years of countless car jumps (and countless broken bones), Carter wants to transcend the small-potatoes daredevil circuit; he wants fame, glory, immortality. He sets out to make what he figures would be the greatest stunt of all-time: a rocket-powered car jump across the St. Lawrence Seaway, from Canada into the United States, covering a distance of one mile.

Carter sinks his last dime into the project, but has trouble raising the additional quarter-million dollars needed to pull it off. ABC eventually comes to the rescue, in exchange for airing the stunt on Wide World of Sports. The live broadcast is scheduled in a few short weeks, on September 25, 1976.

Construction begins on some farmland near Morrisburg, Ontario, across the seaway from upstate New York. Fifty acres are cleared to make way for a 1,400-foot long takeoff ramp, which would rise to 85 feet atop a massive earthen mound. Carter anticipates a live audience of 100,000.

It's a race against time, reports expert Wide World correspondent Evel Knievel, not-so-fresh from his Snake River fiasco. Constant rain mires tractors in the mud and otherwise hampers construction, and the rocket car isn't completed by the deadline. Carter subsequently misses Wide World's broadcast date, and ABC withdraws its support. A heartbroken Carter announces the jump's cancellation at an emotional press conference, fighting back tears as he sees his dream slip away.

The movie cuts ahead to the following year. A freshly optimistic Carter has found new backing from some unnamed group, so preparations resume. But the car still isn't ready, summer turns to autumn, the weather worsens, and once more, the jump is cancelled.

The movie cuts ahead to the year after that. The jump is on again, then cancelled again. The same issues keep arising from year to year: financial backers come and go, inclement weather and incompetent engineering delay site construction, and a safe, reliable rocket car has yet to be delivered (among other flaws, its fuel tanks keep exploding). Carter simply can't synchronize these necessary elements. Even though his undertaking is becoming a colossal comedy of errors, he maintains his Pollyannaish disposition.

Director Robert Fortier includes several goofy touches worthy of any of Christopher Guest mockumentary, suggesting that truth is funnier than fiction. Given the opportunity to speak at length, Carter appears to lose himself when trying to articulate his bizarre personal philosophies - such as his dueling split personalities - so he seems to make them up on the spot. In another scene he struggles to squeeze himself into borrowed jumpsuit, his protruding paunch in the zipper's way. All along he drops malapropisms and mixed metaphors: he fears he "cut off more than he can chew," "irregardless," he hopes to one day become "the first civilian astronaut... in space."

Five years into the project, on September 26, 1979, everything finally seems in order: the ramp, the weather, even the rocket car, housed in the body of a Lincoln Continental. A Hollywood producer has underwritten the stunt for exclusive film rights, on the condition there be no live audience. Fire trucks, rescue boats and helicopters stand by as Carter straps himself in, and the countdown begins. However, a mere five seconds before takeoff, a mechanical failure forces him to abort the mission. Sadly, this is the closest he'll ever come to realizing his dream.

Nine days pass. The film crew suspects Carter has lost his nerve and, not wanting to lose any more money, secretly convinces Carter's friend Ken Powers hijack the stunt. Powers doesn't hesitate. With only a few spectators on hand, Powers blasts the car down the runway; meanwhile, Carter sits in his hotel room, unaware of what's afoot.

The bumpy ramp prevents the car from hitting the requisite 270 mph, going only 180 as it launches into the air. The wind immediately tears off its paneling as its parachutes halfway deploy. The car flies a paltry 506 feet, far short of a mile, and crash-lands in knee-deep water. Powers breaks eight vertebrae, three ribs, and a wrist. The footage is spectacular.

Carter soon discovers what happened and is understandably furious, exploding into a muffled rage behind his hotel room door. After spending five years and a million dollars chasing his dream, a backstabbing friend jumped his car off of his ramp, stealing his thunder.

As it had done four times before, the movie cuts ahead to the following year, this time for the epilogue. Carter once again beams with optimism, still guaranteeing the big event: "This I'm going to do. This is my dream."

Unfortunately, Ken Carter never did attempt the stunt. In 1983, two years after the release of The Devil at Your Heels, he attempted a much shorter jump in a souped-up Pontiac Firebird. The vehicle overshot its landing ramp by 30 meters and landed on its roof. Carter was instantly killed.

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Pierre J. Lachance Productions Canada

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