ALL PART OF THE SHOW; THE LIFE OF A DAREDEVILApril 24, 2018
Hobo Bill and Reckless Reda perform the Australian Criss-Cross Pursuit Chase
LtoR Jay Lightning, Charlie Ransom, Hobo Bill, Rechless Reda
They say it came from boardtracking, a hair-raising form of racing staged on massive wooden racetracks beginning in the early part of the 20th century. According to trick rider Charlie Ransom, that’s not how the exhibitions of impressive riding skills combined with dare devil feats came about.
“The show people are the ones that drove this thing, not boardtrack racing or anything. They were a part of it on the scene, but show people would have done it. Despite the boardtrack racing they would have figured it out,” Ransom explains. “From the get-go there were guys riding bicycles around little tracks that looked like our bank track — our start track.”
Ransom is part of the American Motordrome Company, one of the last two Wall of Death touring groups in America keeping this art form and way of life alive.
“We get to go to every part of the country and meet every kind of person,” he says. “We get to see every culture that exists in the United States. Sometimes that can be the craziest is just seeing the different ways humans engage all over.”
At one point, this American tradition almost went extinct. “It was something that I just had to keep going. I had to keep it alive. I kinda took it personal,” says Jay Lightning, owner-operator of the American Motordrome Company. “There was like one drome left touring. My old drome in California, which I started back in ’69 with Davey Dollars, and then Donny Daniels bought it from us and he was like the only guy left.”
So Jay built his own drome in 1998. According to him, he learned from the best at the age of 15, and after 50 years he’s been riding the vertical wall ever since.
“I was born and raised in Swansea, Mass,” says Jay in his Northeastern accent. “There’s more motordrome riders from Swansea than there is in the rest of the world combined. You got Pappy Boudreau, who started riding the wall in 1917. William Patrick “Pappy” Boudreau, he was almost 70 when he taught me. He was a great guy.
“Pappy’s house was near the woods where the local kids would ride mini-bikes. When their bikes broke, they’d bring ‘em by Pappy’s place. Pappy wouldn’t fix it for us, but he’d show us how to fix it. As we’d go over there he’d say, ‘Are you guys ready to try the drome? When you’re sixteen, you get a note from your mother.’
“I turned sixteen in September, but he started teaching me in June or July. I just took the note, put it in my pocket and walked about half way home and decided it was better off for me to sign it. So I signed it and walked back and gave it to him and he started teaching me how to ride.”
A risk taker from the get go? “Well, I knew that way, at least I’d get it signed.”
When it comes down to it, Lightning’s company is an age-old traveling carnival show that’s basically a living time capsule.
“What drew me to the show was the historical aspects of it,” says Reckless Reda, one of the wall’s performers who rides a go-kart in the show but an FXR on the road. “The cool part about our show — that’s different from any other show, really — we do it so that it’s historically accurate. The words that we announce, the acts, we didn’t come up with those. They’re all true to how you would’ve seen a wall of death show when they first started here.”
Why not? Lightning’s experience paired with his education from Boudreau reach back a hundred years.
The traditional show is built on four riders, each with their own act. It starts with the Speed of the Wall Test Ride done by Lightning on his ’27 Indian Scout. Next, Reda performs the Flight for Life in her go-kart. Her number is followed by rider Hobo Bill doing the Dips and Dives of Death on his SX175 Harley from the AMF years.
Finally, Charlie Ransom performs the awe-inspiring “Trick Ride” segment on a 1926 Indian Scout, riding sidesaddle, hands-free and even standing up with arms stretched out as he flies around the motordrome.
“The trick ride, the whole show is a buildup to that,” says Reda. “The first three acts we just show them what the machines can do and then, his act, he shows additionally what a rider can do.”
The show ends with the Australian Criss Cross Pursuit Chase. It entails Reckless Reda and Hobo Bill speeding around the wooden enclosure, zig-zagging motorcycle and go-kart across each other’s path. The show mesmerizes people, some wondering how it’s done, others itching to try.
Although the riders make it look effortless, the show really is incredibly dangerous. Riders get injured periodically and they regularly have close scrapes.
“A lot of times you’ll get someone going, ‘Oh, I could do that! I could do that!’” says Lightning. “In years gone by, when guys would get half drunk and mouthing off, saying they could do it, they could do it, Pappy would say, ‘Well, come on down, son!’ And he’d say, ‘Here you go,’ start the bike up and give it to ‘em. He’d take about half a lap and he’d come tumbling down. Or he’d shoot right to the top of the wall and fall over and break his arm or something.
“Back in those days you could just pick ‘em up, throw ‘em out the door, dust ‘em off, say, ‘See yah later, kid’ or ‘See yah later, buddy.’ Nowadays, he would own me. My insurance company would have a heart attack if I let somebody do that.”
Learning the skills necessary to perform take time, even if you’ve got other experience to bring to the table.
“On the wall the bike is sideways,” says Hobo Bill, who raced flat track before joining the drome. “And when I’m going through turn one on a half mile, I’m sideways. So being comfortable with the bike being sideways was the only thing I could relate to.”
“I mean, that’s crazy,” he continues. “You get to ride on a 90 degree wall. It’s like nothing you’ve done in your whole life. So you go crazy the first time you get to do it. And you’re up there and all your factors surround how to get up on the wall. Nothing about how to get down.”
Besides the show’s excitement, danger and level of difficulty, it’s also nonstop work.
Today, Lightning’s drome goes to 20 different spots a year across the country. The constant travel, like the shows, can be grueling. The cylindrical room breaks down and packs onto one trailer. Their limited living quarters and some extra bikes are located on another.
Sleeping outside during events like these is not uncommon in the business. They set up and tear down at motorcycle dealerships, biker rallies, and even churches.
“This is real physical labor, like hard physical labor when it’s time to do it,” says Ransom. “Even the riding. We were up in Wauseon, Ohio. We were up at that antique meet. It was hot and humid and we were on a blacktop parking lot with no shade around it. The heat radiated in the building and made it a real chore to go in and ride. And we did a show every hour.”
It’s also not exactly a traveling gold mine.
“If I was in it for the money,” says Hobo Bill, “I’d be severely disappointed. If I had a house, a mortgage, wife, kids, I wouldn’t be able to do it. There’s no way. Even without all that . . . if I wanted to be big and fat on money, this would not be the right thing to be in.”
“We really break even a lot,” Ransom concedes. We really come close to just making it go.”
Dedication and a willingness to forego also come into play.
“A lot of people say, ‘I want to do that’ or ‘I’d love to do your job,’” says Reda, “but most people can’t and won’t because they’re tied down in a certain way. Do you have kids or a house? Are you subscribed to the full-time job mentality?”
“It’s more work than glory,” Hobo Bill explains, “and it’s hard to get people to work.”
“There’s always something to do,” adds Ransom. “You gotta get up early to get things done before other things happen.”
Reda readily admits there’s a certain amount of hardship. “Most people can’t go without, the way that we do,” she reflects. “Sometimes we don’t see running water for a couple of days.”
As a result of all this, the riders rightly take pride in their old-fashioned work ethic and DIY spirit. This attitude is something the outside world seems to have largely forgotten.
It’s a crazy life to be sure.
“On the wall it’s pretty crazy when you feel your right foot touch the wall,” says Bill, “because you know the next thing touching the wall is your handlebar, so you need to react fast enough. Nothing real crazy yet, but it’s only my second year.”
He thinks another moment and, as if it’s just dawned on him, goes on to say, “The craziest thing with the wall of death is me committing to drive the tractor trailer. That’s a commitment. The Hobo doesn’t commit to anything. Nothing. And now I’m committed. The show’s the easy part. Getting down the road, now that takes some work.”
The star of the trick ride sums up the American Motordrome Company and what they do pretty neatly:
“The media for the last 15 years — in this digital age that we’re in right now — has tried to capture what we do over and over and over again,” says Ransom. “You can’t capture it, even with a picture. You gotta come out and be part of it to really know what it’s like.”
If you haven’t witnessed it yourself, you’re missing out.