Has it really been 45 years since I met internationally famed stunt driver Joie Chitwood? Well, almost to the day. The venue was at the headquarters of Petco Oil Company in South Royalton, just down the street from our home. Chitwood had worked a deal with Petco owner Ned Pettengill for gasoline in exchange for a plug at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, where Chitwood’s Thrill Show was performing. If anyone remembers Petco gas stations back in the 60s, 70s and early 80s, they know that a lot of the Cumberland Farm stores in the area were originally Petco stations.
I recall the event from the perspective of a gawky 15 year old, standing in a semi-circle around Joie Chitwood with a bunch of other gawkers next to a gas pump. This scene must have made Chitwood think he’d wound up in yokel heaven. Uh, well, I suppose he had.
The next day dawned bright and sunny, one of those central Vermont mid-September days when you went apple picking or attended a country fair. I was with friends up in the top row of the grandstand at Tunbridge Fair’s dirt racetrack when the Chitwood crew set up its ramps and props in front of the crowd. Chitwood was approaching the zenith of a very successful career as a stunt driver at that time, and the audience was buzzing with excitement. As Chitwood came out onto the track in his signature white sedan the crowd went nuts. The show just flew by from that point forward, and I remember how Joie used a ramp to get his car up on two wheels and drove all over the place with the underbelly of the car in full view. About a decade later he drove a Chevrolet Chevette over five miles on two wheels to set a world record.
I remember one of my high school buddies bragging that driving on two wheels was "no big deal, all I gotta have is one of those ramps and I could do it too ." OK, ramps, and a car you don’t care about, a place to try it, a lot of time to practice, and one hell of a good health insurance policy. It was the same for the death-defying crash through a burning wall of fire. I recall my friend saying "anybody could drive through a wall burning with Petco gas ... it burns like water." Those kinds of comments about cheap Petco gas were pretty common in those days, and were probably the motivation behind Pettengill supplying the fuel for Chitwood’s Thrill Show. Well, it didn’t make any difference because the comments continued until the company was sold years later.
I don’t remember if Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show ever performed again at Tunbridge, but the show was popular for more than 40 years. Chitwood performed stunts in movies for decades, and was even featured in a film with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck. He also did the stunts in the hugely popular James Bond film "Live and Let Die." In later years he was a safety consultant to the auto industry, and was reputed to have crashed more than 3,000 cars in the name of safety research. Regardless of the inherent danger, crashing cars must have provided Chitwood with a lot of job satisfaction. What a way to work through a tough day on the job.
If the Chitwood name sounds familiar in the new millennium, it’s because Joie Chitwood III is the president of the Daytona Speedway, NASCAR’s premier racing venue. Joie senior died in 1988 at the age of 75, a feat of longevity proving that he was a very skilled driving professional who took safety very seriously. His sons Joie II and Tim Chitwood ran the Thrill Show long after senior passed away, which is a testament to the body of work that Chitwood left behind.
So here we are, 45 years later in a world where automobile accidents are much more survivable than at any time in the history of cars, thanks in part to one of the original auto daredevils. In Chitwood’s case, he made an impact (no pun intended) on two of the biggest industries we have, automobiles and entertainment. I recently saw a promo ad for a new series on one of the satellite/cable channels about auto daredevils. I guess if you wait long enough everything becomes popular again. Just add gas.
Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.