It’s 10am in Fort Meade, Florida, USA, a flat stretch of land approximately 80km east of Tampa. The distant clattering of engines comes drifting in through the open windows of Charlie Ransom’s trailer. The stunt show he works for is making a guest appearance at a display of antique tractors here in the middle of nowhere.
In an hour’s time, Ransom will be straddling a 90-year-old Indian Scout and circling the vertical wall of a motordrome – a 5m-tall wooden drum measuring 9m across, which 200 spectators peer into from above as if they were checking a simmering saucepan.
Ransom’s job is life-threatening at the best of times. But he knows that today won’t be like any other day. Ransom, who has been a hellrider for 14 years, will be doing his first show while sporting a broken ankle.
“It happened when I was out walking,” explains Ransom with a shake of the head. “But moaning won’t do any good. And I can’t allow myself to take days off.” Ransom is 52, sports a grey ZZ Top beard and has tamed his brown hair into a neat plait.
He’s wearing a snow-white shirt and sand-coloured riding breeches for the show. He looks like a circus ringmaster from a century ago.
All that’s missing to complete the outfit is his right motorcycling boot. The problem is, he can’t get his swollen foot into it. Ransom has to improvise. He takes a sharp penknife, cuts through the seam on the back of the boot and splits the upper in two.
Then he forces his swollen foot into the boot. His face is distorted in agony. He groans. But at least his foot is in. Ransom wraps black duct tape around the boot. Now he’s ready to perform.
The wall of death is an old sport. It grew out of board track racing, an American pastime in the early 20th century, where motorcyclists would thunder their way round wooden circuits, or motordromes.
As time went on, the organisers built increasingly insane circuits. They brought in steep bends. They did away with straights altogether. Ultimately, they were left with a circular drum a few metres in diameter, in which motorcyclists used centrifugal force to wind their way up vertical walls.
The riders became the stars of fairs across the country. By the 1930s, there were more than 100 motordromes established in amusement parks, or touring, in the US.
As competition to attract spectators became ever fiercer, the shows spun out of control. There are old photographs that show circus lions sitting in sidecars. Some riders had trained brown bears to sit on the petrol tank of their motorbikes.
The stunt drivers would hurtle towards each other and try to swerve at the last moment. Some died in the process, which is how the spectacle became christened the ‘Wall Of Death’.
Interest in the shows waned after World War II. Ransom is one of the last exponents keeping the tradition of the Wall Of Death alive with other motorcyclists and kart drivers. “It’s a life of freedom,” Ransom explains. “You don’t have a boss looking over your shoulder on the Wall Of Death.”
Hellriding is all about toying with physics. Ransom and the rest of the riders start by circling the floor of the motordrome, then move onto a starting track at the base of the drum. From there, they drive up the vertical wall. The centrifugal force keeps them up.
Unless a chain splits. Or the handlebars jam. Or a tyre bursts. Or their speed falls below 50kph, in which case gravity comes back into play within a matter of seconds and sends the riders crashing to the floor of the motordrome from a height of 4.3m.
“The [cost of] insurance in this job is enormous,” which is why every dollar that the show takes from the paying spectators counts. And why there are no days off. Not even if you’re nursing a broken ankle.
At 10.30am, Ransom wedges crutches under his arms and clambers out of his trailer. He hobbles along for 15 steps and stops by the red-and-white outer wall of the motordrome. The American flag flaps in the wind on the canopy above the drum. The words ‘Hell On Wheels’ are emblazoned on the sign above the stairway leading into the arena.
The day’s first visitors appear at around 11am to see the tractor show. That’s problem number two today: 90 per cent of the crowd are men aged 60 and over, rolling around the place in golf carts to ogle at rickety old tractors and ancient juicers. Not exactly the typical crowd for a motorbike stunt show.
But Ransom says that’s OK – a Wall Of Death rider must always be a showman. He gets up on stage outside the motordrome, clutching his handheld microphone, Elvis Presley-style, and starts trying to grab the attention of the farmers and pensioners milling around.
“Iiiiit’s show time!” The peaks of all the John Deere caps turn his way. Ransom pitches his show with the powerful, persuasive tones of a radio announcer. “See the daredevils on the world’s steepest racetrack!” He’s risking his life for a $5 entrance fee; one show an hour.
Golf carts pull up in front of the stage. Yet more John Deere caps. Shorts, and tennis socks pulled up to the knee. Handlebar moustaches.