Hell on Wheels

The Wall of Death

words: andreas rottenschlager
photography: jim krantz

They risk their lives every show by riding motorbikes on vertical race tracks. America’s oldest extreme sport: Part 2

Even the construction of the Wall Of Death tells the story of a dream come true. Stunt rider Jay Lightnin’ from Massachusetts knocked it up in his own garden between the years of  1996 and 1998. By hand. On his own. Without a blueprint. 

Lightnin’, a legend among stunt riders, had been appearing in shows at other people’s motordromes for the previous 27 years. But he had a craving for independence, within a system that was already radically independent. 

He stored the wood in his living room. For two long years, Lightnin’ cut the Douglas fir boards, measured the angles and screwed in more than 3,000 screws. When he put up the walls, they almost came level with the roof of his house. Lightnin’s neighbours thought he was building a ship. Finally, in 2000, Lightnin’ set off on tour with his Wall of Death.

© Jim Krantz

Ransom first met Lightnin’ in 2002 when he was marooned in his trailer in the Redwood National and State Parks in California. Ransom was 37, newly divorced and looking for work. He helped Lightnin’ with the wall. He climbed onto motorbikes. And he learnt how to negotiate the Wall Of Death. 

When Lightnin’ had to take a break due to injury, Ransom took over some of the responsibilities for the Wall Of Death show. 

Hell on Wheels

The bikes used at the Wall Of Death are up to 90 years old, including (below centre) a 1975 Harley-Davidson SX250

By now, he knew the background story to every scratch in the wall. That incredibly long dent about 2m from the floorboards? Made by the footrest of an Indian Scout that went flying into the wooden wall in 2014. That jagged double groove halfway up the drum? A shattered go-kart chain punctured the wall in 2015. 

A year ago, one of the riders went careering to the bottom of the motordrome from the top of the wall. When he crashed to the ground, splinters of wood flew 5m into the air, showering the spectators watching from above. 

Back at the motordrome, the riders enter the drum one after the other through a narrow, folding door. White-haired 66-year-old Wahl E Walker gets into the saddle of a 1975 Harley-Davidson. Walker is the world’s oldest hellrider still performing regularly.

His favourite manoeuvre sees him hurtling towards the spectators at the top of the drum, staring them in the eyes, “so they think they’re going to be run over”.

Rider number two performs under a stage name: Sergeant Mikey J. He’s a wiry guy who never stops smiling, even when he’s riding round the Wall Of Death.

Previous to his life as a hellrider, Sergeant Mikey used to blow up concrete bridges as an engineer in the US Army. Today, he’s at the helm of a 5hp go-kart with a special frame made of shatterproof steel.

Ransom is the last man to enter; there must always be three men in the motordrome. Should Walker and the Sergeant crash during their joint routine, Ransom would be the man to get the rescue workers into the drum. The door of the Wall Of Death is constructed in such a way that it can only be opened from the inside.

White-haired 66-year-old Wahl E Walker is the world’s oldest hellrider still performing regularly
The Wall of Death

Wahl E Walker (left) gains on go-kart driver Sergeant Mikey J

Walker and the Sergeant start their performance with the Australian Criss- Cross Race, which is a pursuit. During the stunt, the two hellriders judge each other’s distance by the noise of their engines and have to hope that neither makes a mistake.  

The pair start their bikes and begin spiralling along the wall. They do circles in parallel, an arm’s length apart, intermittently sloping away from each other or chasing each other round the motordrome. The drum vibrates from the weight of their bikes. 

If one of the two riders comes close to the upper edge, the watching farmers pull back in fear. The crowd is warmed up now. The two riders spin back down to the base and bring their bikes to a halt in the middle of the motordrome.

The Wall of Death

Some last-minute, pre-show prep for Ransom

Now it’s Ransom’s turn. He hobbles along and struggles his way onto the 1926 Indian Scout, the holiest of holies for hellriders, with its low centre of gravity and particularly tough frame. Ransom turns on the engine. The Indian roars to life and he begins circling, the bike clattering loudly. Ransom is on the wall.

The drum smells of petrol. Centrifugal forces three times his bodyweight keep Ransom wedged onto the Scout. He fixes the throttle in place when he gets to 50kph, then takes both hands off the handlebars. He circles the Wall Of Death with no hands. The crowd go wild.

The Wall of Death

Ransom and his Staffordshire terrier Trouble kick back with some tunes after the show

Walker takes a loudhailer and asks the audience to fold dollar bills and hold them over the lip of the drum; Ransom will pluck them from their hands. Ransom continues circling and licks his fingers. Then he hones in on the spectators’ fingertips with pinpoint accuracy. Vroom! He grabs them, as quick as a flash. Vroom! A single bill per lap. You can feel a wisp of wind as he rushes by on the Indian.

Ransom puts the dollar bills into a fund for injured bikers. It’s the greatest irony of the show: a stunt-rider putting his own life at risk to cover medical bills. After 10 laps, Ransom coasts back down to the base of the drum. First he rides from the vertical wall to the tilting runway and then back onto the base of the drum.

The show has been a success. Ransom soaks up the applause. For a brief moment, he can forget the pain in his right ankle. 

Half an hour after the show, Ransom is lying in a rickety camping chair, with his foot up. He’s got his guitar out of the trailer and is strumming a couple of chords. The guitar is custom-made. The sound box is made from a Harley-Davidson Hummer headlight nacelle that’s been painted red.

“This is my dream job. If you can get by on not much money, it’s a great life”
Stunt rider Charlie Ransom, 52

Ransom says there are only three things he loves in the world: his mother, his motorbike and the Wall Of Death. He hugs female spectators who stumbled out of the motordrome quivering after his show. And he takes delight in the look on the faces of the macho guys who recoiled as he hurtled towards them on his Indian Scout. 

And what about the risk of crashing? Pain is part of the deal, Ransom says, when you’re living the dream. “This is my dream job,” he continues. “If you can get by on not much money, it’s a great life.”

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05 2016 The Red Bulletin

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