Even the construction of the Wall of Death tells the story of a dream come true. Stunt rider Jay Lightnin’ from Massachusetts built one in his backyard in the late 1990s. 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 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 tightened more than 3,000 screws. When he put up the walls of his creation, they almost came level with the roof of his house. Lightnin’s neighbors thought he was building a ship. Finally, in 2000, Bentley set off on tour with his Wall of Death.
Ransom first met Lightnin’ in 2002, when he was marooned in his trailer in Redwood National Park in California. Ransom was 37, newly divorced and looking for work. He helped Lightnin’ with the wall. He climbed onto motorbikes. And he learned 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.
By now, he knew the background story to every scratch in the wall. That incredibly long dent about six feet above 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 into the floorboards from the top of the wall. When he crashed to the ground, splinters of wood flew 14 feet 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 favorite maneuver sees him hurtling toward 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.
Before his life as a hellrider, Sergeant Mikey used to blow up concrete bridges as an engineer in the U.S. Army. Today, he’s at the helm of a 5 hp 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.
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 spiraling along the wall. They do circles in parallel, an arm’s length apart, intermittently sloping away from each other or chasing each other around 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.
Now it’s Ransom’s turn. He hobbles along and struggles his way onto his 1926 Indian Scout, the holiest of holies for hellriders, with its low center of gravity and particularly tough frame. Ransom turns on the engine. The Indian roars to life and he begins circling, the bike clattering loudly. He is on the wall.
The drum smells of fuel. Centrifugal forces three times his body weight keep Ransom wedged onto the Scout. He fixes the throttle in place when he gets to 30 mph, then takes both hands off the handlebars. He circles the Wall of Death with no hands. The crowd goes wild.
Walker takes a megaphone and asks the audience to fold up 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 homes in on the spectators’ fingertips with pinpoint accuracy. Vroom! He grabs them up, 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 pulled his guitar out of the trailer and is strumming a couple of chords. The guitar is custom-made; its sound box is crafted out of a Harley-Davidson Hummer headlight nacelle that’s been painted red.
Ransom says there are only three things he loves in the world: his mother, his motorbike and the Wall of Death. He offers hugs to the female spectators who stumble out of the motordrome quivering after his show. And he takes delight in the looks on the faces of the macho guys who recoil as he hurtles toward 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.” Then Ransom gets up out of his deck chair and hobbles his way back to the motordrome. Ten minutes from now, it’ll be time for his next show.