Thirty “Hell Drivers “ risked life, limb and ’64 Dodges, crashing 1950’s oldies and performing wild stunts in a daring, very high-speed show at the ’64 – ’65 New York World’s Fair Auto Thrill Show. Among the features of the program were four-car bumper tag, wing ski jumps (drivers careen off a low ramp on two wheels at 50 miles an hour) a crash rollover contest, and the “dive bomber crash” (off the ramp with an older car onto the top of a parked car). In the show’s big climax, a driver piloted a truck on a ramp to ramp “flight” hurtling more than 70 feet through the air. The 6,000 seat Auto Thrill Stadium had a banked figure 8 track, the first of its kind for super stunt driving. Admission for reserved seats was $2.00, general admission a mere $1.00! There were four shows daily on weekdays, six on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays; each performance lasted about one hour.
The Fair occupied only about half of the Flushing Meadow acreage, but it was almost nine times larger than the ’62 Seattle World’s Fair. Actually the entire 1962 event would have fit into the Transportation Area of the New York Fair. That was the area where the first track ever designed for an auto thrill show was constructed by Transportation Productions Inc. It was built at the cost of $2,500,000, a staggering amount for ’64, and was the result of three years of planning. The only track of its type in the world in 1964, it had an asphalt surface, double guardrails, special drainage equipment, and a figure 8 pattern that let drivers have maximum maneuverability. Drivers, engineers and designers worked to develop the plans for the track that the Hell Drivers performed on. Special methods had to be introduced to lay the track due to the degree of the high banking curves at both ends of the figure 8 track. A special concrete crash wall was constructed between the double guardrail and the grand stand. It had a visitor’s lounge, refreshment stand, a plaza, and floodlights for nighttime performances.
The history of the Jack Kochman Hell Drivers goes back to the stunts of the ’39-’40 New York World’s Fair. Over many years the auto thrill show was seen in county fairs from coast to coast. It was ’42 when Mr. Kochman took over as the head of the auto thrill show. The original name of the group was aptly enough the very dramatic “Death Dodgers”, they performed at the ’39-’40 New York World’s Fair with Chrysler products. During World War II, the gasoline rationing and shortages of replacement parts created obstacles that were overcome by running their cars on propane gas, and of all things iron tube wheels.
For the ’64-’65 New York World’s Fair, the Hell Drivers performed with a group of 30 drivers and stunt men, combined as a team for each performance. They had been using safety belts since ’42. Drivers inspected their own vehicles before and after each performance. Superstitiousness did exist for some of them, but was it really a matter of practicality? For example, one driver painted his clutch, brake, and accelerator pedals yellow while another stuck various patches on his steering wheel. The president of the company, Alan Gottlieb, summed up the goal of his team; “We wanted to provide the most thrill packed auto stunt driving show, that would give the public the best entertainment at the Fair at a reasonable price. To get a reduced price we had to have more shows and that’s why we had scheduled 1,800 performances throughout the run of the Fair.” To complete this first-of-its-kind auto stunt driving required dealing with an inhospitable location that included swampy land and former garbage dumping area that had become a ‘sea of ashes’. (As the area was referenced in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.) To improve on the success of the ’39 Death Dodgers, quite a large investment was required. Mr. Gottlieb noted, “The shows had to live up to the excitement and jammed-packed action the ’39 event provided. This was quite a different automotive era comparing ’39 to ’64. Cars are sleeker and faster, but are they really as durable as the earlier models? We had to determine product reliability before the show was even possible. Again, we were planning 1,800 performances and the cars that were to be used had to measure up to a lot of punishment.”
The “T-Bone” crash stunt was one of the highlights of the Hell Driver shows. This maneuver was done with the older used cars, and not the ’64 Dodge Polara Lineup. One racer would zoom up a ramp, fly through the air then “dive-bomb” itself into the side of another car, and continue racing through the course. Another stunt was the always popular, body-crunching “Roll-Over Contest” where a car is raced at high speed onto a ramp launching its two wheels up in the air while its other two remain on the ground. The elevation of one side of the car flips the car over as it reaches the ramps peak. If the car lands on its side, the driver was awarded two points by the producer, Mr. Jack Kochman. But… if the driver flips one full turn the driver got five points! The stunt men competed against each other for just a $1000 prize, saved until the end of a very challenging and long season. Then there was the “Hi-Ski Event” one of the many different thrill shows that made spectators feel like you ride from the bleachers. The ’64 Polaras climb up ramps, or at least half the wheels do, the other two hopefully stay on the ground. Then off the ramps and as far as the cars would go on two wheels before coming down again with a jolt to both car and driver. Mr. Kochman turned this into a competition between drivers to see which one could “stay up the longest” as it were, with special prizes at the season’s end to the “Top Man”!
“Happy”, the wacky antics clown, had his own special set of thrill car wheels, a miniature one that was likely to move in any direction. Sometimes it would explode, or disintegrate, or what some of the show personnel would say, “take off into the wild blue yonder”. Happy and his vehicle were a little bit unpredictable. But he was considered a ranking Hell Driver with the best of them, even though his baggy pants and flapping arms often caused the audiences to miss the hairbreadth timing that was part of his gags. For instance, he would stand on the track as two ’64 Polaras racing at more than 50 miles per hour would pass in tandem and, seemingly, sandwich him very tightly to their sides. He had faced as many as four ‘64s careening towards him simultaneously! Just when it looked as though he would end up carried away in an ambulance, the agile “Ole Happy” would drive away to safety. (Perhaps Happily?)
One of the most thrilling of the maneuvers which the Hell Drivers would perform was their motorcycle leap. A stock model motorcycle launched 30 feet through the air from one ramp to another. It was aerial leaps very similar to these that killed many of the early stunt riders who dared to be first. The crowd favorite was a motorcycle jump over six men laying on their stomachs as the motorcycle seemingly drove across their backs. While all of these stunts were dangerous, the skill of the drivers, the exactness of their preparations, and the amazing sturdy frame and construction of the ’64 Dodge line, including the Charger inspired convertible Polara 500 model, combined to prevent fatalities during their 18 years of performing shows across the nation.
The Hell Drivers performed their 1,800 shows in brand new Dodge cars and trucks as did the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers at the ’39-’40 New York World’s Fair. Most of these stock passenger Dodges; two door coupes, sedans and, of course, those beautiful convertibles; were powered by the bullet proof 383 cubic inch V-8 engines, amazingly the only modifications to these vehicles was a heavy duty suspension and raised torsion bars that would help with the severe punishment during the run of the Fair. All of the vehicles were equipped with 1964 state-of-the-art seat belts called Auto-Crat by Jim Robbins Co. The Hell Drivers used these since ’42 and were strong advocates of their use in a time when they were an optional item. During those 22 some odd years, the Kochman Teams only used Dodge vehicles averaging 37 cars a year for all their performances. The ‘64 Dodges where put through extensive performance testing before they could launch into the air on a 70 foot ramp to ramp jump, skid along at high speed in reverse gear, and shift into forward motion within seconds by the push of the ultra cool push button transmission (alas, the last year for that feature).
The cars were checked daily for a long list of items that included front end alignments, amount of gasoline in the tank, tire pressure, radiator system leaks, and, of course, the special seat belts. The only other special safety equipment was the aptly named ‘crash helmet’. All the vehicles used a brand of tire called Allstate, with ‘safety rims’, that were exclusive to Chrysler cars. All the ’64 Dodges were white, a favorite with the corporate heads, with a special World’s Fair emblem hand painted on the sides.
So when it comes to the first famous Dodge that was doing long jumps and driving away in good shape, the ’64 Dodge leads the pack. It was the grand dad of the jumping Dukes of Hazzard ’69 Dodge Charger, The General Lee. I’m sure you Dodge boys (or girls!) are enjoying this story and you’ll see more in future posts, along with super rare photos and my original images. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the large amount of facts and events that Dodge was leading the way in the birth of the modern American muscle car era, that we are still enjoying today. Dukes of Hazzards General Lee ’69 Charger eat your heart out!
Images of the Hell Drivers from the World’s Fair Hell Drivers Official Souvenir Program at the New York World’s Fair 1964-1965
Published and Copyright 1964 by Alsack Corporation
Images of the 1964 – 1965 NY World’s Fair from the OFFICIAL World’s Fair Souvenir Book
Copyright 1965 New York World’s Fair 1964-1965 Corporation
Published by arrangement with Time Inc.