Words and photos by Duane Clawson
Our culture, over the years, has sought out many ways to get a thrill. Many of those ways have come and gone, as we are always looking for new ways to feed our need for excitement! In the early 1900’s, traveling daredevils riding atop two-wheeled, motorized machines raced at high speeds on a large, wooden track with high banks and long straightaways that became known as the “Wall of Death” or “Motordrome”. These daredevils traveled with carnivals and provided quite a thrill to a blossoming America. By 1915, the Wall of Death had been reconfigured into the “Silodrome” which was round and had 90-degree vertical walls. By the 1930’s, there were 100+ of these traveling Walls of Death. The concept is simple: motorcycles and small cars, such as go karts, start at the bottom of the Wall of Death, as their riders increase their speeds, the vehicle climbs the wall, using centrifugal force to seemingly glue their chosen machine to the wall. Audiences watch the action from above from inside the Wall of Death as the riders defy gravity and do incredible stunts. As Americans sought new thrills, the traveling motordromes became less of a novelty. Fast forward to the late 1990’s when Jay Ligntnin’ began building his own Wall of Death in his driveway, the first motordrome to be built in America in over fifty years. By 2000, the motordrome was complete and Jay began touring the country with the attraction known as “The American Motor Drome Company proudly presents the Wall of Death”.
Now with the history lesson out of the way, let’s move full speed ahead to 2016 and this guy being highly-impressed with the show these throwback daredevils put on. Being one of the few remaining traveling Walls of Death, the American Motor Drome Co. has no shortage of gigs, performing everywhere from the annual bike rally in Sturgis to the Harley Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. Riders with names like Charlie Ransom, Reckless Rita, Hobo Bill, and Wahl E. Walker dip and dive on the Wall of Death with their Indian motorcycles and even a go kart. The show begins in the fashion of an old time carnival sideshow. “Step right up folks. It’s five minutes til’ show time!” exclaims the chosen afternoon barker, Wahl E. Walker. A stationary bike is revved up by Reckless Rita, to draw even more attention to the impending show. Hobo Bill declares it’s show time as he winds up an old air raid siren against the front tire of the motorcycle on the stage. Just climbing up the stairs of the motordrome feel like you’re entering another era. A red, white, and blue circus styled, big top tent covers the structure as the riders enter on to the floor of the Wall of Death. After some safety instructions to those in attendance, it’s on with the show. Reckless Rita begins the show with a few laps around the Walls in her go kart. Up next, Hobo Bill demonstrates how it all works on a motorcycle, winding his machine up and rising to the top of the motordrome. Hobo Bill looks like a man possessed, as he stares directly at those in attendance when he passes by at a high rate of speed. The cheers and applause reach their peak when Wahl E. Walker takes to the Wall of Death, the wall’s oldest active rider at the age of 67. With a big grin and white hair, Walker’s motorcycle rises and falls as he does lap after lap around the motordrome. Last but surely not least, the show’s star, Charlie Ransom, takes wowing a crowd to a new level. The boards of the motordrome shake as Ransom blows by on his Indian motorcycle, the preferred motorcycle of the original Wall of Death riders. Ransom shows few signs of a broken leg he sustained in January, as he rides side saddle while traversing the wall. Charlie shows no fear as he lays the moving motorcycle out horizontally and stands on the running boards, with his hands behind his back!
Finishing the show, Ransom and Walker ride the wall in tandem just a few feet apart. Tips help to sustain the show and patrons are encouraged to fold their paper money lengthwise, hold it out beyond the braided steel safety cable, as Ransom screams by plucking the bills from your fingertips! The half-hour long performance is over in the blink of an eye, but the memories made will not fade anytime soon. Thanks to Big St. Charles Motorsports for hosting this event and to the riders of the wall of death for keeping history alive! Photos of the show are below:
Contributed by Duane Clawson
The American Motor Drome Company's Wall of Death @ Big St. Charles Motorsports, St. Charles, MO Reviewed by Scott Rowe, Editor on 1:30:00 PM Rating: