Chrysler at the 1964 World’s Fair: Hell Drivers and more
Thanks to the Hell Drivers, visitors to the 1964 New York World’s Fair were greeted by the stunning sights of death-defying stunt men driving Dodges in a constant set of stunts, all taking place in a 7,500 seat stadium. An advance brochure described it:
For the 1964-1965 New York World's Fair, the Hell Drivers will perform four one-hour shows daily on weekdays, and eight a day on weekends and holidays. A group of 30 drivers and stunt men will combine as a team for each performance.
Two drivers in this year's Auto Thrill Show, Rocky Fisher and Johnny Rogers, performed in the 1939-1940 World's Fair. Fisher, 48, and Rogers, 44, are expert in the hi-ski event where a ear is driven on two wheels for a sustained period of time. Jake Plumstead, of Dover, N. J., who has been with the Kochman organization since 1949, will make the world famous 70-foot ramp-to-ramp jump.
In the display of timing and precision, Tonny Petersen, who was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and came to the U.S. at the age of 14 as an acrobat, takes charge. The blonde haired, 29-year-old Hell Driver will also perform handstands on fast moving cars.
The youngest performing Hell Driver of the World's Fair is Howard “Butch” Renniger, 23, of Mifflintown, Pa. He was a milkman before joining the Kochman group four years ago.
The Hell Drivers have been using safety belts since 1942 when Kochman took over the auto stunt driving group. Safety conscious, drivers inspect their own vehicles before each performance. Nothing is left to chance, though superstitiousness does exist for some of them. For example, one driver paints his clutch, brake and accelerator pedals yellow while another sticks patches of tape on the steering wheel.
Old cars were used for the rollover stunts — an older car was driven at high speed onto a ramp, keeping two wheels on the ground and two on the ramp, until the car flipped over. If a car landed on its side, the stunt driver got two points; if it flipped completely, the driver got five. At the end of each season, the driver with the most points in the rollovers was given $1,000 (around $7,300 in 2012 dollars).
In another stunt, the “low-skis criss-cross,” four cars went over ramps and then criss-crossed in front and back of each other before hitting the next ramps, all at high speed. In the “high-skis” version, the drivers drove half their cars over ramps, getting the car to balance on two wheels; they drove as long as they could on two wheels, finally coming down with a “sickening jar.” A prize went each season to the man who could keep their cars up the longest.
The thirty Hell Drivers were not the only stunt men to perform; Jimmie Lynch’s Death Dodgers crashed their Dodges at “breakneck speed” through flaming walls, hurtled at 55 mph from ramps, landing on concrete, and raced side by side, inches apart, flying through the air as a third Dodge jumped between them.
Despite the seeming insanity of the Hell Drivers, they could, in 1964, boast a zero-fatality record over 18 years of national shows.
There were four shows per day during each week, as well as eight shows per day on holidays and weekends; each show was one hour long. All the cars used, except older cars used for crashes, were 1964 Dodges, including standard-sized Dodge Polaras, Coronets, Darts, and trucks. (Dodge cars were also used by the International Auto Darevils and the unrelated Hurricane Hell Drivers).
For World’s Fair use, the standard cars were used, with 383 V8 engines, and modified heavy-duty suspensions and torsion bars. The Hell Drivers had started using seat belts in 1942 and had advocated publicly for widespread adoption since then; they also wore helmets.
The Kochman Hell Drivers started using Dodges exclusively in 1942, buying 37 per year — for 30 drivers running through the air on a 70-foot ramp-to-ramp jump, skidding at high speeds in reverse as the driver slammed into forward gears without braking, and run on two wheels (then suddenly back to four) on a regular basis.
The Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers had performed in the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair, showing the new steel-bodied Dodges performing then-incredible feats. Auto thrill show pioneer Lucky Teeter took over until his death in 1942. When Jack Kochman took Teeter’s group, he faced wartime gasoline and car-part rationing, right down to severely restricted tire supplies; the Hell Drivers overcame these obstacles and won the hearts of millions of fans across the country, at county fairs and other events‚ running their iron-wheeled cars on propane gas.
Johnnie Rogers began racing and stunting in 1936, and was with the Jimmy Lynch Death Dodgers at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. He broke his neck in 1941 at the Milwaukee State Fair, and switched to testing tanks for Chrysler Corporation. He joined Jack Kochman’s Hell Drivers in 1945, breaking his neck again the same year while doing the “ramp jump” over a tractor-trailer truck and six cars — parked lengthwise.
Recovering, Rogers raced midget and sprint cars in 1946, winning nine out of ten sprint features. He then raced in the New England circuit from 1948-50, finishing second in points; he Johnnie Rogers was voted the most popular race driver in a 1949 national poll. He continued racing through 1955, putting in 20,000 miles at Daytona over 108 mph.
Rogers was a stunt driver in movies, TV commercials, and the show Route 66, and had appeared in over 4,000 thrill shows by 1964.
Chrysler at the 1964 World’s Fair
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A clarification: the photos were taken by Dodge’s professional photographers. Gene came across the company’s publicity materials and provided copies of those to Allpar.