Today’s Flashback Friday story originally published on: November 26, 2018
Joie Chitwood inspired the career of motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel.
No stunt team will ever top Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show. Chitwood’s Hell Drivers performed death-defying vehicle stunts and demonstrations in front of live audiences for over 40 years. At the height of the show, he had five different teams performing across America.
Starting just after World War II, Chitwood took his show on the road. Driving Chevrolet cars, his team performed amazing feats before thousands, perhaps millions, of gaping audience members. Nothing matched Chitwood for spectacle and notoriety. The daredevil act included formation driving, jumps, and two-wheel set ups. Chitwood became so popular that, in January 1967, one of his shows was broadcast on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
The immensely-likeable Chitwood loved playing the showman. Employing a dramatic, swashbuckling style, he brought his act to America’s heartland. Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show performed on the midwestern fair circuit where he was bogusly touted as Chief Wahoo – a full-blooded Cherokee Indian. It was a role Chitwood played with great aplomb.
In 1947, Chitwood took his daredevil auto act to Butte, Montana. The show made such an impression on eight-year-old Bobby Knievel, who was in the audience with his grandparents, that the boy decided to become a motorcycle daredevil who later changed his name to Evel.
George Rice Chitwood was born in Denison, Texas – 75 miles north of Dallas and birthplace of Dwight D. Eisenhower and airline captain “Sully” Sullenberger – on April 14, 1912. The day after his birth, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean. Chitwood’s racing career started in 1934 at a dirt track in Winfield, Kansas. At 25, he began racing sprint cars, and entered a local race in St. Joseph, Missouri. He registered as Joe Chitwood, but a newspaper typesetter botched the spelling, which came out as Joie. Convinced any publicity was good publicity, Chitwood kept the name.
Chitwood won the AAA East Coast Sprint car championship in 1939 and 1940. Running with the Rim Runners two years later, he won the Central States Racing Association title – the self-proclaimed “world’s fastest racing circuit.” Between 1940 and 1950, Chitwood competed in the Indianapolis 500 seven times, posting three top-5 finishes.
One of the best open-wheel racers of his generation, Chitwood was the first man ever to wear a seatbelt at Indy. For several years, Chitwood raced professionally while also performing. By 1950, the Thrill Show had become so successful he gave up racing. At the time of his retirement from racing, Chitwood held a staggering 32 Triple-A speed records.
A skilled driver, Chitwood crash-tested thousands of cars for safety investigations. In 1966, he and the Hell Drivers drove for GM employees at the Milford Proving Grounds. Performing speed runs and teetering body rolls in Chevrolets to the narration of legendary announcer Chris Economaki the show was captured on film. The result was Impact 66, which became a marketing film for Chevy salesmen.
A member of both the Sprint Car and Motorsports halls of fame, Joie Chitwood worked as a consultant to U.S. Steel and ALCOA. For years, he conducted crash tests on guardrails and breakaway Interstate signs, resulting in safer highways throughout America. In 1950, he appeared with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1950 film about auto racing, To Please a Lady.
Mr. Chitwood died in Tampa in 1988, at 75. Following his death, his sons Joie Jr. and Tim took over the business and continued to run the Joie Chitwood Chevy Thunder Show. The show was featured during a Season 3 episode of the television crime drama CHiPs. Joie Jr. worked as a stunt driver in over 60 feature films and national commercials. He appeared in several episodes of Miami Vice and served as stunt coordinator for the hugely successful James Bond film Live and Let Die.
The Chitwood family remains prominent in the world of motorsports. Joie Chitwood III – Senior’s grandson — has run two of the nation’s most famous racetracks. After serving as president and COO of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Joie III was chosen president of Daytona International Speedway.