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Crash-A-Rama

HIDE CAPTION

The town of Bithlo, Florida, just east of Orlando, has gained the unfortunate status of a Central Florida punch line.

Crumble crackers in your soup at a white-tablecloth restaurant or wear white after Labor Day and you may hear, “What, are you from Bithlo?”

Unfortunately for Bithlo, on the day after Thanksgiving, the community hosts an event that confirms and exceeds every possible stereotype. The event is Crash-A-Rama, and it is exactly what it sounds like, and more. Cars crash, as do school buses, trucks, motorhomes, trailers and boats. Things blow up and burn to the ground. For the 2011 edition, the honoured guest was comedian Larry the Cable Guy, if that indicates anything.

The event is held at Orlando Speed World, a small, outdoor, paved, oval stock-car track that may draw two hundred fans for a regular Friday-night race. Crash-A-Rama draws more like 6,000 people, standing-room only, at $20 a head, rain or shine. It is what keeps Speed World in business the rest of the year, says Robert Hart, the taciturn veterinarian-turned-promoter who owns the track, and who devised Crash-A-Rama nearly 20 years ago.

Outside the fences, the family-oriented crowd is rather upscale by Bithlo standards. Inside there is a pervasive sense of Romans watching the lions – particularly if many of the lions proudly wore mullets.

Chief mullet-wearer is Moe Knauer, known to this audience as “Moe the Hothead”, one of the demolition-derby stars of the long-cancelled cable TV show Carpocalypse (inexplicably overlooked by the Emmy nominating committee). It is Moe the Hothead’s job to arrange the events, book a handful of semi-professional stuntmen and keep Crash-A-Rama running on time, which Mussolini himself could not have done, given the herding-cats dispositions of the participants.

Opening ceremonies include fez-wearing Shriners who circle the track in miniature antique cars, followed by the Director’s Staff in an orange, yellow and green 1958 Chevrolet topped with an enormous gold reclining Sphinx. (On this night the excitement is apparently too much for one Shriner, who may or may not have had a heart attack back in the pits, requiring an ambulance.)

The crashing begins shortly thereafter. The schedule is written on a much-altered single sheet of paper in the pocket of Moe the Hothead. Among the jotted amusements is a “skid-car race”, in which front-wheel-drive cars compete, but instead of having rear wheels and tires, they have three-foot lengths of steel bolted to the hubs, which spark like a million Zippos. There is a “backwards race”. There is a “flagpole race”, where drivers execute a 360-degree turn around an imaginary flagpole, then continue racing. The “chain race” has cars chained together, front to rear.

Sheet metal is shed, but the crowd knows the best is yet to come.

Stunts are accomplished with varying degrees of success by amateur gardener-turned-stuntman Flying Jimmy Elvis, and by official card-carrying stuntmen like Tim Chitwood, the last performer standing in the famed Chitwood Thrill Show, and Chris Morena, who has performed at Walt Disney World. Morena’s big stunt involves launching a black Cadillac off of a ramp and into a mobile home. He misses the mobile home entirely, but no one seems to notice.

Meanwhile, back in the pits, the evening’s closing act is preparing for his performance by taking a nap. Doug Rose, driver of the Green Mamba jet car, has been doing this for most of his life, and he is nearly 75. In 1966, he was driving for the legendary Arfon brothers, owners of the Green Monster jet car, which once held the land speed record in 1965 at 576 mph. Rose was on an exhibition run at a drag strip in Virginia. The car crashed into the metal guardrail, and Rose’s feet and ankles were sliced off just below his knees. The ambulance crew packed them into a fan’s ice chest and took Rose and his legs to the hospital. The legs could not be reattached. He has driven with metal legs ever since.

The next year, Rose built the Green Mamba, a Navy surplus J46 Westinghouse jet engine from a 1956-era F7U fighter plane sitting on four wheels, with Rose up front inside a fibreglass nose painted candy-apple green and embellished with snake eyes. He was at a wildlife park in California when he noticed a little green grass snake.

“What’s that?” he recalls asking. A green mamba from Africa, he was told, one of the deadliest snakes in the world. “`Perfect’, I thought. Nothing is as dangerous as jet cars. And women!” he says, grinning. Jeanne, his wife, rolls her eyes. Rose has had three wives, but only one Green Mamba.

On the track, Crash-A-Rama continues. Nearly 20 long-retired school buses line up for the figure-8 race. With two fatalities in school-bus racing in Central Florida in the past few years, it is even more dangerous than jet cars. This night, despite a grinding crash and a rollover in the middle of the “8”, no one is injured.

Action moves to the boat trailer race, where cars and trucks towing junk or soon-to-be-junked boats race around the track. This is swiftly followed by the camper trailer race, where one ancient trailer appears to have been packed with thousands of old newspapers, which explode into confetti when the trailer is bisected by a huge Ford four-wheel-drive truck.

It is almost 1 am when Doug and Jeanne Rose tow the Green Mamba to the infield from the pits behind their ancient, mud-brown pickup.

Jeanne chains the rear of the Mamba to the front of a big gooseneck trailer, on top of which one of the huge Caterpillar fork lifts used to clear detritus from the track has placed a blue Chevrolet Lumina. The trailer and the Chevrolet will be the victims of the “burn down”, in which Rose points the rear of the jet engine at the front of the trailer, flips the ignition switch and torches it.

The roar is deafening, flashes from the jet engine blinding. The heat can be felt a hundred yards away. The trailer and car glow red hot, orange hot, white hot. When Rose finally shuts down the J46 engine, the crowd is silent. Then, the waves of cheers return.

After so many decades strapped next to jet engines, Rose cannot hear the appreciative whoops and yelps particularly well. As it is, he and Jeanne are already thinking about loading up for the long, late drive back to their apartment in Tampa.

Moe the Hothead is finally calm. “How was it?” he asks, then answers the question himself: “Good, but long. A long night in Bithlo.”

Inside there is a pervasive sense of Romans watching the lions – particularly if many of the lions proudly wore mullets. — Steven Cole Smith

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