As a young boy growing up in rural Pennsylvania, EJ Kowalski was lucky enough to witness the world famous “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show” when the troop stopped at a nearby event on their cross-country tour. The image of those stunt guys jumpin’ through fire and tipping hot rods up on two wheels made a lasting impression on lil EJ. “The Joie Chitwood Thrill show came to town at the local fair when I was a kid,” he told us. “Later I saw the Clark Gable movie ‘To Please a Lady,’ which had a short scene of the Chitwood show in 1949. The image of a ‘49 ford driving on two wheels stuck in my head as being one of the neatest things I’d ever seen.”
Since those early days EJ has racked up one mega motor-infused resume. It includes being a Bonneville record holder, a nostalgia racer, motorcycle flat tracker (racing with his dad, famed racer Ed Kowalski Sr.) and last but not least… being a primo hot rod builder; working out of his own Kowalski Customs shop in Reading, Pennsylvania. There’s probably not a thing in the hot rod business that Kowalksi hadn’t done–except live out his flaming hoop jump stunt dreams, until now.
Over the last few years, EJ decided to stop ignoring his inner Evel Knievel and he just happened to meet the perfect fellow lunatics to help him. “I met brothers Jim and John Loughlin at the Wildwood beach race,” EJ says. “Jim was racing a killer rear engine T that caught my eye. He had other cars there as well that he and his father, brother, and friends built at his shop, Rays Hot Rods. I told Jimmy he should come to Bonneville and in 2016, he and his wife Krystal, were great help to get our first of two records that year. The brothers came out to my shop later to give me a hand with some land speed prep. I mentioned in passing about wanting to drive a shoebox on two wheels – old time thrill show style. Their answer was, ‘Lets do it! We’ll help you!’ and mentioned they were part of a motorcycle stunt group called ‘Down For Life” that had done many wheelie stunt shows. We started to secretly gather the bits and pieces to put on a vintage throwback helldriver thrill show.”
The threesome solidified their crew by adding pyro-perpetrator Corinna Mantlo to handle the fire duties, good bud Mike “Shoe” Nyegaard to MC the show’s festivities, and Donna “Mom” Ratynski (yeah she’s EJ’s real mom). “I am lucky to know lots of fantastic artists and craftspeople,” says EJ about his team. With the people taken care of, they needed to come with some tricks. EJ and the crew called on some vintage footage of Chitwood for both ideas and motivation. “Many, many, many hours of research went into it. I knew I would like it to be a 30’s – 40’s kind of thrill show vibe. Like before big corporate sponsors, when the guys wore the skull and cross bones logos.”
Maybe a jump here, a ramp there, a couple more explosions…once they had the show basics sketched out, they needed vehicles that could handle jumps, ramps, and explosions. Jim pulled his trusty ’48 Plymouth out of storage. The Plymouth is powered by its stock flathead six, and it’s a three speed on the tree ride that’s as Plain-Jane as you can get. EJ gutted the interior and glass, and added a roll bar for safety. The fuel tank was moved from its stock position, and a heavy duty skid plate, built from the front bumper to front crossmember, was added to fortify and protect the underside. Heavy duty shocks were installed to help cushion the impact on Jim’s spinal column. Lastly, a special hand brake was installed up front which works a set of hydraulic brakes out back. Back up cars include EJ’s ’50 Ford sedan, and John’s ’52 four door Ford.
For the bike stunts, EJ pulled out an old Harley Davidson he had built a few years back–a ’45 flat tracker assembled from spare parts. Once the motorized part of the show was set, the crew worked on the props for the stunts. A breakable but rebuildable “Wall of Fire “ was needed for several of the stunts, so EJ designed a unit that would not only stand up to several “blasts” each night, but was easy to reload, and of course, easy to transport.
After some rehearsals, the crew saw their chance to break out into the public arena. EJ has strong ties with the Eastern Museum of Motor Racing in York Springs, Pennsylvania. Every year Larry Garland’s “wildly popular Jalopy Showdown” takes place there, with the proceeds going to EMMR. After talking to Larry and the fine people at the museum, it was decided the Lucky Devil Helldrivers would entertain the good folks and fans at the Jalopy Showdown in 2017.
Then another amazing thing happened; after overhearing EJ chatting it up about his new thrill show, a friend stated that he knew a guy that knew a guy that knew someone that was in an old hot rod stunt show. Turns out that someone was none other than Mr. Billy Carter, a Joie Chitwood stunt driver from 1949-1954. Billy was free and happy to come to the Lucky Devils inaugural stunt show, which was a big boost to the Helldrivers. The crew’s act featured such classic stunts such as the “Slide for Life”, “the Human Battering Ram”, “Motorcycle Hell-Fire Wall Blast” and last but not least, “the Flying Hot Rod Wall Crash”. They stunted their hearts out, and won final approval from Billy Carter himself.
“The day before the show I got a call telling me Mr. Carter was really excited to come out to see us perform! I just about jumped out of my skin. He was even a performer in that damn black and white movie that got this whole thing stuck in my head when I was kid! The day of the show, we shuffled him up the steps of the 1920’s vintage flag stand so he could get a front row seat to our first show. It was an honor for me to do the stunts he did. I would look up at him to get his opinion after each of our crazy acts and he applauded. I heard later that he wondered to his son if we would let him drive one of the cars around. His son’s reply was, ‘Hell no, you won’t!’ I wish I would have known that at the time, because you can bet your ass we would’ve had him drive whatever he wanted!”
EJ’s stunt team is striving for greatness, and taking bookings for future shows. If you want to reach them, you can find them on Facebook.
Sizzling Sedan-Thrill seeker “Jumpin’ Jimmy” Loughlin pilots his ‘48 Plymouth sedan through the Hellfire Crash Wall, on its way to greet the dirt fifty feet away. Luckily, this hot rods been reinforced, and neither Jim nor his trusty Plymouth were injured in this jump.
Hot Harley– EJ Kowalski got the need for speed, and for some sizzling stunts after watching Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show up close and personal as a young hot rodder in training. So what to do when you got the itch for some toasty thrills? You grab your Harley and become a motorized mad man!
Human Hood Ornament– EJ becomes a human battering ram, taking on the fire wall with Jimmy doing the driving. Needless to say, EJ’s a hard headed kinda guy….
Thrill Girl in Training– Corinna Mantlo is a Helldriver in training, but for now she’s down with starting the fire that ignites this show. During the day Corinna can be found behind her trusty sewing machine, making killer custom motorcycle seats and cool duds like the custom ones the crew wears!
l to r – Johnny Loughlin, Jimmy Loughlin, EJ Kowalski, Corinna Mantlo
Rolling Rocks!- EJ rebuilt a set of “Wall of Death” stage roller and set them up atop an old wagon bed. Here EJ demonstrates old-school skills riding a bike while semi-stationary, with the rollers simulating forward motion. “It’s a feeling that can only be described as riding on ice or marbles…very difficult”, states EJ.
Wheelie Stars– Johnny Loughlin warms up before the show doing the wheelies that made him famous with his “Down for Life” crew back in Jersey.
Big Bad Bill– Bill Carter finished high school and that night was performing with Chitwood’s troupe, back in 1949. His 86 year old eyes lit up when the Helldrivers performed some of his old stunts at the Jalopy Showdown!