That Refuses to Die
The Wall of Death has been entertaining people almost as long as people have been riding motorcycles, and has roots that trace back to Coney Island in 1911.
It’s entertainment that overloads the senses. The board platform you stand on rocks back and forth, creaking like the frame of an old wooden rollercoaster. The red and white carnival canopy above your head captures the sound coming from the pit in the center, trapping you in the reverberating shock waves of straight pipes. The air fills with the smell of burnt gasoline and two stroke exhaust. Inches away a motorcycle, parallel to the ground, whizzes by you with the blast you feel when an eighteen wheeler blows by you while you’re changing a tire along the edge of the interstate. It’s called the Wall of Death. It’s a form of entertainment nearly as old as motorcycles themselves, but each summer, the marvel of motorcycles, daring and physics continues to draw onlookers around the country.
Wall of Death shows are derived from the early days of motorcycle racing, when riders looped oval board tracks or “motordromes,” explained Sandra D., a member of the California Hell Riders thrill show. High mortality rates, among both racers and spectators, gave the boards their name but also got the tracks shut down. The trackless racers responded by building their own “Walls of Death,” as the board tracks had become known. They first appeared at Coney Island in 1911, with the oval eventually evolving into a perfectly round “barrel” with walls perpendicular to the ground. The traveling spectacle was born. Though there were hundreds of Wall of Death shows touring the country when the attraction reached its pinnacle in the 1930s, according to Sandra, the California Hell Riders are one of only three acts left in the U.S. The rest are history.
Sandra D. rides a Harley Sportster on the “Slide for Life,” a dyno-like arrangement that lets the motorcycle run in place to preview the shows tricks to potential spectators outside the show.
Sandra D. understands history. She married into it. The California Hell Riders is a family business started by her husband’s father, Don Sr. Sandra and Donnie Daniel Jr. met when he invited her in to see the show. The couple, along with Donnie’s brother Ian, are the show’s three riders. Don Sr. now stays home and mans the family motorcycle shop in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts? The California Hell Riders come from Massachusetts? The show, along with the Daniels family, originated on the West Coast. It was there they earned their name. And when the family moved east, the name stuck.
Sandra gave me the story on the gray wooden steps of the motordrome. It was parked in one corner of the backyard of the infamous Iron Horse Saloon with Biketoberfest activity raging around it. The Hell Riders spend the summer season, from March to October, performing at bike rallies and carnivals around the East Coast. At Biketoberfest they performed once an hour all day and well into the night. They’ve done up to 23 shows in a single day.
A show runs about 15 minutes, with Sandra, Donnie and Ian taking turns on the various machines. Donnie adds tricks to his wall ride, standing on the foot pegs, riding without hands and sitting side saddle. The show’s finale is a California Pursuit Race with Sandra and Ian chasing each other on a motorcycle and a go-kart.
Wall of Death riding is simple physics. If you ride fast enough on the wall’s inner surface, centrifugal force causes you to defy gravity and stick to the boards. Riders start on the flat floor, progress to an inclined ramp that bridges the floor and wall as they build up speed and then move onto the vertical surface. It takes a speed of about 30 miles-per-hour to stay on the wall, Sandra said and most performances top out at about 45.
The show is trucked around from stop to stop on the back of a flat bed trailer. It takes nine hours to assemble (each part is divided into 20 different sections that go together “like a puzzle” Sandra said) and can be broken down in four. When assembled the pieces create a barrel 24-feet in diameter with walls 14-feet high. The observation platform will hold up to 130 spectators.
For some spectators it’s the first time they’ve seen the decades old act. But many have returned year after year, their names inscribed into the wooden ring.
“Once you see it, you have to come back every year,” Sandra said. “Every time we perform I have someone who comes up to me and says ‘I remember seeing this when I was a kid.’
“It’s an old fashioned form of American entertainment,” she added. “It’s a slice of Americana.”
Family togetherness: Sandra D. and brother-in-law Ian demonstrate how tight knit the Daniels family is.
Americana right down to the stars and stripes-painted tanks on the vintage American iron that makes laps on the boards. The motorcycles, an Indian Scout and a Harley Hummer, pre-date any of their riders. So does the wall, constructed in 1963. Both require maintenance. The boards need repairs when there’s a crash.
“The ‘scars’ on the wall tell a story,” Sandra said.
“This one is my husbands,” she noted, pointing out a groove plowed into the wooden surface when the frame on the Scout Donnie was riding snapped in two.
Most crashes are a result of a mechanical failure. Although the bikes are meticulously maintained and visually inspected before every show, things still break. Donnie was able to ride his broken Indian back to the floor safely. He, Sandra and Ian have all crashed, luckily escaping major injury. But they know plenty of riders who have been seriously hurt while entertaining spectators and over the years the boards have even occasionally claimed a performer’s life.
The greatest danger, Sandra noted, is the motorcycle coming down on a fallen rider. But even the most minor crashes result in “wall rash” and plenty of splinters to pick out. The riders perform without safety gear. It’s too hot for gloves or jacket and the four Gs Sandra estimates you pull on the wall makes a helmet uncomfortable on your head.
Insurance companies have deemed the act so risky that they won’t insure the riders. So the Wall of Death riders around the country have banded together to create their own accident fund to support injured riders. The California Hell Riders even combine fund raising with their act. Donnie skillfully rides his Scout near the wall’s upper edge grabbing donations out of the hands that spectators have outstretched over the steel “crash cable” that’s designed to protect them.
Like anything that is done well the Hell Riders make wall riding look deceptively easy. But the skill you see is the result of years of practice. The riders eased their way into it, starting out on a go-kart before progressing to the motorcycles. They use stripes painted on the boards or rows of nails to hold their line.
“It’s a lot harder than it looks,” Donnie said. “It’s unnatural for your body to be in that position so your instinct is to try and stand the bike up straight. You have to fool your body into being comfortable at that angle and work your way up to have the confidence to do tricks.”
Inspired by another female Wall of Death rider, Sandra begged her husband to let her try her hand at wall riding until he finally relented. Though she’s been performing for eight years she still remembers her first time.
“The first time you ride the wall you get tunnel vision and you can only see the things right in front of you,” she recalled. “After a while you can train your body to not get dizzy. If you get dizzy on carnival rides that spin you around, you probably can’t do this.”
But despite growing up in a thrill riding family, becoming Wall of Death riders wasn’t the only option for the Daniels brothers. Don Sr. refused to let his sons try and ride the wall until after they were 18 and had finished high school. Donnie had a “real job” before his father reluctantly passed the riding part of the business on to him and his brother.
“He’ll come to the shows. He’ll cheer and clap, but he keeps his head turned sideways. He still can’t watch his sons,” Sandra said of Don, Sr.
She and her husband plan to take the same approach with their daughter, currently 13-months-old. “We’re not going to force her into anything,” Donnie said. “At a certain point she’ll be allowed to try it, but her education comes first.”
But if the Hell Rider’s motordrome isn’t taken over by the third generation of Daniels it will be picked up by someone else. Wall of Death shows, like the old Harleys and Indians that lap their boards, just refuses to call it quits, promising future generations of Americans plenty of summer afternoons of sense pounding excitement.
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