Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Wall of Death-Part II

The Wall of Death - American Motor Drome Co. - "a motorcycle thrill show caught in a time warp!"- (Leesburg Bikefest – April 2015), story and photos by motorsport journalist Tom Rose 

note: I first wrote about the Wall of Death in 2008 and that article can be found elsewhere in this blog and in the Oct 2008 issue of Road Bike Magazine

The Wall of Death is a motorcycle thrill show that began appearing at traveling carnivals and fairs about 100 years ago. The riders perform on the inside vertical wall of a large wooden barrel. Spectators view the show from a platform around the top of the barrel, looking down into the barrel to see the show.

Author H.G. Wells published his science fiction classic The Time Machine in 1895. Through the novel and later the movie millions became captivated by the idea time travel. Of course, the whole premise is just as categorized, “science fiction”.   However, the idea is indeed intriguing. There are a few instances where it is actually possible to go back to an earlier time and relive history.

Jay Lightnin' Bentley tells the story of his
American Motor Drome Co.
I had the unique opportunity for time travel at the 2015 Leesburg Bikefest, drifting back through the past 100 years talking with Jay “Lightnin’ Bentley about his American Motor Drome Company and the Wall of Death. The show has not changed. It is the same show your father and grandfather saw at the traveling carnivals of the 20s, 30s and 40s. It is the same 1928 101 Indian Scout motorcycle. The same wooden barrel motor drome. A real live time capsule right there in Leesburg, FL. A motorcycle thrill show caught in a time warp!

Jay Lightnin’ Bentley began riding the wall with traveling carnivals over 45 years ago. After 25 years riding for other shows Jay decided it was time to go into business for himself. He took out a 2nd mortgage to buy materials and went to work in his back yard. His neighbors thought he was building an ark.  No plans or blueprints, it was all in his head. The primary material is Douglas fir. It took 2 years but from Jay’s dream and hard work the American Motor Drome Co. was born.

Once completed Jay took the show on the road to bike shows, fairs, carnivals and race tracks. Crossing the continent keeping the tradition alive. Jay puts 2 riders on the wall at the same time, crisscrossing, requiring the ultimate in skill, precision and concentration.  He used have 3 riders on the wall but a tragic accident resulted in the death of a rider and Jay cut the 3rd rider from his shows. “Too dangerous!” says Jay. Over the years there have been accidents and injuries to riders. Wall of Death riders are not eligible for insurance. Bentley maintains a fund for injured riders financed by donations from spectators. During the show riders race within inches of the top of the wall and pluck donations for the fund from the hands of spectators in their teeth! He has been at it with his wall for some 20 years now. It is a dieing from of entertainment. His American Motor Drome is one of only 2 that work full time. In total only 4 such shows exist (once there were over 40).  


“We’re here to keep the Wall of Death tradition alive. When old timers show up with kids and grandkids memories are made that will last a lifetime. That’s why we are here. That is why we do it. To preserve history and let the youngsters of today see just what it was like in the 20s at the county fair.” Jay Lightnin’ Bentley

And that’s the way it was in Leesburg last week-end. Among all the rock bands, bikinis,  tattoo artists, and Harley-Davidsons…..Jay Bentley’s American Motor Drome time warp, a history lesson, physics class (centrifugal force) and a very entertaining thrill show all for on $5.00 ticket. Long live The Wall of Death!

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