Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Death (See: Wall of)

Samantha Morgan on the Wall of Death
By Jim Robbins, Via NY Times

"ON a sultry night in Florida 32 years ago, 14-year-old Samantha Morgan sat, entranced, inside a roaring and heaving motordrome, looking down on a man on a motorcycle as he rode effortlessly around in circles, perpendicular to the floor at 60 miles an hour, laughing all the while.

“I saw this guy sideways on the wall, and it was like somebody slapped me,” she said. “It was the coolest thing I ever saw.” When the show was over, she walked up to the owner, Sonny Pelaquin, and asked, “Can girls do this?”

Indeed they could, and at 46 the girl is still doing it, sometimes 13 times a day, on what is known as the Wall of Death. “She’s the best there is,” said Sandra Donmoyer, 27, who learned to ride the Wall from Ms. Morgan. “I’ve never seen a trick rider like her. She’s amazing.”

The Wall of Death motordrome is a 30-foot movable circle made of Douglas fir. It is 15 feet tall and looks like an old-fashioned wooden water tank or silo, and within that circle, motorcycle riders seem to defy both the laws of physics and common sense. They ride a couple of loops around the arena until they are going fast enough to make their bikes cling to the wall. They don’t wear helmets, because the G-force would exert such a pull on the helmets that it would be impossible to hold up their heads.

Ms. Morgan, who also uses the stage name Samantha Morgan Storm, was getting ready two weeks ago for an evening of three shows inside Jay Lightnin’s Wall of Death at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, the country’s largest, an annual event that draws more than a half million people. The motordrome is a small part of this event, set up in a parking lot in front of a biker bar and drawing 20 to 30 people per show.

The slight, unassuming Ms. Morgan smiled a big smile when asked why she chose this unusual occupation, and then shrugged. “I fell in love with the wall,” she said.

She and Mr. Pelaquin, who died from diabetes complications in 2002, were inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall of Fame earlier that day.

“Sonny loved the wall,” she said, a look of reminiscence on her face. “He always laughed when he rode.”

Surrounded by her dogs Mischief and Daisy, in an air-conditioned trailer that was a refuge from the blast-furnace South Dakota heat, she confessed to some preshow anxiety. “I feel like a kid before the first show,” she said. “I always have butterflies. Not scared, but butterflies.”

Such feelings, of course, are the coin of the realm for those involved in such pursuits. “If the wheel slips while you are up there on the wall and you catch it and you don’t hit the floor, it’s kind of a rush,” she said.

If you do hit the floor, of course, the rush is drowned out by the pain. And she has hit the floor, dozens of times. There have also been three big hits, which means a broken back. The most memorable time was at a 1992 show in France; she was so broken — pelvis, back, knee, shoulder, rib cage, sternum; “like a swatted fly,” she said — that she couldn’t go home for four months. The upside, she said, “is I speak French now.” The most recent big hit was in 1998, and now she has metal pins and rods in her back, plus one fake vertebra.

The Wall of Death, or the Thrill Arena, as Ms. Morgan prefers to call it, is no carnival trick, but simply the clever exploitation of centrifugal force. Dromes were an outgrowth of mile-long racetracks — similar, but with less steep sidewalls — that were prevalent in the 1920’s. But so many racers and a few spectators died, hence the name Wall of Death, that the tracks were outlawed. The motorcyclists turned to motordromes, and a new phenomenon was born.

Some riders even added lions, creating the lion drome and the Race for Life. Once the riders were zooming around the wall, trained lions would be released, and would charge after the motorcycles, swatting with their huge paws. (They usually wouldn’t catch the bikes.) Mr. Pelaquin’s family owned and operated the last of the lion dromes; that era came to an ignominious end after a drunken carnival worker stuck his hand into the lion cage in 1964 and was bitten by a male lion named King. The police were called, and one bullet later, King was gone and the last lion drome closed.

Motordromes are nearly extinct. There are just three left in this country, Ms. Morgan said, including that of the California Hell Riders, which is based, incongruously, in Swansea, Mass. There are perhaps 15 overseas. One of Ms. Morgan’s pastimes is riding in as many existing dromes as she can find, and so far she’s ridden in 11. An ornately carved drome in Munich stands out.

Jay (Lightnin’) Bentley, a trick rider from the Bay Area, built the one used here. Finished in 1998, it is the first new drome constructed since 1958, he said. “Building it took two years, night and day,” he said. “My neighbors thought I was Noah building an ark in the backyard.” Mr. Bentley tours with his drome, to shows like Sturgis or Biketoberfest in Daytona Beach, Fla., or Evel Knievel days in Butte, Mont.; the five performers — who also construct the heavy drome each time it moves — do 2 to 13 shows a day, depending on the crowd’s interest.

Just before 7 p.m., with a molten sun sinking behind the Black Hills, Mr. Bentley announced over loudspeakers that the first show was about to start. The riders, including Rick Ransom on a kart, and the motorcyclists Wahl E. Walker, Ms. Morgan and Mr. Bentley, revved up.

A few minutes later, Ms. Morgan, the star of the show, was doing her act, in black stretch pants, black boots and a black tank top. Her long silver-blond hair, with two small braids amid a thatch of hair framing her face, blew straight out behind her in the 60-mile-an-hour wind, and a big smile flashed across her face.

The sight was unusual enough to stir the crowd of grizzled, beer-can-holding bikers whose heads swiveled in unison to keep their eyes on the lady. “This is full-blown, not right in the head, something you have to see for yourself, once-in-a-lifetime insanity,” said Rick Krone, a bearded ample-bellied biker from Fargo, N.D. Continuing her act, Ms. Morgan rode no-handed, and then taped the throttle open and turned sideways, riding with her hands and feet splayed out.

The motorcycles and karts flying around the wall created a down-the-rabbit-hole perceptual twist. No other experience comes close.

Ms. Morgan’s fascination with this extreme sport began early. After running away from a troubled foster home in Long Island when she was 11 and living on the streets of East Coast cities for a few years, she ended up at a carnival in Dade County, Fla. The barkers for Sonny Pelaquin’s show, Hell on Wheels, waved her inside. She was hooked. Now her repertory of tricks is among the largest. “She’s one of a kind,” said Mr. Ransom, who has been taking a few pointers from her.

Ms. Morgan rides a 1975 Harley-Davidson 250, but only because her favorite “wall” bike, a 1931 Indian 101 Scout named Beth, needs a new front end. Beth is big, has a low center of gravity and holds the wall much better, which also means Ms. Morgan can do more tricks. If she falls, though, the hefty bike can spell trouble. “When the Indian lands on me, it breaks me in half,” she said. In September, she’ll head off to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to try to break the land speed record, which now stands at 130.115 miles an hour, on an Indian Chief.

As she continues her maverick pursuit, Ms. Morgan worries it may be the end of an era for women in the dromes. There were as many as 30 in the dromes’ heyday, she said, but now there are no young people coming up to take her place. She knows only one other female rider, Ms. Donmoyer, who rides for the Hell Riders and is known as Sandra D.

But Ms. Morgan will continue zooming defiantly around the Wall of Death for some time to come. There is no retirement program for these riders, no health insurance plan, just the dollar bills that flutter to the ground after the spectators are asked to donate toward medical costs; at one point in the show, Ms. Morgan rides with no hands to pluck the proffered bills.

But when it comes down to it, people like her ride the wall to taste that potent mix of G’s and adrenaline. To taste the freedom, for a few fleeting minutes, from the problems afflicting the earthbound. “When I am on the wall,” she said, “is the only time all the pain goes away.”

(Footnote: Sadly our Miss Morgan passed away April 24th 2008 at the age of 53 in her West Palm Beach farm due to complications from the numerous back injuries and broken bones she had sustained in her long illustrious career.)

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