Thrill Driver’s Choice: The ’56 Chevrolet
It’s 1934 and Joie Chitwood is about to realize a dream. He and his pals cobbled together a trailer, loaded up his “stock” car and headed from Denison, TEXAS to a dirt track in Winfield, Kansas. What would just take us modern folks a handful of hours to drive, took Joie and his pals two days. But damnit, they made it.
Joie didn’t win that race in Winfield. Hell, he didn’t even finish it… But, he started an obsession with racing that would last the rest of his life. In fact, it was only six years later that Joey found himself starting his first of seven Indianapolis 500 lineups. He even finished 5th on three occasions and in 1950 shared driving honors with the legendary Tony Bettenhausen while becoming the first driver to ever wear a seatbelt in the 500.
Still, in over two decades of racing Joie started on the poll zero times, won zero races, set zero fastest laps, and finished on the podium zero times. While racing fulfilled dreams, it just wasn’t filling the bank account and Joie needed an income. Faced with bankruptcy, he decided to take a risk. A BIG risk. The “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show” was formed.
By the mid 1950′s, Joie’s thrill show full of “Hell Drivers” was so popular that he had all but given up on his racing career and began touring the country full-time as a stunt driver. The risk paid off. Joie landed sponsorship deals with Chevrolet and found himself sharing the silver screen with folks like Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck (To Please A Lady).
In 1967, the “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show” had gained so much momentum that it was featured on ABC television’s World Wide of Sports. A few years later, Joie set a world record by driving a Chevette 5.6 miles on just two wheels in front of a national TV audience. It was done – Joie was to become a legend.
And as all legends do, Joie inspired… Evel Knievel began watching Joie do his thing and as a direct result decided to become a daredevil. Of course, the Chitwood family got heavily involved as well. Joie’s sons (Joie Jr. and Tim) both joined the thrill show and later carried on the banner after Joie’s retirement.
Joie died in 1988 at the age of 75 – an old age for a Hell Driver. He never became the successful race car pilot like he had dreamed as a boy, but he did his make his living on four (well, sometimes two) wheels. And as a sort of poetic justice, his grandson (Joey Chitwood III) is now the president of the greatest spectacle in racing – The Indianapolis 500.