If you’ve never been to Motordrome show, it will come as a surprise. While the peppermint-swirl tent claiming to host something called the “Wall of Death” seems like a blatant tourist trap, the show put on by this gritty motorcycle-loving crew is anything but. Trackside several weeks ago at the Virginia International Raceway MotoAmerica event, a few rough looking bikers called fans over from other tents, announcing their 3pm show.
Bill, Rita, Josh, Jay (and Charlie, wearing red) stood out front in near matching blue button down shirts with the words “Wall of Death” scrawled on their backs. As they ushered people up the staircase inside the Motordrome, the crowd was reminded to tuck away drinks and keep hands behind the cord. Once the riders got started, it all made sense.
The handbuilt motordrome — a silo-shaped wooden cylinder 30 feet in diameter, gets hauled across the country on the back of a tractor trailer truck and provides the daredevil riding team with the structure to perform their tricks. And although you never heard of it, the concept of a wall rider is hardly something new.
Drome owner Jay Lightnin’ started riding back in his teens in Swansea, MA, where he told me “there were more wall riders than anywhere else.”
He and his friends used to ride their motorbikes and roll them over to Pappy Boudreaux’s place whenever they broke. Pappy was a bit of a local legend, building motordromes and repairing Indian Motorcycles. Between 1969 and 1980 Pappy owned anywhere up to five different dromes.
Jay recalls Pappy asking him on every visit, “You ready to ride the wall kid?”
Most days Jay would say no, but one day he didn’t.
“Well you gotta be 16 and have a note from your mom,” Jay recalls him saying.
Jay came back with the note and began training with Pappy right away — learning the mechanics of the bikes and how to ride the wall in shows. He bought his first Indian Strout in 1969, and joined the wall riders in 1970.
The crew behind the Wall of Death travels and lives like a family, picking people up and dropping them off along the way. Their riders come from all over the US, most of them having seen a show and walked right up to the crew afterwards asking to join. They perform anywhere from 18–25 shows every year and often cross the country with all of their gear in tow at least three times per year.
Each of the wall riders have their own machines, and all of them have been customized for the job. The team races vintage motorcycles like Billy’s 1975 Harley SX175 and Rita’s 1975 Harley 250, but they also have a few four wheelers. Some of the four wheelers were built up from scratch by Jay himself — who mostly sticks to work that’s off-wall these days.
The day of my visit Jay rode on the wall alongside his team, even though he’d come out of his retirement to do so. During every Wall of Death show, riders ask the audience for donations towards their independently-purchased health insurance.
“As you can imagine,” explained Rita during the show, “no insurance company is going to agree to support us. So we had to start our own.” Jay’s coming out of retirement to perform was just another reminder of this, as he was covering that day for an injured crew member.
After the show I caught up with Jay, who acknowledged that the generation of riders was changing, and he was looking towards Josh, Rita, and Billy to continue to run things after him. I went down into the pit of the Motordrome where Rita showed me around. Originally from Columbus, OH I asked how she got involved with the Wall of Death crew.
She’d caught a show not far from her hometown and was impressed. “They didn’t scare me, and I didn’t scare them,” she said, “so I got to stay.”
Before leaving I snagged a t-shirt from the merch tent, just as Charlie came in to grab a free pin for a little boy. “He’s been to a few shows already today,” he said smiling, “keeps dragging his folks inside.”
It was a good feeling to know there’d always be a new generation of daredevils on the horizon.
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