This time around we caught up with E.J. Kowalski and found out a little bit about Thrill Shows and Hell Drivers!!! Sit back and give it a read!!!!
1. What’s your name and what do you do for a living ?
My name is E.J. Kowalski from Reading Pa, I own Kowalski Customs and build cars and motorcycles
2. It’s really cool seeing a lot of vintage moto sports coming back TROG, Walls of Death etc. How did you get into Thrill Shows and the Lucky Devil Helldrivers? It would seem there are safer things to get into!
There has been a resurgence of younger people trying to revive the old ways of building cars and bikes. Its hard to get more authentic then going back to the beginnings of a certain style or era. The thrill shows began in the twenties and really gained popularity in the 40’s and 50’s. I remember the Chitwood shows of the 70’s as that is the era I grew up in. But I have always been drawn to the old cars of my dad, Ed Kowalski’s past. He was an original hot rodder that was an early drag racer in the mid fifties. The thrill show was a huge part of the county fair circuit that I always heard stories about. There was a movie made in 1949 called ‘To Please A Lady’ that feature a short scene on the Chitwood Helldrivers jumping and driving 1949 fords on two wheels. It really caught me and stuck in my memory as a neat thing to do. Fast forward to 2016 and getting to know the Loughlin brothers from N.J. We ended up having a mutual interest in building old hot rods and they used to be in a motorcycle wheelie stunt group called ‘Down For Life’. I mentioned about driving old cars and bikes in an old style thrill show and they were excited to help out. It kinda snowballed from there and now we have a few stunt cars and bikes ready. I did lots of research on the old stunts and ramp construction. And I was fortunate enough to be able to speak with some old helldrivers of the past to get some tips. In my research I was able to visit with OG Chitwood Helldriver from 1949-53 Billy Carter that was actually involved in that 1949 movie!! Its been crazy fun learning all about it.
3. Can you explain some of stunts in the show? Any favorites?
We do all the classic thrill show stunts. The ‘slide for life’ which is a stuntman holds onto a rope while standing on the rear car bumper, then drops off at 50 mph and slides on a skid pad through a lit puddle of gasoline. ‘Precision Driving’ is the stunts where two cars drive side by side and inline over ramps. Clicking bumpers and tapping fenders. The ‘motorcycle hellfire wall crash’ is exactly how it sounds. I ride my vintage HD straight through a flaming wall. We do vintage motorcycle flatland trick riding, side saddle, standing on the seat, leg over handlebars etc. The ‘Human Battering Ram’ has me on the hood of a car, holding onto handles on the fenders, and driven through a wall of fire. Johnny Loughlin is the wheelie guy that can hold up our old sportster on the rear wheel for quite a while, along with flatland tricks, that brings a little modern flair to the show. We are adding my 1950 ford for this year as I am practicing doing the ‘hi-ski’ trick, driving on two side wheels. Then Jimmy Loughlin drives his 1948 plymouth up the ramps for the ‘Auto Hellfire Death Leap’. The old sedan smashes through the wall of flames and flyies in the air for over 50 feet before it crashes back to earth. We don’t crash or roll over the cars as they are getting so hard to find decent old cars. At our tent setup we built a set of ‘wall of death’ rollers. They were used on the stage to draw excitement. A motorcycle is up on stationary rollers and the rider does tricks on it. I enjoy all of the stunts equally as they all have their own factors of danger. And there is lots of work with timing and lighting of the fire to be able to perform on cue in front of a crowd you are trying to entertain.
4. How has the response been for the Thrill Show? What’s the demographic of the audience?
I brought it up to Larry Garland from the Jalopy Showdown in Pa and we thought we would give it a try. The response was really great! From the old guys that remember the 50’s cars being used, to guys my age that remember the 70’s, and now the kids of those guys are seeing it live and in person for the first time. Being able to see, hear, smell, and feel the experience of a classic thrill show.
5. When did you first get into cars and racing ?
My hot rod and race experience came from my dad. He was a force to be reckoned with way before I came into the picture and together we made a great team. He didn’t push me into cars and let me get an interest on my own. I just gravitated to the older stuff. He raced coupes and roadsters in the 50’s. Blown fuel dragsters in the 60’s. Then took a break to start a family but got back into it when I was 5. I just really enjoyed going to the races and when I became old enough just loved trying different things to go faster. We run vintage flattrack motorcycles, vintage dirt track roadsters and stock cars, nostalgia drag race, and land speed race. Our Bonneville racing started in 1988 and this year will mark 30 years of land speed racing for me, and plan on taking our roadster that we raced that first year for old time sake. My dad passed in 2010 and I am just trying to keep the memory alive. We were best friends and it was tough not having him around so we can bounce questions off of each other.
6. You’ve raced Bonneville. Can you tell us a bit about that experience?
Bonneville land speed racing is like no other type of racing. In other types of racing you just have to beat the first place guy on any given day. I our kind of racing you have to beat the fastest guy, ever. So the weather, track condition (which varies every year do to weather cycles on the flats), wind, all become factors. The record we are chasing could have been set on a beautiful calm day with hard salt and good conditions. Then, we have to deal with conditions like last year of rough wet salt, with mud breaking through, cross winds, and threats of rain. Its always a challenge. Racing the vintage engines and vehicles like we do makes it even tougher. But the racers are great folks. There is no money to win. Just a trophy and your name in the record books, and the respect of hot rodders world wide because of the prestige of bonneville. Our biggest competitor has helped us out and we have done the same. Its all about going fast and we all are pushing the envelope.
7. It would seem you have a fair amount of toys. Any favorites?
I really enjoy the challenge of building and racing. I build a lot of vehicles out of cast off parts and try not to spend much money by doing the work myself. I don’t have any favorites, but the most important one is the one I am focused on right at the particular moment, only because that is where my attention is focused.
8. Given all this adrenaline based activity what do ya do to relax ?
Not much time to relax. I crew chief on the Bruce Larson USA-1 nostalgia funny car and help out on the ‘Pure Hell’ fuel altered when they need me. That’s kind of relaxing. But sometime support crew is more stressful than driving.
9. What your view on the state of Motorsports / motokulture today ?
This is a crazy information age where everything happens so fast and everyone knows whats going on in a split second on social media. All the big associations are trying to get the attention of the audience. I am not sure where its all going. Bonneville racing gets very little coverage, other than trade magazines, and it has stayed pure but gained in popularity. We are staying true to the old time thrill show era, before corporate sponsors, when the skull and crossed bones logos were used and the word Helldriver invoked a sense of thrills and danger.
10. So how can folks get in touch with you or see the Luck Devil Hellriders in action?
We have a website luckydevilhelldrivers.com and also a Facebook page along with Instagram to follow along for upcoming show dates. My shop is Kowalski Customs on Facebook that shows the work being done there.
Thanks, E.J. ! Really appreciate you taking the time to share with us! Check out some pix below and keep an eye for the Luck Devil Hellriders so you can catch it live!!! I know I’m gonna!!!