Tuesday, June 4, 2013

1968 - Bumps Willert a ‘Big Wheel’ in Thrill Circuit

Tipton, Iowa (June 4, 1968) – Blessed are they who go around in circles, for they shall be known as wheels.
Lauren "Bumps" Willert, for all his skill, can thus be called a "Big Wheel", and when we say he went straight for four years before he really began to enjoy his work it's the not to imply Bumps had a difficult time adjusting to society.
Bumps is a 32-year-old auto show daredevil from Tipton, Iowa and next week will begin his 16th season with the Midwest cast of the Joie Chitwood Thrill show. The show is billed as the "Legion of World's Greatest Daredevils" and after watching Bumps perform last summer at the Minnesota State Fair we'll go along with that tag.
Willert’s bag is driving in a circle - normally on an asphalt racetrack - and on only two wheels. Now we've seen some of this action on some of the corners coming off First Avenue in Cedar Rapids, but it was totally unrehearsed and not for a prolonged length of time.
Bumps is good, in fact, he’s so proficient that he held the world record until this year of 2 and 5/16 miles on two wheels. That’s without stopping or falling.
He's also appeared for the last seven years in the Tournament of Thrills at Las Vegas, the same spectacular featured on Wide World of Sports. Participation is by invitation only so Bumps definitely is considered top-drawer material.
Bumps and his "two-wheeler" (he'll use a Chevy II this year after a Camaro in 1967) have thrilled crowds throughout the country, and the world, for that matter. But it wasn't always by going around in a circle.
“For about four years I didn't think there was any way to turn the car," Bumps said. "I stumbled on to the trick by almost upsetting the car."
Willert first explained there was no secret to keeping a car up on two wheels after he came off a sloped starting ramp.
“Everything has a balancing point,” he said. “It’s all in the front wheel. Then, although the fans can't see me doing it, I'm constantly turning the steering wheel back and forth to maintain the balance. My speed is 22 to 25 miles per hour.
“One day I turned too hard to the right and the car started to fall. I quickly turned the wheel hard to the right and then slowly back to the left and that's when I learned I could turn left in a circle."
Is it hard on tires? You bet it is.
According to Bumps, he uses regular car tires and a set's (two) life expectancy is only 1-1/2 miles.
“When you get past 1-1/2 miles you're on borrowed time," laughed the 6-1, 220- pound daredevil. "I've had tires blow four different times but I always came down right side up. If you're turning left, though, you're gone and the car will get messed up pretty good."
Bumps doesn't feel his job requires a lot of intestinal fortitude, "just an ability to think. I have a lot of respect for the car and I get butterflies before each performance, but I'm not afraid."
He also does precision driving for the crowd-pleasing crash scenes. Those are rare, however, and only done to keep in practice in case he's needed. In either role, Bumps has never suffered even a scratch. And don't forget that includes 16 years in the business.
Bumps says Tipton is regarded as the "thrill show capital of the world."
What other city can match the claim of 37 performers in a thrill show at one time or another? All have been connected with the Chitwood organization and Bumps admits he had some influence on all of them. Two of them, John Bails and Wayne Drumbarger, are still with the show.
One of Bumps’ fondest memories involves the late Abe Saperstein, the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters. Abe started a Trans-World thrill show to tour Europe behind the Trotters in 1955.
Bumps was signed to go, even though he was only 19 at the time. This created a problem.
You can't go abroad as a minor unless you're with a parent or guardian. Okay, you guessed it. Saperstein took out legal guardianship papers on Bumps.
“I was thrilled,” said Willert. “We were going to make some pretty good money. Then Abe told me, 'you know as your guardian all I have to provide is room and board, don't you? You’ll be working for nothing.
“He was only kidding, but it scared me for a moment. It was a wonderful trip and the first time we performed there were 92,000 watching us in a London stadium. Abe was a tremendous promoter.”

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