Silver Dollar Nationals

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

1973 - Jimmy Canton; Hell Driving Is His Game

Cedar Rapids, Iowa (June 10, 1973) – When Jim Kolsto was growing up in Newhall, Iowa, his mother was certain he'd be a priest.
The Kolsto family was quite active in the small Roman Catholic parish there and, as a boy, Jim served daily mass for a period of seven years.
But Kolsto, who now lives at Indianola, had a hidden desire - one that he kept secret from his family. It eventually led him away from guiding people toward heaven and, instead, thrilling them with a new vocation - hell driving.
You see; Kolsto wanted to be a race driver.
“I was working as a welder in Cedar Rapids after I graduated from Newhall High School in 1949,” Kolsto says, “when I got the chance to drive modified stock cars at an area track, I didn't want my folks to find out about it, so I used the name ‘Jimmy Canton’ when I was driving.”
His parents found out the day after his first venture, and they didn't like it.
Even so, Kolsto, still using the Canton name, slipped across the Mississippi River into Illinois and continued to drive cars for a couple of summers after his high school graduation.
But it didn't pay very well. Neither did his welding job. So when a driver with the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevils show, playing that summer at the All-Iowa Fair in Cedar Rapids, talked to Kolsto about joining the show, he didn't have to talk hard, Kolsto (alias Canton) was ready for the fame and fortune - $45 a week plus $5 a show.
“My folks didn't have any idea what I was doing with the thrill show,” he says “They thought I was just along to help set up ramps and work on cars.”
Instead, he started rolling cars end over end and from side to side. He drove cars over ramps head first into parked cars in the “T-bone crash” routine.
And he performed the “slide for life”, a daring venture where he'd drop off a car (going 50 to 60 miles an hour) and then slide through a raging fire burning on the dirt runway.
“I didn't find out till after I'd joined the show that the outfit had openings because one driver had suffered a broken neck and another a broken back the week before,” Kolsto says.
“And, after I'd been with the show only one day, a parachutist with our group got killed in Lexington, Neb., when he made a bad landing (He was one of four men Kolsto has seen killed in show-connected accidents).
“I wondered right then what I was doing with this outfit, but I stuck with it. This is my 23rd season with thrill shows, but it’s going to be my last.” Kolsto may be back next year, though. He's been through his “last season" every year for the last nine or 10 years.
“I love my work,” he says. “It's the only thing I know.”
Kolsto is the only Iowan performing regularly with a major thrill show, although Bill Barnett and his son, Steve, of Cedar Rapids are clowns with Kolsto's group, the Tournament of Thrills. And in the words of the show’s manager, Jim Riser of Tampa, Fla., “there aren't many like Jimmy. He's by far one of the finest in the business.”
Anyone who imagines thrill show drivers as a bunch of extroverted, swaggering, whisky drinking women-chasers had someone other than Jim Kolsto in mind when he settled on that mental description.
The Warren County driver has a quiet disposition, and seldom raises his voice. He's a religious man, and a non-drinker. He carries a cut across the bridge of his nose, but otherwise he gives little visible evidence of doing anything more dangerous than walking across the street.
And the 41-year-old father of three daughters “remembers his family when he's on the road,” Riser said recently. “Jimmy's on the road to make a living.”
Kolsto doesn't make a bad living, either, during the five months he spends on the road with the Tournament of Thrills team.
It adds up to far more than he was paid when he began, but it's not all profit. From his paycheck, Kolsto pays nearly all his personal expenses.
He saves money by eating only two meals a day between – from the time the show opens in May and when it closes in October. Altogether, he makes 124 appearances during the season, nearly all of them at different tracks throughout the United States.
Kolsto has four main driving jobs with the show. He's part of the four-car precision “hell-driving” team, and in its various routines he drives his car at speeds up to 90 miles per hour only inches from the other three cars. He drives a car delicately balanced on two wheels for up to 300 yards. He jumps his motorcycle over four parked cars.
He drives the same 1955 BSA cycle, one of only 400 manufactured, through a flaming wooden barricade. (He's been offered several thousand dollars for the collector's item, but he won't sell. – “It would be like selling a brother.”)
He estimates his motorcycle, which has less than 900 miles on the speedometer (only 50 miles of which were “over the road”), has boosted him over 8,000 cars - four at a time. It's the only one he's ever used, with the exception of an Italian model utilized during a special promotion.
On the fourth jump with that cycle, the front wheel and fork of the bike fell off while he was airborne. He landed face down on the handlebars, drove his teeth through his upper lip, dislocated His shoulder and pulled the muscles throughout his body. “Even my hair hurt for five days after that,” he recalls.
“You're the most vulnerable for injuries on the cycle jump,” he claims.
The second most dangerous aspect of his daily track driving (he claims the worst part of his job is getting from show to show, trying to avoid bad drivers on the highway) is the crash through the wall of fire. The half-inch pine boards that make up the wall (which are doused with gasoline and set afire) splinter on impact. Often times, pieces of those boards poke into Kolsto's body. Toward, the end of last season, one went up his pant leg, ripping a wound in his calf that required 13 stitches.
“I was once knocked unconscious in that stunt,” Kolsto says. “We were in Europe, and the lumber was green and wouldn't break.”
Actually, Kolsto says “it's an easy stunt if all goes well. But you get the hell beat out of you if it doesn't.”
“That's the key to the whole show. If things go as planned, everything is roses. If it doesn't go well, for instance, if a piece of machinery breaks, there can be problems.”
“It's all a calculated risk,” he says. “We have a set way of doing things. We do everything we can in our show that we figure we can get away with every day.”
Sometimes they don't get away with it. Several years ago while he was taping a Wide World of Sports segment, Kolsto was jumping a car 50 feet through the air from one ramp to another. The stunt is normally done at speeds of 45 to 50 miles per hour, depending on the weight of the vehicle, and it's important for the driver to know the exact speed he's traveling.
“They had this new convertible they wanted to use in the Ramp N Jump,” Kolsto says. “I protested because I hadn't had a chance to calibrate the speedometer.”
“But they insisted, so I went on TV with the untested car. I landed short, and piled into the ramp. The car was going four miles per hour slower than the speedometer indicated.”
Kolsto did not hurt any more than his pride in that episode. He was luckier than the man who originated the stunt at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933.
That man was later killed when his engine conked out just prior to takeoff on a ramp jump, Kolsto says.
Though he looks older in the face than his 41 years, Kolsto is still as rugged physically as he was when he participated in athletics at Newhall High School. And, even though he performs so much, his family rarely sees him in action. His brother Jack (now 33 and barnstorming with a thrill show group out of California) and a younger sister saw him at, the Benton County Fair when he played there.
But his late mother never saw him perform in person – and only viewed taped television sequences if Jim was sitting at her side.
His wife, Shirley, and daughters Kelley, 12, Kindra, 11, and Kerri, 10, will see him when he pulls into Iowa this summer, and they never miss him on television. But they've seen him drive personally only in Des Moines and Davenport, and once in Missouri.
By joining a barnstorming team during the off-season, Kolsto could probably work at his chosen profession year-round.
But, instead, he packs his bag and returns to Indianola to spend a few months with his family and work at Chumbley's Conoco, an Indianola service station. ,
“It's tough enough being gone from the family for five or six months each year - let alone being gone all year,” he says.
So, in October, after winding up another season and perhaps filming a commercial for television (he’s done several) in past years - he'll be heading back home a little richer, a little older, and a little more, battered, but still infatuated with a sport the faint-hearted love to watch but don't want to attempt.

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