Morrisburg, Ontario, 1979. Ken Carter, the man they called the Mad Canadian, sits in a rocket-propelled Lincoln Continental at the foot of a enormous ramp. About half a kilometre of tarmac leads to the base of the structure, which rises high above the St. Lawrence River. His car is fuelled. He’s ready to go.
Night is falling, but in the gathering dark, there’s still one chance to grasp the dream. When he lights off the Lincoln’s engines, the car will accelerate to approximately 500 km/h (310 mph) in around six seconds, clearing the end of the ramp and taking to the sky.
From there it’ll need to clear a full mile of waterway, parachuting to a crash-landing on an island on the US side of the river. The cameras are rolling, and a small crowd is gathered. It will be the greatest daredevil stunt ever achieved.
Of course, you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of it. Simple: what might have been the most incredible automotive jump ever made never happened. Just as the countdown runs out, there’s a cry over the radio, “Abort!”
A pressure regulator valve has burst in the cockpit. Carter’s Lincoln is packed with the highly volatile fuel for the rocket engine, and there’s a panicky moment as silver-suited firefighters rush in.
As it happens, there’s no fire, just a busted part. However, the broken regulator would have drained off fuel, meaning Carter’s run would have petered out, too slow to achieve the correct velocity at the end of the ramp. He would have gone into the water, and probably would have died.
But almost everything about this insane stunt should end with the sentence “probably would have died.” This million-dollar project has dragged on for five years, cursed by delays and explosions and strikes and sheer unadulterated bumbling. It’s like an episode of Trailer Park Boys meets a low-budget production of The Right Stuff. There are broken bones, a landing pad made of roses, ABC’s Wide World of Sports, and Evel Knievel even shows up.
It all ends in betrayal, injury, anger, and finally death. It should have been a spectacle, but it ended up being one of the most spectacular failures of all time.
The Mad Canadian
At the beginning of the National Film Board documentary The Devil At Your Heels, stuntman Ken Carter (real name Kenneth Gordon Polsjek) shows how he earns his daily bread. He and his team are preparing a car for a record-setting jump over a line of clunkers.
They pry off the trim with hammers and their bare hands and remove the windshield from a 1962 Chevrolet hardtop coupe, then apply duct tape to rusting parts that might fly off and impale the driver. If that doesn’t sound entirely safe, then just read on.
This ain’t rocket science. The car is absolute garbage, a half-rotted heap that’s two bolts away from immobility. Carter grabs hold of the door and wobbles it back and forth—the whole car twists like a century-old barn. This old Chevrolet would be a deathtrap just driving down the street, but Carter intends to fire it down a ramp at 100 km/h (62 mph).
Jump night. The assembled crowd waits in anticipation as the white Chevy bursts to life. The car roars up to the ramp truck, takes to the air, then hurtles back to earth, smashing into the fifteen and sixteenth cars in line with an almighty thump. Carter screams in pain and his crew rushes over.
“Go on and tell the people,” he says, as the ambulance is called for. “Tell them not to go away.”
It’s a sprained or broken ankle, caught against the transmission tunnel as the cars smashed together. “There goes that ankle again,” Carter says. They lie him flat on his back, and hand him a microphone. In the film, you can see his hand shaking with adrenaline, but his voice is surprisingly steady.
“Believe me,” he tells the audience, “We’ll be back here tomorrow night at eight o’clock sharp, we’ll be back here tomorrow night, thank you very much!”
“This looks like a dangerous jump to me—you’ve got no elevation, you’ve got no room for error”
The stuntman’s life is a hard one. Carter tours North America, jumping cars three times a week and travelling as much as 80,000 kms in a year. He’s in his late thirties, and old injuries are starting to resurface.
But Carter is tough and determined, and apparently has a workaholic guardian angel. Born in a Montreal slum, he grew up poor and left school at the age of fourteen. Despite having only a fourth-grade education, he’s managed to not just make a living, but become one of the most-recognized names in the stunt-driving world.
Like the now better-remembered daredevil Evel Knievel, Ken started out riding motorcycles. When he broke his leg, the Congress of Canadian Daredevils team abandoned him, moving on and taking the bike with them. Even in the golden age of the travelling daredevil, it’s survival of the fittest.
Carter learned to jump cars, and managed to strike out on his own. As the 1970s draw to a close, he’s mentoring other young drivers, and preparing to out-do Evel Knievel, ensuring that the name of Ken Carter will go down in the record books as the greatest daredevil of all time.
Tools of the Trade
In order to get the money together to pull off the greatest stunt ever conceived, Ken Carter needs backers. He buys a jet-propelled Dodge Challenger that he uses to show off the concept, building up positive press and making headlines wherever he goes. It’s a bit of rocket fuel sleight-of-hand: the jet-powered Challenger won’t be fast enough.
Eventually, Carter manages to make the connections necessary to get coverage on ABC’s Wild World Of Sports, who agree to provide the $250,000 needed to build the enormous ramp and a fast enough car. Construction begins in a field, and at the same time, the car begins to take shape.
There are, however, some early indications that things aren’t all that well planned out. Showing the documentary crew around the proposed landing site, Carter announces his intent to plant roses, as they’ll provide a softer landing pad for the car. He uses phrases like “approximately exactly,” and when the close proximity of a forested area is brought up, agrees that trees could be dangerous, but doesn’t have a specific plan to deal with them.
Then there are the issues with the ramp construction, which is turning into a muddy mess. Heavy rains cause delay after delay, and the equipment sinks into the quagmire.
Meanwhile, Carter is getting himself ready to jump. He goes up as a passenger in a stunt plane to get an idea of the g-forces, which makes him throw up. Further, while he’s jumped cars hundreds of times, he’s never gone this fast—in fact, he’s never driven faster than 145 km/h (90 mph).
To see what that’s like, he shows up at a drag strip to try out a jet-powered funny car. He doesn’t bring a safety suit, and so has to squeeze his 200-lb bulk into a borrowed suit made for the car’s 160-lb driver. Unfortunately, he then doesn’t have enough flexibility to fit in the car.
After removing the protective racing suit, Carter gets in the jet-powered funny car and goes down the drag strip, hitting 410 km/h (250 mph) in six seconds. While wearing a T-shirt.
ABC is concerned about the delays, so they send Evel Knievel over to take a look. Knievel is fresh off his daring Snake Canyon rocket-sled jump, which failed. He’s not exactly impressed.
“This looks like a dangerous jump to me,” Knievel tells Carter. “You’ve got no elevation, you’ve got no room for error.”
Later, Knievel tells cameras that he personally would not attempt a jump this dangerous. This is from a man who jumps motorcycles over tanks filled with sharks.
Based partly on Knievel’s report, the TV execs pull the plug on the jump, unwilling to film a live broadcast of a man hurtling to his death. But Carter isn’t about to give up.
Tools of the Trade Part II
A year later, crews are once again working on the ramp. Carter has a new business manager and new backers, an all-Canadian effort this time. However, the rains are again making things tricky.
The crew chief stays positive, giving optimistic interview after optimistic interview. However, when the steel rails for the ramp are being lowered into place, one of the footings is the wrong height. He refuses to give any further interviews.
Meanwhile, the builders of the jump car are having a few issues with the fuel tank. It keeps exploding under pressure. The first time, it blows the entire front off the car.
These are no amateurs—Dick Keller and his crew built the world-land-speed-record-holding Blue Flame rocket dragster. Yet Carter’s Lincoln continues to confound them; it’s as if it’s cursed. After a second explosion using a much-heavier-grade tank, they vow to do the work themselves. They’ve built 1,200 to 1,400 of these cars without ever running into an issue.
“There’s only one way to get the job done right, and that’s to do it yourself,” says one of the builders.
The tank blows up again. Everybody goes home.
Tools of the Trade Part III: Okay, Seriously Now
Slammin’ Sammy Miller, world-record-holder for quarter-mile racing in rocket cars, takes to the controls of Ken Carter’s finally finished drag racer. Carter is arguing things out with his financial backers, locked in a motel room. Miller is a consummate professional, which is why he doesn’t die when the Lincoln starts to take off.
The builders have fitted the car with two stubby ailerons, giving Ken some kind of steering ability once the car is in the air. On the dragstrip, they generate lift, and Miller deploys parachutes as the car spins into the barrier. It’s not heavily damaged, but more testing is needed.
Money is tight. New backers are found from Hollywood, ones prepared to make a movie about the jump. That means some background story is needed as a setup, so they put Carter into a classic 1970s sports montage, showing him running along the banks of the Rideau Canal, and then kayaking through its waters. He’s never been in a kayak before.
“I can’t swim a lick!” Carter says.
Helping him train is friend Kenny Powers, the perhaps unwitting Judas of this story. Powers is a far less experienced stuntman than Carter, but the two are good friends. The weather is clearing. The ramp is ready to go. Finally, all the pieces are in place.
On the day of the jump, just as the parachutes are packed and the car is ready, the crew suddenly demands an additional $27,000 in cash. That’s a great deal of money to suddenly produce, especially in rural Canada in the 1970s, and it throws a long delay into the proceedings.
Evening falls, the pressure valve fails, and the jump is scrubbed until the next day. However, the sudden strike has burned through much of the cash. Carter’s safety team is down to two guys in a rubber dinghy and a young kid with a fire extinguisher and a tow truck.
There are other minor concerns as well. A herd of cows keeps wandering into the landing site. The channel is an active shipping lane, and huge freighters pass regularly, tall enough for the rocket car to crash into. Yesterday, they’d been stopped. Today, they sail past every few minutes.
Unsurprisingly, Carter doesn’t seem in a hurry to jump. Whether it’s last-minute nerves, or worries that the safety guidelines have been pared too far back, he dithers around with safety checks until it rains. The jump is deferred until the next day.
But while Carter is in meetings with the financial backers, the money behind the jump has other plans. With Carter distracted, they turn the jump over to Kenny Powers as a stand-in.
He’s raring to go, but there are a number of issues: he’s never driven a rocket car before, he’s never driven faster than 160 km/h (100 mph), and he’s shorter than Carter—to whom the car has been custom-fitted. Doesn’t matter, let’s light this candle.
The rocket car performs as it was built to, screeching down the runway towards the ramp. But something is wrong. The ramp is insanely bumpy at these speeds, and Powers is being rattled around the cockpit. He’s not going fast enough, and the vibrations are still violent enough that the fibreglass body of the car is being shredded. He leaves the top of the ramp going about 290 km/h (180 mph), the chutes deploy instantly, and the car seems to disintegrate in mid-air.
Powers survives the impact, suffering eight broken vertebrae, three broken ribs, and a fractured wrist. To their credit, the backers at least paid his hospital bills. Carter is furious in the aftermath of the disastrous attempt, but vowed to rebuild and try again.
Aftermath, and an Ending
It’s early September in 1983, and Ken Carter is once again sitting in a rocket-car, facing a ramp. This time, the car is a Pontiac Firebird, and he’s at Westgate Speedway near Peterborough, trying to clear a pond. This jump is more modest, a mere sixty metres. Carter plans on using it to build publicity for retrying his super jump.
He’s been touring again, working on his reputation, and trying to rebuild from near bankruptcy. He’s had some success, landing a slightly shorter jump in the Firebird about a year ago. This is his second try at clearing the pond, having the first time gone into the water when the ramp collapsed.
For reasons unknown, Carter has managed to convince his team to add more fuel than necessary to the pressure tank. As evening falls, he hits the rocket, and the car soars into the air. But something is wrong—the thruster continues to fire after he hits the ramp, sending the car far higher than intended, tumbling it end-over-end.
It impacts on its roof, killing Carter instantly. There will be no more jumps. Eventually, he will be buried in an unmarked grave in Montreal.
For an instant, as the Firebird took to the air, Ken Carter, the Mad Canadian, must have felt happy in his heart. He dared greatly, and could not help but fall to Earth again. Courage doesn’t outlast physics, and determination doesn’t always count when the odds are against you. And yet, however briefly, he dreamed and flew.