Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Stuntman Ken Carter’s Not So Grand Finale

The weather was clear and cool on Wednesday, September 26, 1979, the day of the big jump. Reporters, film crews, and spectators were on hand. Ken Carter showed up driving a red Chevrolet, certainly not his jump car, and obligingly drove up the ramp a couple of times so that photographers could get some good shots. He posed, looking out over the St. Lawrence for dramatic effect. A bit later, he walked partway up the ramp and made note of a “slight rise” in the middle that would have to be fixed before his rocket car could be used on it. Several thousand people remained on hand for ten hours, anxious to view what they considered a historic, and certainly wacky, event.

Late in the afternoon, the gate at the apex of the ramp was removed, divers were positioned in the middle of the river passage, and a film crew hovered aloft in a helicopter. Ontario police moved the crowd back to a safe position. To great effect, Carter’s rocket car rolled onto the newly paved runway (resurfaced because it had become overgrown with grass).

But there would be no jump that day. The big yellow Lincoln was fired up briefly, after which it was announced that a seal had failed. Darkness was fast approaching, and there was not time enough for repairs. Another day, another delay. Go time, he said later, was now September 29.

Reports soon surfaced that the real issues were a dispute over film rights, which was in turn related to ticket sales. With such a wide range of locations where observers could view the jump, organizers had yet to find a way of requiring viewers to purchase tickets, which meant thousands of attendees representing box-office gold could watch it all for free. For that reason, Carter’s only income for the stunt would have to come from selling the exclusive film rights. And as happened so often, there were also questions about financial backing for the jump.

The biggest news overall seemed to be the ongoing delays over the course of three years. So much toying with fans’ emotions, repeatedly raising expectations only to provide nothing but disappointment, seemed a dangerous path to follow. But then again, with nicknames like Crazy Ken and the Mad Canadian, perhaps he was delivering what his fans could endure endlessly: pure madness. They stuck with him, anticipating what was to come. After so many smaller shows, dangerous stunts, and wild crashes, surely he would come through in the end.

But on September 28, less than 24 hours before the latest launch date, it happened again. Ontario Provincial Police announced that the Carter people had postponed the jump for ten days, until October 9, due to “malfunctions and the need for repairs.”

Then, after Carter’s four years of planning, ramp building, car construction, contract negotiations, and endless promotion of an event that would establish him as the greatest stuntman ever, the unthinkable and most bizarre thing happened. Five days before the scheduled jump, his rocket car shot up the launch ramp — without Carter!

In a stunning turn of events, Kenny Powers, said to be Carter’s chief assistant and jump teammate for the past decade, climbed behind the wheel of the big yellow Lincoln and attempted the feat. Later, several reasons were cited for the change of plans, but it wasn’t clear which one, or ones, were accurate: Carter wasn’t fit enough due to a lingering arm injury; he had somehow lost his nerve; Powers was better suited to endure the physical stress involved; there was pressure from a film crew to make the effort after years of delay; and it was merely a test jump before Carter himself later made the official attempt.

At the time Powers shot up the steep ramp, Carter was in an Ottawa hotel and said to be unaware of the launch. It had been mentioned to him that a substitute driver might be a good idea, and Carter himself had brought up the name of Powers, a friend he described as “a good stunt man,” but dismissed him as not qualified to drive this particular vehicle. What mattered to many irate fans was that Powers had stolen the thunder of Canada’s most famous daredevil. Carter later said there were no hard feelings against Powers, but he was certainly upset with those who decided to basically usurp his long-dreamed-of jump.

At any rate, on the morning of October 5, the big Lincoln, complete with short wings for stabilization in flight, blasted up the 1,500-foot-long, 85-foot-high ramp and launched towards its target on the US side of the border. But the results were nowhere near the planned outcome. An Ontario police officer provided a near-perfect description of what transpired next. “The body of the car blew apart, it flipped over, the chutes deployed, and it landed on its wheels in three to four feet of water. It was quite a sight.”

No doubt, it sure was. See for yourself.

Had he landed in deeper water, Powers might well have drowned, but as it was, the car plummeted into the choppy surface of the St. Lawrence River at an estimated 75 miles per hour. He was pulled from the vehicle and by some published accounts was in good condition. If “good” means not dead, then that assessment was accurate. From a hospital bed four days later, the driver himself confirmed some serious injuries: body bruises, torn ligaments in the arms and legs, and eight fractured vertebrae.

The reason the jump went off virtually unannounced, said Powers, was safety concerns. “That car is just like a bullet. If it had ever gone off course with a large crowd watching and people were injured, it just would have killed me.” And it nearly did kill him, but Kenny Powers expressed no regrets. “Anybody who says I’ve got rocks in my head has never felt the thrill of doing something nobody in the world has never done before.” But that had been the dream all along of Ken Carter, not Kenny Powers.

Despite the secretive use of an alternate driver, the jump had failed and Carter’s dream lived on. He continued with business as usual, performing stunts in Canada and the US. In summer 1982, after flying a car over a two-story building in Lancaster, New York, east of Buffalo, he announced plans to take on the Niagara Gorge, and to complete the St. Lawrence River jump in September 1983.

In July of that year, he attempted to jump a pond in Peterborough, Ontario, about 20 miles northeast of Toronto, but failed. In early September he made a second attempt, but overshot the landing. His rocket-powered Pontiac Firebird landed on its roof, killing him instantly.

If you’re interested in Carter’s career, the National Film Board of Canada produced a nearly two-hour-long, award-winning documentary, The Devil At Your Heels, detailing the exploits of Carter. There is also a movie short, ten minutes in length, titled The Mad Canadian.

And the man who piloted the big yellow Lincoln from blastoff to a watery landing? After jumping more than 200 times during 11 years with Carter’s team, Kenny Powers, a native of Landrum, South Carolina, continued working as a stuntman. Besides performing at auto races across the US and Canada, he appeared annually at big events in Montreal, New York, Toronto, Los Angeles, and the Houston Astrodome. According to interviews published over the course of three decades, he played to even larger audiences through movies, for his specialty was driving jet-powered or rocket-powered vehicles (like Ken Carter’s Lincoln), a skill that was in frequent demand. A number of reporters cited his stunt work in many films, including Bullitt, Smokey and the Bandit, The Blues Brothers, Hooper, and Papillon. By the time he retired, Kenny had reportedly performed more than 1,000 death-defying stunts during a long career. Unlike his old friend and teammate Ken Carter, he survived to tell the tale, and passed away at a veterans’ hospital in 2009 at the age of 62.

Photos: Ken Carter at Morrisburg, Ontario; the ramp at Morrisburg aimed at Ogden Island in the distance; Carter’s yellow Lincoln Continental speeds down the runway with Powers at the wheel; Kenny Powers, who attempted the St. Lawrence River jump (1986, Steve Latham, Gadsden Times, Alabama).

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Lawrence Gooley, of Clinton County, is an award-winning author who has hiked, bushwhacked, climbed, bicycled, explored, and canoed in the Adirondack Mountains for 45 years. With a lifetime love of research, writing, and history, he has authored 22 books and more than 200 articles on the region's past, and in 2009 organized the North Country Authors in the Plattsburgh area.

His book Oliver’s War: An Adirondack Rebel Battles the Rockefeller Fortune won the Adirondack Literary Award for Best Book of Nonfiction in 2008. Another title, Terror in the Adirondacks: The True Story of Serial Killer Robert F. Garrow, was a regional best-seller for four years running.

With his partner, Jill Jones, Gooley founded Bloated Toe Enterprises in 2004, which has published 83 titles to date. They also offer editing/proofreading services, web design, and a range of PowerPoint presentations based on Gooley's books.

Bloated Toe’s unusual business model was featured in Publishers Weekly in April 2011. The company also operates an online store to support the work of other regional folks. The North Country Store features more than 100 book titles and 60 CDs and DVDs, along with a variety of other area products.

8 Responses

  1. Rick says:

    Excellent writing on the Mad Canadian! I really enjoy your stories.

    Would be interesting to track down the kid who was driving the jalopy pick-up truck.

    • Thanks very much, Rick. I appreciate the input. You’re right … I imagine that kid and lots of other folks in that area would have an interesting take on events that happened back then.

  2. Bill Ott says:

    Mr Gooley, thanks for another great hunk (or tidbit) of history. I think I may have located the old pavement leading to the ramp. The photo of the ramp in your article gave all the needed clues. Is was across from the east end of Ogden Island with a body of water along side it. Go to 44°53’3.87″N, 75°13’4.34″W, and you will see what looks like an old road next to a water body across from the east end of Ogden Island. The old pavement ends at the above coordinates. (No, I did not drive up there last night from Cleveland, I found it on Google Earth.)

    • Thanks Bill, and great job of sleuthing. Yes, you’re right. I did the same while preparing the story … checked out the “launch area” on Google Maps and was even prepping a photo for the story, but decided to go with other images. Those daredevil days were crazy times!

  3. So interesting! I never heard of Ken Carter or this stunt. Such a cool part of recent history.

    • Thanks Michael. Carter always seemed like a decent guy, and that’s reinforced in some of the old videos available online. He did pretty well for himself, despite coming from such a tough background, and sure entertained a lot of North Country folks during appearances on both sides of the border.

  4. Butch Carter says:

    HEY Lawrence
    With your lifetime love of research why don’t you look into some of those attributes your claiming Kenny Powers had.

  5. Spencer says:

    This story was recently told on a podcast called Heavyweight, check it out.


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