Daredevil: Manchester rider dreams of wowing them
By ALISON GRILLO
MANCHESTER -- The motorcycle is lean and quiet, like its rider.
It hums along Housen Street on its back wheel, much to the delight of a guest and two neighbors watching from a front lawn.
“I can stand on its seat if you’d like,“ says Curtis McKinney, bringing the bike to rest on the sidewalk. The offer comes in a gracious, even-toned manner, as if he were offering his guest a cup of tea.
“Stand on the seat?”
And the young man is off again, popping another wheelie, this time balancing himself shakily in a semi-erect position.
Also watching the small show is a woman who could be McKinney’s mother, except what mom would stand by and watch such a display? It is actually his friend, 48-year old Helen Wick. of Pine Lake Park. She is helping him get started as a daredevil, a job that entails crashing through burning walls, vaulting over trucks, the usual Evel Knievel stuff.
But all of that is just a means to an end for the 20-year-old McKinney. He wants to someday be a Hollywood stuntman.
“I’m doing it (the daredevil feats) for the exposure,” said McKinney. “If I can build up a name for myself, maybe I can get an agent.”
“I can’t figure out any other way to be a stuntman.”
A rider for much of his young life, McKinney prides himself on being able to figure things out. When he talks about devising a stunt, estimating the proper speed of his bike and other technical subjects, he is no more unusual than a high school science student discussing his science fair project. All preconceptions of what kind of whacko would want to do such a thing dissolves after a few minutes with the clean-cut, soft-spoken young man.
Eventually a showman’s side surfaces.
“I like to see people’s faces when I do a wheelie down the street. People say ‘wow.' I kind of like putting on a show.”
He put one on last month for about 4,000 fans at Wall Stadium. On Sept. 17, he crashed through a burning wood wall and did a wheelie around most of the track. It was the finest of about five performances he has done since putting his daredevil career in high gear a year ago.
“The fans responded with good, hearty applause,” said Tucker Nicol, owner of Wall Stadium.
"He’s very capable. I think he’s going to go somewhere. He just needs a lot of persistence."
Some connections would help, too.
McKinney, who works as a laborer to pay for his considerable expenses, is basically a lone rider. Ever since he was a boy on a bicycle, he has designed his own stunts, his own ways to make his friends’ faces light up. From his father, an auto mechanic who lives in Ohio (McKinney’s parents are divorced) he inherited a mechanical knack, but certainly no foothold in the amorphous world of daredevil entertaining. Even now, though his friends are supportive, they can only help him, not direct him. He is closely associated with no one who does what he wants to do.
His information on Hollywood comes third hand from a distant relative whom he has never met or talked to directly. Traveling over 3,000 miles, the message from successful stunt driver Tom Anthony is clear: doing stunts for a living is a tough racket, and many experienced men have trouble fiding work.
McKinney’s No. 1 fan, Mrs. Wick, admits she is not familiar with the field he’s entered. She aids him by making phone calls to promoters, trying to contact a stuntman’s association, giving him advice on showmanship (she said she’s a frustrated actress) and just lending an ear.
“I can’t get into his head,” she said. “I don’t know why he wants to put his life on the line. But he’s such a dear person that I’ll do everything I can to help him.” Everything except watch him perform the dangerous stunts he has devised.
The two thought they had a return gig at Wall Stadium on Oct. 16, but it was cancelled because McKinney is uninsured, according to Nicol.
“When Curtis performed for the first time, he did it for the exposure, which was very intelligent of him,” said Nicol. “This time, he wanted to be paid. Once you pay an entertainer like this, you’re putting it into a whole different story as far as insurance goes.”
So Mrs. Wick’s latest task is to find a company that will take McKinney. There apparently is a firm out in Kansas that will take the risk, she said. If not them, then Lloyds of London will receive a call from her.
“He’s going to have to go to the insurance company and say, ‘I’m going to do something that could kill me, and I’m going to do it regularly to earn my living,’” said Nicol. "His premiums are going to be monstrous.”
Nicol points to another stumbling block: “people are very difficult to impress these days.”
With the prevalence of car crashes on shows such as the “Dukes of Hazard,” and with the memory of Evel Knievel’s attempted jump over no less than the Grand Canyon still in folks’ minds, McKinney will have to come up with something spectacular to make a name for himself, Nicol said.
Kicking idly at the backyard ruins of the wall he crashed through, McKinney reflects on the task ahead and realizes it’s a long and tough road to Hollywood. For the moment, he’s deferred a move to California, “where it’s all being done,” and instead will try to build a reputation at auto tracks in the East.
“I couldn’t just go out there now. It would cost a lot of money. And I wouldn’t have a job when I got out there. That would be stupid. It wouldn’t be good planning.”
Banking on that same appreciation for planning, McKinney hopes to continue to make smooth landings on his bike, and keep his dream from becoming a folly.
Ocean County Observer, Toms River, NJ, 10/31/83