The stunt person is a unique career choice. You are routinely putting yourself in harm’s way for the delight of others. It takes a special kind of person to do that, one would say the person had to be mad. Perhaps that is why Ken Carter, arguably Canada’s greatest stuntman, was called The Mad Canadian.
Born in Montreal in 1938, Carter, who was born Kenneth Gordon Polsjek, grew up in a working-class neighbourhood and with little education dropped out of school to follow his dream. That dream was to perform car stunts, which he did before eventually moving on to becoming a solo act and jumping at racetracks across North America.
For his dangerous stunts, he would earn that nickname I mentioned. The Mad Canadian.
For two decades, Carter would try and become a household name and achieve the success that Evel Knievel was enjoying. While Carter was known at the time in Canada, he was nearly unknown in the United States. One of the problems was the Knievel was a master of marketing. While he drove around in a huge Mack truck and had all the dazzle he could for his jumps, Carter transported his equipment around in old trucks and school buses. Carter did what he could, jumping a dozen or more cars one night and then doing the same the following night. As he would say in the excellent NFB documentary Devil At Your Heels:
“I’m looking for the ultimate statement. Ken Carter. World’s Greatest Daredevil. Really, that is what its about.”
Carter would set a record when in 1974, he took his Chevy car 34 metres through the air, above 13 Subarus.
By 1976, Carter had been doing 20 years of car jumps and wanted to do the biggest jump anyone had ever seen. It was his desire to take a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental over the St. Lawrence River, a distance of about one mile.
The process would take several years to complete.
Beginning in about 1974, he would start looking for sponsors to start building his car that was going to make the jump. In 1976, he was able to secure $250,000 to air the stunt on ABC on their show Wide World of Sports. The show would air on Sept. 25 of that year and it was anticipated a live audience of 100,000 people would watch.
To accomplish the jump, construction began on a 1,400-foot takeoff ramp on farmland near Morrisburg, Ontario.
The most famous stuntman in history, Evel Knievel, came to the site as a special correspondent for ABC and stated that there was little chance of success.
After delays in finishing the car and ramp occurred, the broadcast date was missed and ABC withdrew its support.
This did not stop Carter from going ahead with the jump. In 1978, jumps were planned but both were cancelled.
On Sept. 26, 1979, three years after the jump was originally supposed to happen, Carter came within five seconds of launching before a mechanical failure caused the jump to be cancelled. By this point, there was no live audience but the jump was being filmed for release as a film.
With so many delays, the film producers thought that Carter had lost his nerve and they had stunt driver Kenny Powers perform the jump while Carter was in Ottawa. The car flew 506 feet in the air before breaking apart and falling into the the St. Lawrence. Powers would break eight vertebrae, three ribs and fracture his wrist. The jump was 4,774 feet short of its target.
In order to have successfully launched off the jump, Powers would have to reach a speed of 280 miles per hour before hitting the crest of the ramp. At that point, it is estimated he would have hit several Gs of force and the car would have reached an altitude of 300 feet, if it had of succeeded in reaching that speed.
Instead, due to bumps on the ramp, the car reached a speed of only 180 miles per hour.
Needless to say, Carter was none too pleased because of ruse. Powers and Carter had been friends before the jump and continued to be friends after.
Carter stated he would not give up on the jump but the ramp would soon fall into disrepair and the jump would never happen. In total, it is believed the stunt cost $1 million to accomplish, even though it did not succeed.
Carter would continue his jumping lifestyle. In 1982, he jumped a car over a two-story building in Lancaster, New York and he announced that he was going to jump the Niagara Gorge. He would also jump 170 feet from ramp to ramp at the a Canadian Association Stock Car Auto Racing event in Ontario, which got him plenty of press.
Prior to doing the 2,000 foot jump across the Gorge, Carter decided to do a test jump over a pond.
On July 1, 1983, Carter attempted to jump a pond in Peterborough. The jump failed when the ramp collapsed. Carter decided to try the jump again and did so on September. The jump was going to be 200 feet but the racing of the night went late and Carter was forced to make the jump in the dark with few lights available. Carter then had his crew add more fuel to the rocket’s tank on the back of the car as he was afraid he would not be able to clear the ramp. With the extra fuel, the car launched off the ramp with thrust still coming out of the rocket, shooting the car 100 feet into the air before it ended the thrust, causing the car to fall end over end from the sky. The car landed on its roof, killing Carter instantly as the cage in the car was not designed for that type of impact. The car would travel 295 feet instead of the planned 200 feet.
Harry Shermet, the assistant manager of the Westgate Speedway said the following about the incident.
“When I reached him, he was not breathing. He had no visible injuries but clearly it was bad. We needed about 10 to 15 minutes to get him out.”
Information for this piece comes from Wikipedia, Adirondack Almanack, Bangshift, UPI Archives, My Classic Garage, Macleans