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Out of the Past: Lucky Teeter’s Hell Drivers at the Erie County Fair in 1938

HAMBURG — With the Erie County Fair well into its second week, it seemed like a good time to feature a popular act from the fair’s past. None were more popular than the Lucky Teeter. Starting in the mid 1930s, the Lucky Teeter Auto Thrill shows, along with others, were among the most popular featured performers at the annual summertime extravaganza.

Earle Lucky Teeter was a former gas station attendant and weekend test driver from Noblesville, Ind., who decided to try his hand at the thrill driving trade, during the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1934 that he assembled a small group of individuals and put his “Hell Drivers” on the road.

It was the first time that this type of show was conceived as a traveling attraction, and Teeter is considered to be was the first of the world’s champion auto daredevils. He also was the first to use the phrase “hell drivers” in an auto thrill show.

He hurtled over several cars at the 1938 Erie County Fair, where he was the featured performer for the internationally-renowned show. Teeter himself staged all of the featured stunts that gave him the title of world champion.

During the 1938 fair, he added two new acts: the car jump and the blazing barrier crash. Both were performed for the first time, at that year’s fair.

In 1939, he made his one appearance in the Indianapolis 500 automobile race.

Buddy Toomey, the nation’s leading motorcycle stunt man, and Dale O’Brien, a young Irish strongman, were also featured with Teeter in the Hell Drivers show at the 1938 fair. Toomey performed a blindfolded cycle jump, while O’Brien had a 3-ton truck driven over his chest, during the event.

Teeter’s automobile shows, which were usually done before sold-out crowds, became known for their precision and deliberate crashes. As a result, for many years, the Hell Drivers were used to demonstrate the dependability of a manufacturer’s automobile product. More sponsors through the years included Chevrolet, Dodge, Chrysler, Ford, AMC, Nash and Toyota.

On July 5, 1942, just before he was to enter the army for service in World War II, Teeter was killed in an accident at the Indiana State Fair in Indianapolis.

The Hell Driver tradition was continued at the 1944 Erie County Fair by Joey Chitwood Sr. The Oklahoma Indian went on to blaze his own reputation in the automobile daredevil field. Because of the war, a special synthetic fuel was used in the cars and specially-constructed cleated rims were used, in place of the tires.

Following the war, Chitwood, Jack Kochman and Irish Horan shared the spotlight at the fair. Horan had appeared with Teeter at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1931. It was from that experience that Horan brought a new act to Hamburg, at the 1954 fair. During the act, Bill Horton, one of the show’s drivers, catapulted a stock car Roadster through space, after being blasted from the mouth of a cannon. Kochman also brought his daredevil show to the fair, that summer.

Chitwood was the best known of the three. He was credited by Evel Knievel as being that individual’s inspiration to become a daredevil.

He also served as stunt coordinator for the 1973 James Bond Movie “Live and Let Die” and also appeared in a minor role with Clark Gable and Barbara Stanwyck in the 1950 car racing film “To Please A Lady.” He passed away at 75 in 1988 in Tampa Bay, Fla.

This column is written by Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker.

Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call Baker at the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday, between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., at 649-6111 ext. 2400. Readers can also provide feedback by writing to The Sun and mailing correspondences to The Sun at 141 Buffalo St., Hamburg, NY 14075.

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