An “Eve of Destruction” stunt show in Orange County

The original plan yesterday was for me to photograph a car stunt show at the Albany-Saratoga Speedway.  Well, last week the show was canceled.  So I essentially had a night off.

The next day, I received an e-mail from Terry Gappa, a driver for the Thrillmasters stunt car team, asking if I was interested in coming to Middletown and photographing their stunt show.

You know what?  I need a Saturday night where I can enjoy a little car carnage and diesel demolition.

Let’s Go, Cardachrome – next stop, the Orange County Fairgrounds.

I got there in plenty of time, and was able to sign in.

“Hold on,” said the gate guard.  “Where’s your reflective vest?”

My what?

“All the track photographers down here need to wear a reflective vest.  Here,” he said.  “Put this one on.  You can buy these at the hardware store, so next time you come here, you can get one of your own.”

Okay, okay…

I walked around the track, looking for Gappa and his team.  It didn’t take long to find them.  They were setting up the third car in the “Steel Wall” stunt.

Setting up the Steel Wall
Setting up the Steel Wall. Nikon D700 camera, Vivitar 19mm f/3.8 lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

The “Steel Wall” stunt involves a car driving through these three upright vehicles, almost like a bowling ball knocking down the Cadillac Ranch. “The track gets these cars from the local junk yard,” said Crash Moreau, the head of the Thrillmasters stunt team.

I took stock of the various stunts. Crash would be driving through the Steel Wall. Terry Gappa would drive a school bus off a ramp in a stunt called the “Dive Bomber.” Another driver would blast his car through a burning shack. Two more drivers would slam their cars through the broad side of a mobile home. And a final driver would blast a car through a stack of burning oil barrels.

Ladies and gentlemen… meet the Thrillmasters.

Meet the Thrillmasters
The Thrillmasters. Left to right: stunt driver Crash Moreau, stunt driver Justin "Wrongway" Bellinger, announcer Rob Kramer, stunt driver Corey "Wild Child" Shays, and stunt driver Terry Gappa. Nikon D700 camera, Vivitar 19mm f/3.8 lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.


The Thrillmasters
The Thrillmasters. Nikon D700 camera, Vivitar 19mm f/3.8 lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Okay, glad you heard me.

I scouted out all the locations for all the stunts, as this was my first time at the Orange County Fairgrounds and I had to consider everything from safety to excitement. I also scouted out the appropriate lenses that could be used for each stunt. Since my car was parked in the infield, I could run back there and get the proper lens for each stunt, since the stunts were scheduled to run between things like school bus races and “enduro” races (where the cars just keep making laps until a time limit is reached).

“We’re going to be fine,” one of the Thrillmasters told me. “There’s a storm coming up, but we should be able to get all our stunts done before it hits. If it does hit, we can still do our stunts, but it might be difficult with these dirt ramps on the track.”

“Yeah,” I remarked. “They’ll turn into mud ramps in nothing flat.”

The first stunt involved the burning tar paper shack. I used my Nikon D700 camera and my vintage 50-300 f/4.5 “Rachel” lens. The lens is so big, it has its own tripod mount.

Driving through a burning house
Driving through a burning shack. Nikon D700 camera, Nikkor f/4.5 50-300 lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

BLAM. Good choice of lenses, Chuck. I’m far enough away from danger, yet the car looks close enough that I can make out that was once a Chrysler.

Next up was the school bus race. Crashing, bump-drafting, horns honking and flashing red “do not pass” headlights. Ah, it’s just like the ride to Veeder Elementary back in the day.

Okay, next up was Gappa’s jump over the dirt ramp in the “Dive Bomber” stunt. I switched my lens to the Kiev fisheye glass, so as to capture the jump from ramp to crash.

Yes, school buses can fly!
The school bus jump. Nikon D700 camera, Kiev MIR-20H fisheye lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

The minute he hit that ramp, the pyrotechnics went off. He hit the pile of wrecked cars in exactly the right spot. Safe, yet effective.

Two stunts down, three to go.

Next came the “enduro” race. Although I didn’t get a picture of what happened, I gotta tell you this story. One of the cars in the enduro race got turned around, and hit the outside wall. After waiting for the cars to drive around him, he finally drove away from the wall and turned his car toward the right direction – only to have his right rear wheel snap off and bounce toward the infield. Not just the tire – the entire wheel assembly, shock and all. Dude continued to drive around the track on three wheels and actually finished the race.

As the race ended, I saw Crash Moreau get in his car for his stunt. Without enough time to switch lenses, I shot this with the Kiev Fisheye.

Smashing through the Steel Wall
Smashing through the Steel Wall. Nikon D700 camera, Kiev MIR-20H fisheye lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Crash pulverized the Steel Wall. Of course he did. Crash was driving a Mercury Grand Marquis luxury car and completely clobbered three imports.

Next thing up was a “trailer race” – the kind where drivers are hauling boat trailers, camper trailers, etc.  And get this – there was a pile-up on the first lap of the race.

Wreck on Lap 1. Nikon D700 camera, Kiev MIR-20H lens. Photo by Chuck Miller.

Everything’s going great.  I’m having a great time, the pictures are turning out fantastic, I’m getting exactly the images I wanted –


Then another.

A few raindrops aren’t going to faze me.

Oh wait.  This isn’t a few raindrops.

This is a few BILLION raindrops.  It’s the rainstorm everyone was worried about.  And it just parked its cumulo-nimbus tuchus right on the Fairgrounds and just gushed and gushed and gushed.  The dirt track turned into a mud track.  The oversaturated infield grounds looked like a bog.

Meanwhile, yours truly – and the Nikon D700 around my neck – raced to find shelter.  The best I could find was one of the school buses that previously participated in the school bus race.

From the distance, however, I couldn’t get the last two stunts photographed as well as I would have liked.  The burning barrel stunt – well, I tried to shoot it from the relative dryness of the school bus, but I couldn’t get a decent shot with the downpour around me.  Damn it.

I tried to get to a closer and dryer location, but there was none to be had.  My camera was getting soaked, and the clothes I was wearing – T-shirt, jeans, sneakers – were taking on water like a fabric version of the Andrea Doria.

And it was just as well; the final stunt, in which two of the drivers drove through a mobile home – was reduced to a single driver plowing through the mobile home; the other car cracked an axle and couldn’t complete the stunt.

In the distance, you can see the "Trailer Trash" mobile home stunt. Nikon D700 camera, Kiev-Mir 20H lens. Photo and eventual pneumonia by Chuck Miller.

Didn’t matter. The crowd at the Orange County Fairgrounds loved every stunt and they had a fantastic time, watching the event from the safety of their roof-covered bleachers.

As the show ended, I thanked the Thrillmasters and let them know that if they were at a future event at or near the Capital Region, to give me a shout. I also returned the reflective vest to one of the trackworkers.

Then it was a soggy, drippy ride home.  My clothes were soaked and drenched, and I was praying that my Nikon D700 – and the camera chip inside – had survived the deluge.

As you can see from the photos accompanying this blog post, the chip survived intact.  And I’m probably going to give the Nikon D700 a couple of days off, just to make sure everything’s up to speed when I use it again.

And today, I think I’m going to take it easy.  Maybe I’ll even watch this new NFL Network thing that just showed up on my Time Warner Cable box yesterday…