Welcome to the Motordrome
One of the last Wall of Death barrels comes to town
Regimbal is the owner, operator, and daredevil rider of one of the last remaining Walls of Death, or motordromes, in the world. It's the classic sideshow attraction, part of a tradition going back over 100 years: Motorbike speeds up; motorbike goes in circle; motorbike rises up the inside of the 24-foot-diameter wooden barrel; audience watches biker seemingly defy gravity. But they call it the Wall of Death for a reason. The bike starts sticking to the wall at 26 mph, but when the rider hits full speed of 55 mph, they can be pulling three g's. "If you go up at 24, 25 miles per hour, and you don't know what you're doing, you're going to come down hard," said Regimbal.
Regimbal estimates there are 70 to 80 steel-cage attractions – globes of death – in North America, but only four true wooden Walls of Death like his and just seven in the world. Even among this small community, Regimbal's wall is unique. Constructed in 1980 (the previous owner lost his first one during a tour of Venezuela after the carnival he was traveling with was ordered to leave the country and he had to leave it behind), the barrel is made of maple and oak, like most walls, and the cables that hold it together are steel. But the "mud fills" that make up the supporting structure and stands are aluminum, making the structure lighter and stronger than many others. When broken down, it fits on one truck. He drives it from town to town like a huge jigsaw puzzle and can reassemble it with a local crew in mere hours, complete with stands, ramps, and ticket tent. "Once we've built this thing, it looks like a giant house. People can't believe it comes off one little trailer," said Regimbal.
But how did a man from a small town in Quebec become a death-defying stunt cyclist? In 1984, ride operator Steve Camber brought his attraction to town. He was looking for a rider, and a friend of Regimbal's wanted to audition. "He never showed up," Regimbal said. "I was talking to the owner. He said, 'Do you want to do it?' And I said no. My friend didn't show up on the second day, and he asked again." This time, Regimbal said yes. "I was up on the wall in three days, doing crisscross races in five," he said.
That was 23 years ago, and since then, Regimbal has seen the end of the traveling carnival and the rise of the bike show as a home for his barrel. The world of Wall of Death riders is a small community, one still reeling from the death last month of Samantha Morgan, the "Motordrome Queen," in her home. Regimbal called her "one of the greatest female bikers ever," one who harked back to the time during World War II when most of the wall riders were women. "They kept it going while the men were at war," he said.
But the wall is not the only tradition Regimbal is keeping going. Walls of death would frequently travel with carnivals, so stunt riders would often find themselves traveling with freak shows. Times have been hard, and Regimbal had to work to keep the show going as the carnivals disappeared. Now he travels to big biker events, but he hasn't forgotten where the act began. These days, Regimbal rides alongside Loren "Freakshow" Foley, who joined the act in 2005 after touring with the king of freaks, Ward Hall, and his World of Wonders circus sideshow. Between spins in the barrel on a go-cart, Foley swallows swords, lifts bowling balls with chains from his ears and tongue, and performs the classic blockhead routine. (If you've never seen it, three words: Nose. Nail. Hammer.) But the heart of the show will always be one of the last classic motorized carnival attractions in America. "The Wall of Death was the first stunt show to appear," Regimbal said. "We're trying to keep a tradition alive."
Rene Regimbal and Loren "Freakshow" Foley will be riding the World Famous Wall of Death Thursday through Saturday, June 12-14, during the day at the ROT Rally site.