Where the Wall of Death Is a Way of Life
A little girl in a pink skirt clenched a fistful of carnival tickets and peered into the Wild Wheels Thrill Arena. “Do you know what this ride does?” she asked the pony-tailed man standing just inside the tent. Sensing an opportunity to educate, Danny Weil knelt down and explained that the three vintage motorcycles in the handmade arena were part of a daredevil act that was just about to get started.
But it was a Saturday afternoon at the Washington County Fair — probably the biggest event of the year in the upstate New York town of Greenwich. There were plenty of other options that required less of a wait, like the mechanical bull or the two giant Ferris wheels. So without a word, the child bounded back down the stairs toward the sugar-scented midway.
It would be another hour before Mr. Weil was ready to belt out his spiel to a crowd of spectators in wraparound shades and cowboy-cut jeans. He quickly ran through the history of the attraction: He was standing, he explained, in front of what was known to all in the carnival world as a Wall of Death. Inside, motorcycles race around a tight pit at impossible angles, defying gravity and courting disaster. “Imagine you’re sitting at home and watching ‘Gilligan’s Island,’” he said, “and three maniacs burst in and start riding motorcycles on your living room walls!” Four tickets got you in the tent.
Dan Weil waves in the audience for the Wall of Death show at the Washington County Fair in Greenwich, N.Y.
The Wall of Death originated as a sideshow in either San Francisco or Coney Island around 1915. In the years leading up to World War II, there were more than 100 such shows traveling the country, though now, Mr. Weil claimed, there were only three left — and this was one of them.
“I don’t care how smart you think those phones are,” he barked, seemingly at the young people milling outside the red and yellow tent. “I guarantee they can’t show you this — a lost piece of the magic of America.”
Mr. Weil made for a magnetic presence as he paced on top of a truck bed turned stage. A wiry 61-year-old with tattoos, retro shades and scraggly sideburns, he looked like the actor Matthew McConaughey playing a carny in a prestige drama.
Usually he rides a motorcycle in the arena, but he had taken to working the crowds while recovering from an injury; a couple of months ago he slipped a disk while carrying the panels that make up the walls of the arena. He was only recently able to tie his own shoes and didn’t want to risk getting hurt again.
Instead, the few dozen people who shuffled inside the tent cheered for Bobby Frankenstein, a 25-year-old newcomer from Buffalo, who rode a motorcycle around a wooden silo about 26 feet in diameter. Centripetal force kept him pinned to the wall. The crowd cheered appreciatively, many of them watching through the screens of their smartphones.
Then into the bowl went Johnny Dare, a bald and muscular Englishman, also in his 60s. He rode a Harley-Davidson dirt bike and continually jerked the wheel of his bike to make it seem as if he was about to careen into the audience. By the time the two men were chasing each other inside the motordrome for the finale — what’s known as the cannonball pursuit — the audience seemed divided. While the adults were plainly enthralled, a little boy in a ball cap was plugging his ears. A girl with a long braid fell to the ground and hugged her mother’s ankles.
Although Mr. Weil bills his attraction as family-friendly, he acknowledges it can be frightening, too. That’s part of its appeal. “You can go to a NASCAR race and possibly see a human being die,” he would later explain. “And that’s why it’s the most popular spectator sport in the country.”
But there’s apparently a big difference between wanting to watch someone do something dangerous and wanting to participate in it. As the crowd left the arena, a half-dozen people stopped to take photos with Mr. Frankenstein or shake his hand. But not a single person seemed to notice a hand-painted wooden sign by the exit: TRAINEE WANTED.
Mr. Weil came to his calling late in life, but he is a natural showman. He was raised in Dallas by a mother who once performed in a traveling water ski show. He first saw the Wall of Death act at Daytona Bike Week in 1986 and immediately fell in love with it, although he didn’t get involved with a touring crew himself until 2001. One of that crew’s riders became Mr. Weil’s girlfriend, who helped him ride the wall for the first time at the age of 54. He gave up his life as a mechanic to travel the country with a band of misfits in 2012.
From his father, a sociologist who was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship, Mr. Weil apparently inherited a knack for observation. One year, while performing at Daytona, he realized that none of the young women participating in the wet T-shirt contest were part of the biker scene. The promoter had bused them in. It suddenly became obvious that there was no future doing shows for the biker scene, a rapidly aging subculture with very few members under 40. He needed to start his own attraction, which he could take on the road, to a place with a more general audience. “Families and children were never going to see this,” he said.
A tool-and-die machinist by trade, or what he calls a “professional lifelong grease monkey,” Mr. Weil built the Wild Wheels Thrill Arena — his take on the Wall of Death — in his Florida backyard. The project took about a year and cost close to $100,000, he said. And as soon as he took his creation on the road in 2016, he began looking for a protégé. “We need one more young person out here, or my wall is in danger of being parked,” he said. “A lot of people stay for a year or two or three, but it takes more than that to get what they call sawdust in your veins.”
That’s how he describes someone who thrives on the road. Johnny Dare has sawdust in his veins. Mr. Dare is from Birmingham, England, though he is introduced in the show as being from Alabama. In reality, he barely has a place of origin. Mr. Dare ran away to the circus when he was 12. He also told me with a hint of menace that the rest of his life story is “copyrighted.” Not even Mr. Weil knows his real name.
For all the camaraderie on display in the arena, the reality of life on the road is slightly more complicated. After the early afternoon show, Mr. Dare sulked and smoked off to the side of the arena. Besides being unhappy with the fact that I did not show interest in purchasing his life story, he was also apparently displeased with his new crew, which he thought was somehow disorganized. Mr. Frankenstein — whose real name is Bobby Leverentz — got on his Harley to go buy some more smokes himself. Mr. Weil, who quit smoking cold turkey decades ago, rested in his trailer while listening to the Allman Brothers and waiting for his wife, Julie Richardson Weil, to make quesadillas on their gas stove.
Mr. Weil and his wife shared their first kiss when they were 11, though they lost touch soon after. Julie ran away from home at 12 and had a brief stint with the Children of God cult before her parents, both private investigators, dragged her home. But her feet were on fire, as she puts it, and she spent the subsequent decades sailing around the world — even making it as far as Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, one of the most remote destinations on the planet.
When she finally reconnected with her middle-school sweetheart about three decades later, she was pleased to find out that he didn’t have what she would consider a “regular” job. After the two wed in 2008, Ms. Richardson Weil encouraged her husband to follow his dream of starring in his own carnival act. “If you don’t do it,” he recalls her saying, “you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” They’ve now been living in the same travel trailer for the past year and a half, trying to make the Wall of Death work. “It’s just like dropping anchor in Tahiti, except now it’s a parking lot in Kansas,” said Ms. Richardson Weil, who described her marriage as traditional.
Mr. Weil has found his soul mate, but he’s still in search of someone to carry on his show after he cannot ride anymore. He said he’s cycled through maybe a dozen potential riders so far, with stage names like Kickin’ Wing and Bobo. When he tries to hire workers to help set up and take down the arena, he is frequently ghosted. Recently, one young man showed up and then canceled a half-hour into the teardown citing his anxiety. Wall riders are alpha dogs, Mr. Weil said, and a lot of people today just can’t cut it.
But he does have hope for Bobby Frankenstein. Mr. Weil met his latest trainee, whom he considers something of an old soul, at a motorcycle event in March 2020. Mr. Leverentz — whose hand is covered with a giant Frankenstein tattoo — had just landed a truck-driving job, though he was considering quitting to become a wall rider. When the pandemic hit just weeks later, the decision became a moot point. This period of inactivity was hard on Mr. Weil, who so missed the carnival life that he taught himself to make corn dogs in the frying pan at home.
But almost exactly a year later, when things got going again, Mr. Leverentz quit trucking over a vaccination requirement. He joined Mr. Weil on the road and taught himself how to ride the wall in front of a crowd. Per tradition, nothing is practiced, and he fell about 14 times before he was able to get the act down. These days he’s driving (and sleeping in) the eighteen-wheeler that pulls the arena up and down the East Coast.
Though he’s on the road from March to October, every day is pretty much the same for Mr. Leverentz: Wake up at some fair, chain smoke a pack of Marlboros, pick up something to eat at what carnies refer to as a “grab joint,” perform six shows, knock back a few drinks until the adrenaline wears off, crawl into the eighteen-wheeler’s sleeper for a few hours of sleep, repeat. It can be a lonely existence, but one that is made more bearable by chatting on Instagram with his love interest, an Indonesian wall rider named Princess Tong Setan, whom he hopes to meet in person one day.
By late Sunday of that weekend, change was in the air for the Wild Wheels crew. The season was coming to an end. Next to the sign for the wanted trainee came another: TEARDOWN HELP WANTED MONDAY//$$$$//PAID CASH.
With a full-size team, it takes 10 hours to tear down the arena and pack it onto the truck. Mr. Weil — especially given his slipped disk — was willing to pay $15 an hour to as many people as he could. He posted an ad on Craigslist in nearby Clifton Park, but going into the end of the weekend, he still hadn’t gotten any bites.
He had, however, decided to hop back onto a bike, injury be damned. At 8:30 on Sunday night, in what ended up being the final performance in Greenwich, he sat atop a 1940 Indian Scout that was parked on two metal cylinders called rollers. This was a crucial part of drawing a crowd. He revved the engine, while the bike rode in place atop the rollers. It took incredible skill and core strength to remain in place as the rollers turned, but that was lost to the people on the midway. To the uninitiated, he looked inert.
Mr. Weil then picked up his feet and put them on the handlebars. Finally, he put his hands behind his head and smiled at the bemused crowd. Mr. Dare blared a siren to let everyone know that a show was about to begin. Bobby Frankenstein took over the microphone and introduced Mr. Weil by his stage name. Ladies and gentlemen, the return of Dallas Dan!
Mr. Weil was clearly enjoying himself as he turned all the way around on the bike so that his back faced the audience. Meanwhile, Rick Zielinski, a spectator, let out an excited scream.
Mr. Zielinski, a 60-year-old from Clifton Park, first saw the Wall of Death act at a Ringling Brothers circus when he was about 13 but not since. He wouldn’t be seeing it that day either — he sent his wife and two teenage sons inside the arena without him because he wanted their unvarnished opinion about the act. He couldn’t trust himself to keep it together during the performance, though it also seemed like he just wanted to preserve a perfect teenage memory.
“I can’t wait to see their reactions,” he said as his family headed into Wild Wheels. “They’re going to be amazed.” Though he used to ride a bike in his younger years — and described himself as something of a former wild man — he was now wearing a classic dad uniform of shorts, hiking boots and clip-on cellphone holster.
When the show wrapped up about 15 minutes later, Mr. Zielinski was jumping up and down and waving his arms. “What did they think?” he yelled to his wife, Barb, before she’d even descended the stairs.
“You know what’s funny is they didn’t like the noise in there, but they listen to all kinds of loud music,” she said.
“But you thought it was great, right?”
“I think the fair is traditional and for kids to see what we saw is important — ”
“Isn’t it, Barb?” Mr. Zielinski interrupted.
He was still so excited he looked as if he might explode.
Zach, the 14-year-old, didn’t have much to say for himself, though he smiled politely.
“Well, I thought it was good — ” Mrs. Zielinski offered, before being interrupted again.
“They loved it,” her husband decreed on everyone’s behalf. His 12-year-old was already heading for the parking lot.
The Zielinski boys may not have gotten the wall-riding bug, but a young man who attended the show earlier in the week might have. The young man had taken a business card and had promised to call. So was he an alpha dog? “He had a strong grip, looked me right in the eye and had a driver’s license,” Mr. Weil said.
He seemed like a bit of an old soul, too. “I told him you could probably make more money being an aggressive pizza driver, and he said, ‘Some things aren’t about the money,’ which is just about the best answer a kid could give.” Mr. Weil then went into his trailer with the rest of the crew to count the day’s haul, which is something that was apparently off limits to outsiders. He closed the blinds on his travel trailer’s windows.
It must have been a good day because Mr. Weil emerged feeling optimistic. He was confident that the new kid would call him. After all, there was no better way to learn about America as a young man than by traveling its fairgrounds and putting on a good show. It apparently wasn’t a bad place to spend one’s working retirement, either. “I’ve seen things at the fair that have brought a tear to my eye,” he said as the red, green and blue lights of the midway lit up the night sky behind him. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”