December 10, 2004
Thrill show legend Kochman dies at 97
By Tom Powell
NASHVILLE -- Jack Kochman, the last great thrill show impresario, died Tuesday at his home in Yadkinville, N.C. He was 97.
Kochman put on automobile thrill shows for more than four decades before his retirement in 1989.
After Earl "Lucky" Teter's fatal crash at the Indiana State Fairgrounds in Indianapolis in 1942, Kochman, who debuted his World Champion Hell Drivers that summer, purchased the late stunt driver’s show equipment. Teter's show was part of a benefit for the Army-Navy Medical Relief Fund.
A former gas station attendant, Teter had put together his Hell Drivers in the early 1930s. B. Ward Beam is credited as the originator of such a form of entertainment, debuting his Congress of Daredevils in Toledo, Ohio, in 1923. In 1928, Beam's show amazed spectators at the Ohio State Fair in Columbus, the first time an auto stunt show played a fair.
Beam continued to operate at state and county fairs into the late 1950s, but it was Teter who added the precision driving of new automobiles over elevated ramps. The cars did reverse spins, and stuntmen were added to the show to act as daredevil clowns.
Kochman wasn't blind to the marketing capabilities of the automobile thrill show business, and he started a long-standing sponsor relationship with tire companies and a major automobile manufacturer. With the popularity of the auto thrill show growing, Kochman started production of a second thrill show team in 1957 and a third in 1960.
A fourth unit was produced for 1964 and 1965 to perform shows at the New York World Fair. That unit did 1,200 performances and was featured on NBC's "Today" show. Over the next five years, Kochman cut back to one unit, which toured the world, selling out venues including the Houston Astrodome.
In 1989, Kochman retired from the thrill show scene. At the time, the show was the longest-running thrill show production in history. He passed the torch to his most respected employees, Charlie Belknap and Tonny Petersen. They continued to produce the show until retiring from the business at the end of the 2004 season.
In the early 1930s, Kochman married. There were two children born to this marriage, a daughter, Arlene, and a son, Carl. He has three grandchildren, Marcy, Fred and Larry; and four great grandchildren, Shira, Ilana, Simon and Emma. In the early 1980s, he married JoAnn Long.
Survivors include his wife; a sister-in-law, Betty Gene Long; niece, Andrea (Greg) York; great niece, Taylor; great nephew, David Vestal; niece, Erin York; brother-in-law, Bill (Vickie) Long, great nephew, Brett Long, and great nieces Lori (Khammone) and Madelyn Pianpanya.
A graveside service was conduced Thursday at Longtown Cemetery. In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorials be made to Hospice of Yadkin County, P.O. Box 1267, Yadkinville, N.C. 27055, or the building fund of Longtown Pentecostal Holiness Church, P.O. Box 430, Hamptonville, N.C. 27020.