THE CALL OF THE WALL
It’s aggressive stuff, and over the last hundred years millions have
witnessed its spectacle.
They say the Wall of Death started
when motorcycle racers sought a new venue when the huge and lethally
dangerous board oval tracks were dismantled around the time of World
War 1. Almost immediately wooden “motordromes” popped up everywhere,
essentially silos with 15-foot high vertical walls, typically 30
feet in diameter. Riders would fire their Indians or Harleys up to
speed and tear around the 90-degree sides at 60 miles an hour,
grabbing ones and fives from animated spectators taking in the scene
from a walkway above.
Although stationary installations such
as Coney Island’s operated until 1949, most ’dromes were moveable
shows traveling the fair, carnie, and bike circuits most of the
year. It was a wandering, outrider community, facing constant,
uninsurable, danger and uncertainty, populated by uniquely competent
– but often shady – men.
But there is also some strange
psychic call of the Wall. In the mid-seventies an uncommonly pretty
14-year-old orphan runaway, traveling with horse shows, stepped up
to the Sonny Pelaguin ’drome show in Florida. Something clicked and
she just could not leave. Sonny took her in, and brought her along.
Samantha Morgan, stage name ‘Sam Storm,’ became the most famous
female Wall rider of all time.
Storm’ Morgan on stage at Sturgis.
Hell Riders Collection)
Tall and lithe, with flowing blonde hair, Sam’s image was
strikingly new and different to the Wallbirds. In her way she was an
identity of contraries. Feminine through and through, she was an
accomplished, self-trained musician, a stained-glass artist, and a
lifelong animal lover. And she was curiously clumsy with everyday
movements, famous for her amused self-mocking after she slipped on a
fire extinguisher, setting it off on herself.
But on the
Wall, especially perched on her 1931 Indian named “Bess,” she was
the picture of grace. Wearing a passionate smile, she would glide
around no-hands, sometimes riding sidesaddle, arms waving gently
like Homer’s Sirens, as she defied that treacherous razor’s edge
between centrifugal force and gravity.
Sam’s fame grew; her
life became full. She performed internationally and she ran the Salt
Flats in Bonneville aboard an Indian. Just six years ago she won
every heart in North Dakota with her speech the day she and Sonny
Pelaquin were inducted into the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and Hall
Sam’s walk up to that podium was likely painful. She had been
broken over time, so busted up on a Wall in France in 1992 that it
was four months before she could come home. There were burns from a
flaming Wall stunt. Another big one came in 1998, requiring metal
parts in her back and an artificial vertebra, and then a final
crushing crash in 2005.
|Samantha on the
Bonneville Salt Flats, holding the incredible DVD
"The World’s Fastest Indian."
(California Hell Riders
“When she died in 2008,” says Sandra
Donmoyer, “it was from more than her injuries. She died of sadness
that she might possibly not be able to ride anymore. Her passion for
the Wall was her life, keeping it going, bringing in strong women.”
Sandra should know. An articulate, athletic 33-year-old now
based at Thrill City Cycle in Swansea, MA, Sandra grew up in
California with a curious childhood ambition. She wanted to be like
Sonora Webster, whose story was made famous by the movie “Wild
Hearts Can’t be Broken.” Webster, like Samantha an orphan, ran away
to join a traveling stunt show. Despite enormous obstacles, she
emerged as the world’s foremost female horse diver, leaping on
horseback from high platforms into a pool of water below.
high school time, Sandra was in Key West with her dad, a military
man with a passion for motorcycles. Sandra, blonde hair flowing,
must have been a something to behold when she tootled into school on
her 1974 Iron Head, her first vehicle.
She had gone to boot
camp and was ready to head off to the service when she encountered
the Wall. At Daytona’s Biketoberfest in 1998, she was spotted in the
crowd by second-generation Wall rider Don Daniels II, who, after
asking her dad’s permission, courted her by phone from the road. By
the next spring, Sandra was in the ticket booth at the ’drome. She
never looked back.
That’s when Sandra met Samantha,
seemingly the veritable incarnation of Sonora Webster. The two hit
it off immediately, a loving, mentoring, almost mother-daughter
When Sam was at her Florida home recovering
from injuries, Sandra decided to surprise her by beginning to learn
to ride the Wall herself. Doni was less than enthusiastic from the
start, but due to Samantha’s accident, his father’s show was short
of riders, and so he relented. Sandra says, “Guess I was in the
right place at the right time. I sure had the guts to do it. You
could say I’d been thinking about it since I came out on the road. I
felt like I’d paid my dues”
Samantha was blown away to see
Sandra perform and subsequently taught her all manner of tricks of
the trade. ‘Sandra D,’ as the publicists call her today, has become
a star of her own. She and Doni have taken over Don Sr.’s California
Hell Riders ’drome and still take it out on the road when they can.
|Sandra and husband Doni
Daniels entertain as a team.
’Dromes are fading out these days, along with so many
colorfully dangerous forms of entertainment of years past. There are
thought to be just three active in the country today.
see Sandra D, Doni, and the gang during Bike Week this March at the
Iron Horse Saloon in Ormond Beach. When you do, remember Sam Storm.
Just as Sam wanted so much for the Wall of Death to keep on going,
so does Sandra D want the memory of Sam to survive. When Sandra’s
bike roars up those boards, she will, as always, have Samantha’s
ashes in a locket around her neck.
And it just may be that
this is not quite where the story ends. Sandra and Doni have a
beautiful five-year-old daughter named Skye. Asked what she would do
if Skye, too, heard the call of the Wall, Sandra pauses for a second
and then firms right up. “I would want her to go to college first,
but, then, if she wanted to try it, how could I say no? Hello!
I do it.”
|Sandra and Samantha.
(California Hell Riders Collection)
© 2013 Lew Boyd - Coastal 181
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