Story: Richard S. Chang
It was two years ago when I first saw the video of Kenny Powers attempting to jump a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental over the St. Lawrence River, from Morrisburg, Canada, to Ogden Island, New York, a distance of more than a mile. At first, the brief clip was a simple four-minute diversion, no different than the countless other diversions that occurred that day and have occurred every day since. It had all the right ingredients: Powers, a grizzled bar brawl of a stuntman with a dark mustache and gruff goatee, limited teeth, who, dressed in a slack yellow jumpsuit and cowboy hat, looked like a trailer-park janitor. There was the boxy Continental, also yellow and plainly unaerodynamic; the ailerons jutting from both doors seemed scaled for a smaller car. A ramp canted up a mound of earth. A paltry crowd had gathered to watch the stunt—supposedly the longest jump ever attempted in a car at that point, which, according to the video, was 1976. It’s known as the Super Jump.
The actual stunt lasts 14 seconds, including the eight seconds it takes for the car to shoot down the runway and up the ramp and the six seconds it takes for it to float down to the water, its descent slowed by two parachutes, deployed early because, upon leaving the ramp, the car dissipates immediately into a spray of body panels, like a bird hit by buckshot. Despite the parachutes, the car falls none too gracefully into the water—barely beyond the mud banks below the ramp. The rescue workers are hardly thigh deep as they wade to the car. Powers emerges with a broken back, the narrator says over a squeaky soundtrack of circus music. His crumpled body is carried back to land and hauled away on a stretcher.
“As the ambulance rushed off to the hospital, all that remained of his $1 million attempt was a yellow, rocket-powered Continental floating aimlessly on the banks of the St. Lawrence River,” says the narrator. The video ends in a P.O.V. heading up the runway onto the ramp, into the sky. Here, it ends abruptly.
And I could have easily just watched the video, e-mailed it to some friends and completely forgotten about the Super Jump and Kenny Powers were it not for a particular weakness of mine: I am innately drawn to great acts of failure. I am seduced by unfounded ambition just as Martin Scorsese is seduced by Leonardo DiCaprio. And in the range of great failures, the Super Jump was Mount St. Helens. I found myself thinking about the stunt.
With not much digging around, I found out that the four-minute video didn’t tell the whole story. The Super Jump was the seven-year dream of another stuntman named Ken Carter. Nicknamed “The Mad Canadian,” Carter harbored an all-consuming ambition to be known as the world’s greatest stuntman. He worked on the Super Jump for years, and a feature-length documentary was made about his efforts, called The Devil at Your Heels. It was produced nearly 30 years ago by the National Film Board of Canada and was as good a place to start as any. But as I began to research the film and filmmakers, it felt like a cinematic cold case. According to the Internet Movie Database, its director, Robert Fortier, hadn’t made a movie in over a decade. There were five producers on the film, but only one seemed to be active. I decided to give him a call.