Ken Carter came by the nickname “The Mad Canadian” honestly, long before he even decided he was going to build a jet car that would launch him a mile over the Saint Lawrence River. It took five years to secure the backers, build the machine, and craft a 10-storey ramp that would give him the air he needed. It was the stunt Evel Knievel said would end all stunts — and not in the good way. But when it came down to launch day, Carter wasn’t the man behind the wheel.
Strap in, because if you haven’t heard this story before, you’re in for a treat.
Ken Carter grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Montreal, Quebec and dropped out of school to follow his dream: he wanted to be a stuntman. He started travelling with a group of other daredevils before becoming popular enough to create his own solo act, where he gained the nickname “The Mad Canadian” for his increasingly audacious jumps.
But his wildest plan yet kicked off in 1976. After 20 solid years of jumping cars, Carter had bigger dreams. He wanted to set records, to do something that no man had ever done before.
He wanted to transform a Lincoln Continental into a jet car, and he wanted to jump the Saint Lawrence River, a waterway over one-mile in width that separates Canada from the United States. And because he was a man who thrived on press, Carter was followed throughout the buildup to the big jump by the National Film Board of Canada. The final product, called The Devil at Your Heels, is still on YouTube. You have to watch this thing.
Carter’s plans for this car were vague. He started promoting the jump long before he had the money to even start designing the car — he was relying on press attention to drum up the hundreds of thousands of dollars it required to even make the thought of a jump possible. So, when ABC gave Carter $US250,000 ($322,725) in exchange for exclusive rights to air the jump on Wide World of Sports. The episode was scheduled to air on September 25, 1976.
Here’s where things start to get wild.
To get the air he needed, Carter had to organise the construction of a 426.72 m takeoff ramp as well as the car. But the location of the ramp — on some farmland near Morrisburg, Ontario — was a finicky one. Weeks of rain delayed construction, and the car itself was blowing up any time it got moving.
ABC sent Evel Knievel to the site to see if it was as prepared as Carter was claiming. It wasn’t.
“This looks like a dangerous jump to me,” Knievel is shown telling Carter in The Devil at Your Heels. “You’ve got no elevation. You’ve got no room for error. If you come down in that water, you better have somebody to get you out in a hurry.”
“I worked on my own project at the Snake River Canyon for nearly three years,” Knievel said later. “They’re trying to finish everything up here in just two weeks. The weather has been bad. The runway is muddy. The takeoff ramp is not built. I don’t think I’d attempt to try this stunt. I think it’s much more dangerous than the Snake River Canyon stunt. And I think the time and preparation that’s been put into it is much too little.
“This is maybe a daredevil stunt that might end all stunts.”
As it happened, the air date of the Wide World of Sports episode came and went. ABC withdrew its support — and its money.
The next several years, it was the same story. The ramp wasn’t getting finished. The car wasn’t ready. Financial backers and film crews came and went. Launch dates would arrive, and they’d be cancelled. Year after year after year.
Finally, near the end of September in 1979, things looked ready to go. Carter had a car. He had a ramp. He had a Hollywood film crew ready to record his stunt. The Saint Lawrence River waterway was cleared of boat traffic. The island he intended to land on had been cleared of cattle. Carter got behind the wheel. He started the engine.
With five seconds to launch, Carter aborted the jump. A seal blew on the regulator. Then, the sun set. Carter rescheduled the launch for the next day.
The next day, Carter got behind the wheel. He sat there. And sat there. And waited. Almost an hour went by. And then the skies opened up and sent down rain for a few days. Another aborted launch. Carter left for his hotel room in Ottawa, Ontario, where he set about planning a big European tour.
But the Hollywood backers were pissed. It cost $US25,000 ($32,273) per day to bring the film crew out to the jump site, and it seemed to them like Carter had lost his nerve. After five years of preparation, the crew believed Carter would never actually jump that car.
So they showed up to the launch site with American stunt driver Kenny Powers, who had toured with Ken Carter. Powers wasn’t exactly in peak physical form — he’d broken his back multiple times in stunts and was supposed to be wearing a brace for any further stunts, which he didn’t bring with him to the St. Lawrence River jump. But he was ready. He would launch the jet car. So the crew shoved him in with no preparation.
They gave him the countdown. An explosion rang out as Powers punched the throttle and the jet engine sprang to life. In the blink of an eye, he was barreling down the launch ramp.
Kenny Powers made it 154.23 m in the air before the car broke apart and the parachute deployed. He still had over 1,432.56 m to go when he crash-landed in the water. He was able to pull himself out of the top of the car, and a rescue crew brought him to land. Powers had broken eight vertebrae, three ribs, and fractured a wrist.
As it turned out, the asphalt surface leading up to the ramp was so bumpy that Powers couldn’t keep his foot pressed on the throttle. When he left the ramp, he was going significantly slower than he needed to be to make the jump work. The parachute deploying prematurely is thought the be a significant reason as to why he survived the crash at all.
Carter had no idea the jump had happened until after the fact. His main source of anger was the fact that Powers, one of his good friends, could have been killed.
That was the symbolic end for the jet car jump. The car was in shambles and the ramp was a disaster. Carter vows at the end of The Devil at Your Heels that he wasn’t going to let the idea die out, but the ramp was demolished soon after the movie was made. Then, Carter was killed in a different stunt in 1983. His car landed on its roof while he attempted to jump a pond.
No one else was keen on attempting the Saint Lawrence River jump in his honour. No one else was as mad as the Mad Canadian.