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Last Man Spiraling

A veteran Wall of Death rider endeavors to keep the tradition alive

Author John Scott Lewinski Illustration Luci Gutiérrez

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SOUTH DAKOTA – Inside a large wooden silo, a motorbike screams around the wall, cheered on by a rowdy audience gathered around the top rim. It’s opening day of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a weeklong event held annually in this small South Dakota town, home to the Sturgis Motorcycle Museum and the Full Throttle Saloon. If you’re looking to drum up interest in an old-school Wall of Death show, this is the time and place to do it. And lately, the Wall of Death could use a bit of drumming up.

In its heyday, there were scores of these carnival sideshows performing across the country. Now, due in large part to safety concerns, there are only a handful. “We live in a time when we’re not allowed to do a lot of things for our own good,” says Jay Lightnin’, the man behind today’s show. “In the old days, you’d get on the bike and go for it.”

With long graying hair and a wispy beard, the 60-something has spent half his life either on the Wall or on the road. “You have to give up a lot,” he says. “It’s not for everyone.”

Later, his mustache waxed into a Buffalo Bill handlebar, he hurtles around the barrel, inching so close to the rim he can pick dollar bills out of people’s hands. For a finale, multiple motorbikes spin in opposite directions, barely missing each other as they pass.

When asked why he continues to endure the discomfort and danger after all these years, Lightnin’ points to a couple of his less experienced riders. “They call me one of the Over the Hill Gang,” he says. “But these young guys see that this old guy can ride the Wall, and they decide they can do it too. They keep it rolling.”

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