Monday, December 9, 2019

Kitty O’Neil

     In 1976, on pure speculation and little cash, I drove a tin-can Fiat from North Carolina to Bonneville, Utah, to cover attempts on the Word Land Speed Record in a hydrogen peroxide powered three-wheeled rocket vehicle on the vast salt flats, one for the men’s record, the other for the women’s. The drivers were Hollywood stunt man Hal Needham and beautiful part-Cherokee stunt woman Kitty O’Neil, who had been deaf since stricken by three childhood diseases at once. Kitty had already been an Olympic diver, had become the first woman member of Stunts Unlimited, providing stunts on demand to film makers, and had raced motorcycles in the grueling Baja 500. At only five feet two inches and 100 pounds she was small but nonetheless impressive with an infectious radiant smile. I interviewed and photographed her and sold my article to The Saturday Evening Post, and Reader’s Digest reprinted it.

     Kitty battered down many barriers, overcoming cancer and meningitis. Consider her deafness alone; imagine never hearing another human voice, or music, or a breeze teasing through pine trees, or a rain shower, or a competitor’s racing motorcycle coming up on her from behind, or even her own voice. To converse she read lips and spoke in a monotone.

     She performed many daunting stunts, including a record 180-foot fall from a helicopter. Dressed as Wonder Woman, she leaped in a swan diver’s pose from the top of the Valley Hilton Hotel in Sherman Oaks, California, onto an air bag 127 feet below, the bag looking like a postage stamp from that height. She did stunts in Airport 77, The Blues Brothers, The Bionic Woman, and Smokey and the Bandit. She set 22 speed records on land and water, including water skiing at 104.85 mph, the water like concrete at that velocity. She drove the rocket car on dry lake Alvord in Oregon at an average two-way speed of 512.71 mph, hitting at one point 621 mph. No woman before or since has gone faster. Mattel put out an action figure of her and actress Stockard Channing played her in a movie called Silent Victory.

     She died at 72 of pneumonia in Eureka, South Dakota, in late 2018. I was privileged to have met her.

     It is no coincidence that the independent, beautiful, part-Cherokee, motorcycle-riding love interest in my suspense novel series is named Kitty.


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