Saturday, April 08, 2017

Behind the wheel of a jumpin' General: A chat with the founder of the Northeast Ohio Dukes

A few weeks ago, on a Friday in late February, "Dukes of Hazzard" fans got to experience a rare treat, and a truly historic moment, when a blazin' orange General Lee car went sailing through the air in downtown Detroit, the Detroit River shimmering beyond in the brilliant sunlight, the temperature unseasonably warm. There were cheers and oohs and aahs and whoas from the enormous crowd -- some standing curbside as the car hit the ramp, some perched high up at Cobo Center, enjoying a great vantage point behind the glass. Some were on a lunch hour; some took the day off work; a few traveled from other states like our friend Billy and his family. A huge accompaniment of press covered the event, with at least one of Detroit's major TV networks live-streaming the jump, which kicked off the weekend for Autorama. And there was lots of Facebook Live goin' on, for sure. Lots of selfies, lots of video like the BRBTV one below. Capturing the moment, the history, the joy, the thrill for "Dukes" fans!

The jump was over in an instant, but it took weeks -- maybe months -- of prep. No one knows this better than the man behind the wheel, Mr. Raymond Kohn (pronounced like "John" with a K). He's the founder of the group, Northeast Ohio Dukes, that brought a big crew to Detroit to make this happen. From the initial ramp setup on Atwater Street, to wheelin' the car onto the Autorama showroom floor later that afternoon, it had to be a big production, lots of planning. BRBTV had the pleasure to chat with Raymond a week or so ago about this and about the work the group does.

"I broke my left wrist in Detroit," Raymond muses of that banner day that otherwise was completed in such stunning fashion. “Yea, I broke my left wrist. Outside of that, I was perfect. I wasn’t even sore. Usually you’re sore or stiff for a few days. I wasn’t even sore or stiff or anything like that. My doctor had explained the type of break it was. I realized that this was my first daylight jump in a long time. At night you can’t see the landing; in the daytime you can. So here the car is approaching the ground, the pavement, and I’m like, I braced for it. That’s what it was. I braced for it. And I tried pushing against the steering wheel, rather than letting my safety belts do their job. I pushed against it, and overextended my wrist, and that’s how. I think they call it a fracture, like a hairline fracture.”

For Kohn, who has been doing this sort of work for 10 years, it's not the only injury he's had, certainly. And sometimes, it can be more lasting than a wrist that heals.

“I have a broken collar bone," he says. "That’s unrepairable. And of course, with a broken collar bone, it throws off your shoulder; now you’ve got a pain in your shoulder."

You can't always guarantee how a General Lee is going to land, after all.

"One time I landed flat," he says. "Even though I was off of the seat about six or seven inches, the car came down flat, like it was dropped from a plane. And it came down flat on all four wheels. The explosion, when the car landed, it broke all four rims, snapped the transmission in half. And when you land flat, it hurts. It took about six or seven months for me to actually be able to walk around right and be able to get up and move around and stuff. I was beat up pretty good on that one."

That, his coworker Jimmy reminds him while we're on the phone, was September 9, 2013. Brookville, Pennsylvania.

"There’s video of that," Raymond quickly adds. "Let me tell you, man, that one hurt. So when people say, oh, there wasn’t enough weight in the trunk, yes, there was. We had exactly the correct amount of weight in there for the jump. You can ask any professional stunt car driver who has jumped a car, landing flat is the worst way a driver can land, because the driver has one impact. I say this from my experience, and I’m not a rookie, I’ve been doing this for a while. My experience is, when you see the car pretty much unscathed, and it looks still pretty good, usually that means the driver had it pretty hard on the inside. When the car is all twisted and crunched and mangled, well, the car absorbed all of that energy and the driver had it pretty easy on the inside.”

Photo by Jason G.

Well, in Detroit, that car was pretty mangled, as you can see above, so we're glad for that! Plus, the timing of this particular jump held a certain irony for him.

“It’s awesome. I had never thought in a million years, especially the way it all happened, I mean, this is our 10th anniversary of doing the stunt shows. Somehow my 20th General Lee jump fell on the 10th anniversary, at Autorama. I felt like a million dollars, let me tell you.”

But he says, “I was scared to death. I was real happy when it was over. ... If anyone would ever ask me, and they have, well, what does it feel like to jump a car, and hitting the ramp and stuff, just imagine a really extreme roller coaster, OK, and then at the end of the roller coaster ride, it derails and falls to the ground. Hitting the ramp hurts. You’re hitting a giant wedge in the middle of the road at 55, 60 miles an hour, and that stings. It hurts, I’m telling you. And about the time you’re going, omigosh, that hurt, here comes the second one, you know.”

Kohn actually founded the Northeast Ohio Dukes unofficially back in 2005, a couple years earlier than its more official 2007 beginning, when he was asked to bring a couple replica cars -- a Hazzard County Sheriff's car and a General Lee -- to an event.

"I was asked by MTV, the producers of 'Your Movie Show,' to bring our nice cars, the Rosco car and the General Lee, down to this thing they were doing in Covington (Georgia). They were having Corey Eubanks jump over our Rosco car near Oxford College. I was already going around with the cars and showing them, and everybody calls their ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ group this or that, and where I’m from, everyone calls it ‘Northeast Ohio whatever,’ so I had to come up with something, and I said, how about Northeast Ohio Dukes.”

Thus, some stars were born. Because things grew from there, from the time of their first official jump in 2007. Not just with the crew members Raymond was able to recruit for this effort, which became more of a full "Dukes of Hazzard"-themed show, but family members, as well!

“My dad grew out a white beard and started playing Uncle Jesse," he says. "My older brother started playing Boss Hogg. That’s how it all came to be."

He says, “We noticed that 5,000 and 8,000 and 9,000 people were coming out to the first four jumps. We felt that it was important to give them more than 15 seconds of airtime, to do a jump. I thought, if we write a script and add some more stunts, we can actually play it out. So here comes all the wireless mics, and people can hear us talking. We have sound effects; we have explosions. I never expected this to happen. I really didn’t.”

For Raymond, it became a full-time gig. “I was working for a towing company for eight years, and I basically had to give that up in order to do this. There was no way I could do both.”

And it comes down to that aforementioned planning and prep thing, which takes time, not just for the bigger stunt show, but also for the single jumps like in Detroit. The Northeast Ohio Dukes only do two to four full stunt shows a year. Each lasts an hour and a half to two hours.

“Believe it or not, when we do our full stunt show, it takes a good 35, 40 people. You have at least five people on the track crew, you have your director, you have your sound technician. It’s a full production. The very, very backbone, the core of our stunt crew, if you saw the guys who were with me in Detroit, those are the guys who are here constantly, building the cars, manning the show, stuff like that. Outside of my best friend who plays Luke in our stunt shows, Rob, they were fans who saw our shows.”

He continues, “We have to build those cars to make it look like what you see flying in Detroit. That usually takes about three weeks to a month to do that to one of those cars. The cop cars usually take around three days, three or four days to get those ones caged and ready to go. We can only do a couple a year. In 2012 we did four. We did the jump in Galax, Virginia. And then, within a week apart from each other – I think one was six days apart; the other two were seven days apart. We did three full shows. So we had to have like four General Lees ready. We had to have four Sheriff Little cars, four Rosco cars. So when we get booked, and we put our minds to it, we could do probably four a year, but we actually feel comfortable with maybe two, and like your couple single General Lee jumps. It just depends. We’ve done four in a year.”

Photo by Jason G.

The experience in Detroit also gave him a certain impression of a city that has gotten a bad rap for years.

“There’s crime everywhere, no matter what city you live in," Raymond says. "What the media has made out the City of Detroit to be, is false. We had families getting their picture taken; half were black or Hispanic. People love ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ and it doesn’t matter what color you are, what nationality.”

And despite the hoopla in recent years over the Confederate flag that the General Lee bears on its roof, all was peaceful that sunny day in Detroit, thank the Lord. Raymond says he has never jumped the car without the flag and would never, ever -- ever -- do it. To him, that would be selling out, compromising on work that has gone beyond a hobby for him, into something more meaningful, a tribute to the show and its stars that he loved so much as a kid. He tells the story of actually being asked for one particular jump to take the flag off the roof. The jump didn't happen. And there were a few armchair quarterbacks, here and there, after the Detroit jump. How the ramp was placed, how the car flew, whatever.  ("Why ya gotta go and bust up a Charger like that?") Haters gonna hate. Raymond tries not to take it to heart -- everybody has an opinion, and he's got 26,000 fans on the group's Facebook page to stand up for them, after all.

This is a seasoned professional who stands his ground, and who obviously has some good folks standing with him. It's all about the love of a TV show.

The Northeast Ohio Dukes crew at Autorama 2017. Photo courtesy of Raymond Kohn; please do not copy without permission.

And during that historic moment in Detroit, as he went sailing through the air outside Cobo Center, Raymond Kohn couldn't help but think of his very first jump, a decade ago ...

“We didn’t have all of the safety equipment that we have now," he says, "and when I look back at the first jump, I’m like, I can’t believe I did that without wearing a jump vest. Without a head restraint. I’m like, why would I do something so reckless like that? And if you think about it, that was 10 years ago. I must have been 29 years old. (Oh, if I could only go back to that age!) So I look back at the early days of me doing those, and I’m like, I must have been just stupid. Stupid. Why would I do all that stuff? Out of stupidity, right? You know? I’ll tell you this. The fear is overwhelming, whether it’s your first one or whether it’s your 20th one. I was just as scared, if not more, on No. 20 as I was for No. 1. And believe it or not, No. 20 was a lot like No. 1, the feeling. Because No. 1 was my first jump; No. 20 was my first jump landing on asphalt. Landing on the street. So they sort of went hand in hand.”

He continues, “A friend of mine who does Hollywood stunts; he’s from Ohio. I said, hey, am I ever going to not be so scared? Scared to death, scared to where you can feel the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, and like the hairs on my face. I touch my cheeks, and I can’t even feel like them, like I’m numb. I’m numb. The adrenaline has got you just like so numb you can’t feel anything. He said it will never go away, and if it does, that’s when you need to quit.”

Hopefully for this crew, that won't be a very long time!

You can watch the Northeast Ohio Dukes' Facebook page for the latest on the group, and keep up with their shows at the schedule on their website.

Many thanks to Raymond for sharing this cool insight! Yeeee-haaaaaa!!!!

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