Speed Demons

Mike Charlton leaves prison behind. . . at 200 m.p.h.

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Chrome exhausts spit fire onto the track at Thompson Drag Raceway. The air smells of gasoline and menace.

Looming over it all is a surreal amalgamation of metal and invention. Part semi truck, part Banshee fighter jet, it is an affront to both God and Chrysler. It inches toward the starting line without a challenger.

Behind the monster's wheel is Mike Charlton. Long salt-and-pepper hair halos his bald brow, fluttering in the breeze like broken wings. His bad eye -- useless since a childhood lawnmower accident -- peers off at an odd angle. The good one stares back at me.

"Put your suit on," he says, pointing to the passenger seat.

Charlton's quest is to become the fastest man alive. His latest attempt involves strapping a jet engine to the back of a semi. It's the kind of stunt you'd see on World's Worst Motorsports Disasters.

Riding shotgun wasn't part of the deal. I've never pushed my Plymouth Breeze above 75 m.p.h. I have no intention of climbing into Charlton's 10-ton casket.

But Scene photographer Walter Novak starts ribbing me. A Czech émigré, he learned how to kill a man with a knife when he was in their version of the Boy Scouts. "You are a wuss if you do not do it," he tells me. "And I will tell everyone you are a chicken."

I look around for help. Charlton's crew stares in disbelief. No one passes up a chance to ride the rocket truck, their eyes say.

Cowed, I put on the thin blue racing suit and climb into the passenger seat.

Who will tell my wife that I died in a burning mass of metal? I wonder.

A guy named Roger hands me a helmet decorated with the American flag. To the crowd in the stands, I must look like Michael Dukakis perched on top of that tank.

Roger straps me down with rough, canvas seatbelts. He tries to clamp a third belt between my legs but eventually gets frustrated and gives up.

It doesn't matter, Charlton says. "At that speed, we'll be dead anyway."

Oh. I guess it's fine then.

The gearshifts are four wooden knife handles stuck into the floor between us.

One is for gas, Charlton explains. One controls the afterburner and shoots out flames for dramatic effect. The other two control the parachutes.

"But we've been having some problems with the parachutes lately," he says.

Then, almost as an afterthought: "If it goes over 170 m.p.h. and the chutes don't open, I won't have room to stop."

Charlton edges the truck to the starting line. He flips on the afterburner. It sounds like I'm in the window seat of a DC-10. Discarded nacho trays become strange flotsam in the engine's wake.

Thick smoke envelops us. The acrid odor of diesel fuel burns my nostrils.

Without warning, Charlton hits the gas.

He opens up the afterburner and lets it hum. I'm plastered against my seat as G-forces compress my body and we're launched out of the smoke, into the sunlight.

Out the side window, I see a little boy perched on his father's shoulders. They're standing behind a long fence at the bottom of the grandstands.

I see myself through his eyes, in his memory, as he tells his wife about the day he watched two men in a rocket truck spontaneously combust.

When Charlton was in kindergarten, he watched his father rocket down this same track in a modified VW bug, feeling the percussion of the engine beat against his small frame.

By the time he was in grade school, he started hanging out at the Bug Hut, his father's Volkswagen shop in Eastlake. Milton Charlton let his son build a minibike from an old frame and a motorcycle engine when he was eight years old.

"It was dangerous as hell," says Milton, a large man, alternately gruff and friendly, who looks remarkably like Denver Pyle from Dukes of Hazzard.

In high school, Charlton worked his schedule so he could arrive at the Bug Hut by noon and not leave until bedtime. Jimmy Mack, a Bug Hut mechanic, was witness to his early inventions.

Burn scarring stretches down the length of Mack's body, reminders of a car accident he barely survived at 17. With his own racing days cut short, he got his adrenaline fix every time Charlton tested a new car.

"I think he's nuts," Mack says proudly.

He recalls the car that got Charlton barred from Thompson, a drag strip stuck in the boonies east of Mentor. Since 1958, it's been the Thunderdome of Northeast Ohio, a place where amateur gearheads challenge each other in souped-up machines.

Charlton had taken the engine from a Cadillac Eldorado, mounting it on a Volkswagen. The exhausts emerged from the back window, and he rigged the fuel pump to spit gas into the pipes.

It was so dangerous they wouldn't allow it on the track. But one busy night, he snuck it into the lineup anyway.

Fire exploded from the exhausts as Charlton revved the engine, flames licking the bottom of the wooden walkway above.

The announcer barely had time to warn people to get out of harm's way. "We don't know what this is and we don't know what it's going to do!" he screamed.

After high school, Charlton took a job shaping welding wire for Lincoln Electric in Mentor. "A terrible place to work . . . physically demanding," says Milton with a shudder.

Charlton didn't care. It provided money to feed his hobbies: fast cars and heavy drugs.

Following his shift, he would return to the garage and work until 10:30. He started taking speed to stay awake. Then he would head to the bars, wired and ready to spar.

"I got into a lot of barroom fights," says Charlton. "My record was 40 and 40. Some guy would stare at me, and then the fight would be on. Most of the '80s was an alcohol haze."

Eventually, he was thrown out of every bar on Vine Street. He wrecked six cars in just 18 months. Then he turned to petty theft to fund his drug habit, which was blooming from speed to crack. He was a better mechanic than thief.

He broke into Eastlake homes, got pinched for receiving stolen property, and was nailed for intimidating a witness. His greatest skill seemed to be his ability to get caught. "I was in jail for every birthday from age 21 to 28," he says.

Short on cash for a rock one night, Charlton decided to make his move up the criminal food chain. He robbed a Dairy Mart. Wearing a ski mask and pretending to have a gun inside his jacket, Charlton demanded money from the clerk. When she refused, he ran outside and drove off in his father's truck.

The clerk was able to give a good description of the would-be robber to police. Charlton had come in earlier that day, in the same clothes, looking for potato salad.

When the high wore off, he turned himself in. He was sent back to the same Lake County Jail cell that he'd left 30 days before.

This time, he got a 4-to-10 stretch.

Suffering through withdrawals in a concrete room, he looked back at his life as a regrettable accident. On April 26, 1991, he gave God an ultimatum: Either let me die tonight or change me, he demanded.

Charlton waited until the guards did their rounds. Then he took a bedsheet and tied one end around his neck. He wrapped the other end around his fist. Using it like a garrote, he slowly twisted it tighter and tighter, until he lost consciousness.

He woke up the next morning as the guards were waking everyone for breakfast.

"The jail cell looked different," Charlton remembers. "Outside looked different. Everything looked physically different."

It was a sign.

Charlton spent the next nine months wondering what he was supposed to do with his life. He thought about returning to the garage -- the only place he ever felt confident enough to create.

A skinny woman with short red hair bites down on a Virginia Slim and watches us shoot through the smoke toward certain death.

She stands in the shadow of a rotting Winnebago. Sometimes she uses it for camping. Mostly, she hauls Charlton and his crew to races.

She tries her best to track our progress through the eyepiece of an antiquated VHS camcorder. But she loses us. We're going too fast.

By the time she finds the truck again, we're accelerating past 100 m.p.h.

The camera zooms in as we pass 150 m.p.h. If her husband dies with me, at least she'll have his last ride on tape.

The first thing Charlton did when he got out of jail was join AA. The second thing he did was take his sister's bed frame and turn it into a motorcycle.

He pounded it into scrap, which he used to mend the body of a junked bike. "She came back six months later looking for it," says Charlton. "I said, 'There it is' and pointed to the bike."

The machine could reach 140 m.p.h. -- no record-breaker, but enough to see that miracles could be made in a small garage. Charlton set a new goal: He would become the fastest man on the planet.

On his breaks, he would walk down to the corner deli for some bologna. He fell in love with the woman behind the meat counter. "I ended up having about 40 pounds of bologna in my fridge before I got up the nerve to ask her out," says Charlton.

He married Kay in 2000. She videotapes every race.

He assembled a support group to teach him to build more efficiently. Jimmy Mack offered to help. Milton pitched in. Roger Killian was always at his side.

Killian's hair hangs through a hole in the back of a dingy baseball cap. He has a penchant for understatement. "He's my best friend, and I want to help him go fast," he says.

Charlton returns the affection: "Roger's one of the few people I would let sleep with my wife."

Charlton and his crew began constructing a V8-powered motorcycle. They built a plywood platform on which they slowly pieced together the frame.

As it began to take shape, people in the neighborhood stopped by to see their progress. "How did you know how long to make it?" someone asked.

"I ran out of plywood," Charlton said.

He named the bike Quasimodo for the hump in the seat that would hopefully prevent the wind from knocking him off.

After a few trial runs at Thompson, Charlton set the world record for a V8-powered bike at an air show in Alabama: 201 m.p.h.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists the fastest motorcycle as a Harley-Davidson Easy Rider that hit 322 m.p.h. in 1990. But it wasn't powered by a V8. And Charlton's not interested in the Guinness standings.

"People can make up numbers," he says. "A lot of time they just aim a radar gun, and we all know how accurate those are."

Jim Curtis runs Thompson, where Charlton set the record for the fastest quarter-mile in eight seconds flat.

"He owns the record right now," says Curtis. "But he wants to set it in the sevens, where no one can ever touch it."

Curtis knows a little something about addiction. He understands that racing can grab you as tight as cocaine. He used to run stock cars at Daytona. But after his brother destroyed a car at Talladega -- suffering brain, back, and nerve damage -- Curtis gave it up.

He still feels the pull of the track whenever an engine cuts the air. "Once you get that in your blood, it's hard to get rid of," he says. "It's hard to watch a race."

But you can't keep him away when Charlton shows up. He wants to see how far this new addiction will take his friend.

With the motorcycle record secured, Charlton focused on building the world's fastest truck. All he needed was a jet engine.

What I remember most is the silence.

One second we're surrounded by the whine of the engine, the roar of the crowd over blaring country music, the noxious smoke. The next, it's gone.

A second into the run, the truck stops shaking and everything is suddenly smooth. The kid on his father's shoulders becomes a blur. There isn't even time to scream.

Charlton's focused on the end of the strip, where the road abruptly ends in a farmer's field.

Too fast to stop, I think.

Three seconds into the run, the truck veers toward the left guardrail. At this speed, there is really no steering.

I glance at Charlton in time to see his look of concern. This isn't supposed to happen.

Charlton reaches for one of the knife handles that control the parachutes and pulls. Nothing. He tries the other one. Nothing.

I turn forward to meet my fate, surprised to find a gentle calmness there.

"A sculptor looks at a piece of granite and sees a beautiful woman," says Charlton. "I had a pile of steel, and I saw a jet truck in it."

It's easier than it probably should be to buy a jet engine. Some large construction crews even use them to dry dirt.

Charlton tracked down a contractor who desperately wanted to part with one. He and Killian found a semi on eBay and drove to Wisconsin to pick it up. It almost didn't fit in the garage. They had to clean out the clutter and angle it diagonally.

Inside, he began to build The Phoenix.

Quasimodo had been a challenge, but the jet truck was in a different ballpark. That didn't slow Charlton.

"I wasted so many years of my life doing other shit," he says. "Now I'm focused."

He hung pictures of Einstein and quotes from poets on the walls for inspiration. He's particularly fond of Shel Silverstein.

His dog moved in too. An old mutt with one nasty leg.

"Nobody wanted him," says Charlton. "He chews on his leg. I took him to the vet, and he told me he had a psychiatric condition. Said he needed pills. I told him, 'I can't get any pills, so he isn't getting them either.'"

Tim McGraw and Bonnie Raitt filled the air while Killian fabricated parts.

"I get more used to it every day," Killian says of the music. "Journey's my favorite group. Well, used to be. They ain't anymore."

Last August, they got the engine to fire for the first time. They headed out to Thompson.

If Quasimodo made Charlton a celebrity, The Phoenix made him a legend. The first time he rolled up to the starting line, the crowd went nuts. This was something new. And it had been built by their prodigal son.

A familiar shout came over the loudspeaker: "We don't know what it's going to do!"

Milton was the first to notice how the Thompson regulars looked at Mike differently after that day. "When I go somewhere now, they call me Mr. Charlton, but it's only because of him, you know?" he says, his voice filling with emotion. "These people respect me because of Mike. When Mom or I go shopping or something . . . they respect him."

The town thief of Eastlake had become a hero.

This month, Milton will head to a mile-long track in North Carolina. He'll watch from the sidelines as his son attempts to rocket past 272 m.p.h., the world record for jet-powered semis. Just to make sure he owns it, Mike has his mind set on 300 m.p.h.

The end of the track rushes toward us. I see a patch of earth shaped by a farmer's combine a few feet beyond the pavement. If we don't stop, it will shortly send us airborne.

Charlton punches down the lever at his feet. It's attached to six brakes, but the look on his face says it might be too late.

The smooth ride erupts into violent convulsions. Momentum fights against the brakes. I lose sight of the field. This is it, I think. The last word I will ever utter is pulled from my lungs:


The vibrations reach a new pitch, then quickly begin to subside. A hundred feet from the end of the track. Fifty. Twenty-five. It feels like we're still doing 60.

Charlton stomps down on the brakes and pulls the wheel to the right. The tires graze green grass as The Phoenix turns down a small road leading back toward the parking lot. We coast to a stop.

Without a word, I unbuckle my straps and climb out. Wobbly legs find the ground and threaten to spill me. My heart beats against the racing suit like an angry landlord.

A small van rumbles up next to us, kicking dust into the air. Killian jumps out, his eyes wide. We've been clocked at 169 m.p.h. down the quarter-mile strip, just shy of Charlton's personal best.

"Well?" Killian asks. "Was it a smooth ride?"

I look to Charlton for a better explanation of the peril we just survived.

"It took us to the left side a little bit." That's all he says.

I shake my head as they hook The Phoenix to the back of the van. We head for the parking lot. Killian begs me to tell him all about it.

"It was wild," I say at last.

In the front seat, Charlton smiles. His eyes are closing against his will. He's as spent as the truck. It's a look of contentment that cannot be equaled, even by cocaine.

"Do you still get as excited seeing it for the hundredth time as you were for the first?" I ask Killian.

He looks at Charlton and laughs loudly. "That was only the eighth time he drove that thing," says Killian. "He's still testing it."

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