Speedy Babbs was a pioneering stunt motorcyclist who was famous for riding his "Globe of Death" at fairs and carnivals across America from the 1930s through the 1960s. Babbs performed his act into his 60s and made appearances domestically as well as in foreign countries.
Louis Babbs was born in Providence, Kentucky, on October 27, 1905. Raised in a poor family, he went to work in the coal mines at a young age, like his father. He started riding motorcycles when he was 18. In 1925, Babbs moved to Southern California with his family. He was always attracted to the movies and started hanging around the Hollywood studios looking for work. He was hired as a stuntman and often performed stunts on motorcycles.
Around this time he began his short-lived racing career. Babbs put his racing career in perspective in a 1965 interview in Cycle Magazine.
"I was never a serious threat to anyone winning a race," Babbs recalled. "That’s why I became a drome rider. There was no competition."
Along with his Hollywood stunt work, Babbs took the job of airplane wing walker and stunt parachutist. Parachuting nearly cost Babbs his life. On July 4, 1932, Babbs was hired to jump from a plane at night off the coast of Santa Monica, California, and shoot off fireworks while in the air. Embers from the fuse of the first rocket fell into the basket he had strapped on carrying the other fireworks and they all exploded at the same time. Thousands of spectators that lined the shore were horrified to see Babbs falling into the ocean totally engulfed in fames. Fortunately, speedboats were nearby and they reached Babbs before he drowned. He suffered serious burns in the accident.
In 1929, Babbs began riding a motorcycle in a drome (essentially a large barrel where the riders would gain speed and ride on the wall of the barrel) at Ocean Park Amusement Pier in Venice Beach near Los Angeles. While he performed other types of stunts, motorcycle stunt riding would become Babbs’ claim to fame over the next three decades.
Babbs rode in dromes all over the country through the late 1940s. At one point, he built the tallest drome of the era, which was 16 feet tall inside the cylinder. By the early 1950s, he began touring with a contraption he called "The Globe of Death." The Globe was a large, steel-framed sphere. Babbs would ride his specially modified Indian Arrow inside the Globe. Fans would watch in amazement as Babbs performed all sorts of tricks, including making loops upside-down. Babbs traveled across the country in a specially modified Greyhound bus. He performed at fairs and carnivals, often working from 10 a.m. all the way through to the wee hours of the next morning with only a long enough break to bring in a new audience between shows.
The G forces riders of the Globe were exposed to often caused them to become nauseated. Babbs claimed that drinking a lot of milk kept him from that peril.
Babbs became so popular that he was asked to perform in Canada, Mexico and throughout the Caribbean. Once, while performing in Haiti, he noticed a commotion and all the spectators moving away from the platform when a big group of armed guards came in. He thought he was in the middle of a revolution, but it was President Estime of Haiti, along with many high-ranking government officials, who came to watch Babbs perform.
In Mexico, Babbs performed at a bullring and actually did a bull fight from the back of a motorcycle.
Babbs suffered numerous injuries during his stunt-riding career. He estimated that he had broken more than 60 bones. In one particularly humorous accident, Babbs was riding a newly built drome in which the wood was still green and slick. Inside the drome with him was a rhesus monkey riding in a go-kart. Babbs slid on the slick wood and he, his motorcycle, the monkey and the go-kart all landed in a heap at the bottom of the drome. Babbs said the monkey was mean to begin with and got free from the wreckage and started biting Babbs’ legs.
When asked by fans if he was afraid he might be killed performing his act, Babbs would glibly reply, "Do you plan on leaving this world alive?"
Babbs continued stunt riding through the late 1960s. He was forced into retirement after suffering two hard crashes in a row in 1968. Babbs died in 1976.
Inducted in 1999