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Leaping-Limo Driver Aims for a Record

Swathed in bubble wrap, Michael Hughes hopes to sail his Cadillac 125 feet at a San Bernardino event.

July 05, 2003|Kristina Sauerwein | Times Staff Writer

One morning three years ago, Las Vegas limousine driver Michael Hughes flipped on the tube after an all-night shift on the Strip and dozed off watching Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po -- the four doughy stars of the children's TV show "Teletubbies."

Hughes dreamed, he said, of crashing limos into a Teletubby belly. When he awoke, a new career was born.

Tonight, the Ontario man will cover his body in bubble wrap and gun his 3-ton white Cadillac limousine up a ramp at 65 mph -- hurtling skyward. If everything goes as planned, he'll land 125 feet away in a pile of 500 tires before a roaring crowd at the Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino.

"Sometimes, I feel like the cartoon character Wile E. Coyote, when he suddenly runs off a cliff," Hughes said. "But it's the price I pay for a life that's not boring."

The daredevil chauffeur will try to beat the current world record for jumping a limo -- 103 feet. It's a mark he set last year, one that put him in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Sure, Hughes said, he could die or injure himself. But he's up for the challenge -- and the money. "Yeah, it's a serious thing, but the money should be good," said Hughes, 47, who stands to earn $10,000 to $20,000 for the stunt.

Slight, mustached, with dirt beneath his fingernails, Hughes doesn't mean to sound money-grubbing, but leaping limos is how he earns a living. That, and occasionally driving the vehicles in Southern California and Las Vegas.

He also hopes to cash in by starring in the independent film "Stretch," a movie that he pitched and may release later this year based on his escapades in Las Vegas as a "renegade," unlicensed driver from 1996 to 2000. Hughes' jump will be filmed and included in "Stretch."

"I have a lot of things I'm working on," said the former Hollywood stuntman.

He chatted about his ambitions earlier this week while he was at the speedway inspecting the 30-foot long, 6-foot high steel ramp that will send his limo flying.

Originally from Oklahoma City, Hughes described details of the stunt in an animated twang:

He'll start gunning his limo about one-eighth of a mile from the stadium.

He'll drive up the ramp, fly over the speedway fence and crash in the stadium's dirt center on 500 interlocked car tires.

To soften the blow, Hughes will cover his body in bubble wrap. He'll also put the material around his seat. "It sounds funny," he said, "but bubble wrap works the best."

An estimated 2,500 to 4,000 auto racing fans are expected to attend tonight's event, which will also include "extreme" racing.

In September, Hughes earned a Guinness ranking at the Perris Auto Speedway by hurtling a Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine 103 feet, beating his previous 75-foot jump in Las Vegas. Tonight, he'll try for 125 feet.

In Perris, Hughes said, he injured his back seriously when the tires intended to catch his limo separated and he hit a wall. The tires for his jump tonight will be laced together to avoid a similar situation.

"It's going to be tough for me to do this," said Hughes, who studied trajectory physics to plot his stunt. "It's going to be a lot for me to just focus and not think about anything going wrong."

No Guinness category in limo ramp-jumping existed until Hughes, a former motorcycle racer, contacted the world's record-keepers to ask if they would be interested.

Limousine & Chauffeured Transportation Magazine praised Hughes as "the Evel Knievel of the limousine industry" in its May 2003 issue.

At the Orange Show Speedway, Hughes is a celebrity of sorts. "We are excited to be associated with him," said Steve Larsen, director of motor sports for the speedway, part of the National Orange Show Events Center, which also hosts concerts, fairs, trade shows and weddings.

"I had heard of him before," Larsen said. "I'm confident he'll break the record."

Hughes also said he's in and out of talks with Hollywood producers and Las Vegas casino executives about performing stunts on live TV, including hopping a limo from the top of one building to another.

"It's been hard to get anyone to sign on because of liability concerns," he said.

Hughes said he plans to stop his limo stunts by his 50th birthday. By then, he hopes to have enough money to move to Lake Havasu City, Ariz., where he plans to live on a houseboat and play piano at a bar after fine-tuning his keyboard skills.

To fulfill that dream, Hughes keeps his expenses down. He rents a bedroom in a trailer for $250 a month. His van is paid off. He has to feed only himself and his gray cat, Alex, who, he said, "is smarter than half the people I've met."

He acknowledged he has sacrificed a lot for his lifestyle. He's twice divorced. He moves a lot. He owns little. And he risks his life doing stunts.

"I want to live like a gypsy," he said. "I don't want to worry about a mortgage or someone else's opinion. I don't want to work behind a desk every day."

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