After 3 1/2 decades of thrilling crowds, a jet-powered semi-truck meets a tragic end

North Carolina has hosted its fair share of drag races and air shows over the years, and the Shockwave jet truck was one of the few attractions that matched both perfectly.

Shockwave was a novelty. Thanks to three jet engines, it was the fastest on wheels at most drag racing events, while at air shows it was often the only plane that never took off as it hurtled down the runway at 300 mph or more.

The truck was racing two planes at the Battle Creek Field of Flight Air Show and Balloon Festival in Michigan on Saturday when it crashed. The driver, Chris Darnell, 40, of Springfield, Missouri, was killed. Darnell’s father, Neal, posted on Facebook that… the truck had some kind of mechanical breakdown

Many shared videos of the crash shows the truck spinning away and falling over just after Darnell deployed a parachute to slow it down. The crash coincided with a firecracker fireball at the airport that was part of the show and did not come out of the truck.

The Darnells have been performing at the Shockwave since 2013, after they bought the truck from the man who built it, Les Shockley. The Darnells, who had previously ridden jet-powered vehicles, made Shockwave the centerpiece of their show.

Shockley built his first jet-powered dragster in the 1970s and wanted to take the concept further. He took a Peterbilt cab, removed the engine and entrails from the sleeping compartment, and tied up the three Pratt & Whitney jet engines.

Shockwave made its debut in June 1984 and was an instant hit, Shockley told me in an interview a decade later before an air show at the Norfolk Naval Air Station in Virginia.

“Everyone likes it. It’s something they can relate to,” he said. “Everyone sees trucks on the highway. They’ve just never seen one with 36,000 horsepower.”

Shockley said fighter pilots who had ridden Shockwave told him the thrust felt like a plane taking off from an aircraft carrier. He routinely drove over 300 mph there, once reaching a top of 376 mph, a record for a semi-truck.

Shockwave had two bucket seats, surrounded by heavy roll bars, and Shockley often had a guest with them. As a reporter for The Daily Press at Newport News, I got to ride next to him while demonstrating his jet truck to the press for the opening of the Azalea Festival Air Show in April 1994.

After signing the required waiver, I donned the same kind of thick fireproof suit Shockley was wearing. He explained that the truck was equipped with a fire suppression system that smothered fires by sucking in all the oxygen and that it had three separate braking systems and four parachutes.

His wife, Donna, went through all the security checks and followed Shockwave down the runway in a conventional truck.

“Like any act, it’s a lot safer than it looks,” she told me. “That’s why the public comes to air shows – to see something that looks dangerous.”

It’s hard to describe the feeling of accelerating to 275 mph and then coming to a stop the length of a runway. I remember my peripheral vision vanished as I was pushed back into the seat and just as suddenly pressed against the seat belt system across my hips and chest. Shockley said we hit a top speed of 284 mph.

Les Shockley was 50 at the time. Two years later, he began passing the executive duties to his sons, Kent and Scott, before the family sold the truck and its name to the Darnells. Neal Darnell said his son loved performing at air shows

“He was so loved by everyone who knew him,” Darnell wrote on Facebook. “He was ‘Living the Dream,’ as he said.”

Performances in North Carolina over the years have included the Cherry Point Air Show at the Marine Corps Air Station near Havelock, the Wings Over Wayne air show at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and at Rockingham Dragway.

Shockley told me the most gripping run he ever had in Shockwave was when he hit 376 mph. The tires blew, the parachutes ruptured and the front of the truck lifted off the ground, he said. He said he was still going 100mph when he went off the runway and had to spin the truck in some gravel to stop.

But he walked away, as he always did. Shockley died of stroke complications in 2019 at age 75.

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