Benjamin J. Koske, 73, combs his thinning hair, puts on his suit, and slips behind the wheel of his white Buick LeSabre. Five minutes later, he is at work, parked in his designated space, where he slides the lever on the detonator until it clicks, and the Buick explodes. Flames rise more than 30 feet in the air. The doors, the hood, and the trunk fly off.
For a moment, the only sound is from the Buick, sizzling like a sirloin steak, water from an earlier rain boiling beneath it. Benny “the Bomb” Koske climbs out of the car—somehow, once again, still alive—and waves to the crowd. That crowd is stunned to have witnessed something that actually happened—so much of what they see in movies and on TV is the result of computer-aided graphics—that they cheer and applaud, a sound Benny the Bomb can’t hear right now, having just been at ground zero.
In the world of auto stunts, Benny the Bomb is considered a legend, alongside Bumps Willard, Tricky Travelstead, Insane Arno Selberg, Creepo the Clown, Mr. Dizzy, and Spanky Spangler.
Benny the Bomb is the closing act of the Crash-A-Rama series at Orlando Speed World, a twice-annual thrill show that helps keep the doors open at the sagging speedway the rest of the year. He follows a two-hour rain delay for torrential thunderstorms that cleared the grandstands and turned the infield into a giant, trash-filled mud puddle glistening with spilled oil and gasoline.
But Crash-A-Rama series promoter George Knauer—better known as the mulleted “Moe the Hothead” during two seasons of Carpocalypse on Spike TV, a show that profiled demolition-derby drivers—is well aware that no Crash-A-Rama has ever been rained out, and he decides the show must go on. When the rain slows to a drizzle, it does.
Benny the Bomb comes out last, just after midnight. The just-painted Buick has been rigged with a variety of explosives, including a lot of gasoline and a little Cremora nondairy coffee creamer, which professional stuntmen have long used to make a “Cremora fireball.” Benny the Bomb has mostly perfected his witch’s brew of explosives, measuring them carefully and placing them strategically so that when they ignite, shrapnel flies away from him. He has 15 seconds to get out of the car. If he doesn’t, he says the promoters don’t have to pay him but that it would be nice if they helped arrange the funeral.
How many times has he blown up in the past 30 years? “Hundreds,” Benny the Bomb says. “Thousands. I have no idea.”
Sometimes things do not go according to plan. “Once, I spent 30 days in a burn ward at the hospital,” says Koske, who has traveled as far as Singapore to blow up. There have also been broken legs and ribs. Once, he blew his stomach open. “Another time, I needed 18 stitches where, you know, back here where my wallet is.”
He became Benny the Bomb comparatively late in life. He had a job with a company working for the space program: “I put two men on the moon before I got laid off,” he says—and that’s when he started performing as a driver in stunt shows, inspired by a friend, stuntman Chuck Beeler. Eventually, Koske’s company called him back to work, “But I told them to forget it—I’d found something I liked better. Freedom!”
Not long into his stunt-driving career, he saw a Russian in Saskatchewan blow himself up while sitting in a chair. Koske learned the secret of what he calls the “Russian mystery trick,” but rather than use a chair, he built a bunch of coffins from thin boards and went on tour, exploding.
Among his first customers: Robin Braig, former president of the Daytona International Speedway. Fresh out of college in 1981, Braig was working for a minor-league baseball team in Vero Beach when a man showed up and handed him a business card.
“It was actually a matchbook cover,” Braig recalls, with red, white, and blue ink. On one side, it said, “Start your fair or celebration with a BANG!” On the other was a cartoon of Koske, with a huge helmeted head and a small body, the body sitting in a coffin surrounded by dynamite. Koske’s shirt read, “All-American Daredevil.”
“He said he would blow himself up at second base for five nights straight during the seventh-inning stretch,” Braig says. “I think he charged us $200. So every night, we’d wheel him out in his coffin, which was sitting on the trailer we used for lawn maintenance, and he’d explode.” All went well Monday and Tuesday. The weather changed on Wednesday. That night, Benny the Bomb seemed to blow up with much more force than before. “The trailer went flying,” Braig says. “Second base was gone. Just a hole. Benny was lying there dazed. We ran out to him, and he said, ‘I forgot to adjust for the change in humidity.’”
Not long after, it was suggested that if Koske blew himself up in a car, he would be marketable to racetracks. He guessed at the explosives and was about to climb into his first exploding car when someone suggested he blow it up from a distance. Good idea. “I would not be here today if I had been in that car,” he says. The seat Benny the Bomb would have occupied landed a half-block away.
For years, he toured the globe, appearing four times on The Tonight Show, as the centerfold in National Enquirer, and in feature stories in publications worldwide. He once opened for the Rolling Stones. He blew up in the Astrodome. In 1974, a profile in the Chicago Daily News called him the “small man with the lean build of a dynamite stick,” a description that does not quite apply today. Koske spent most of his time on the road, returning when he could to his wife in Palm Bay, Florida, and her 26 cocker spaniels. “I don’t have a wife no more,” Koske says. He does not mention cocker spaniels.
Even well past retirement age, there’s still work for Koske. “He’s old school,” says Crash-A-Rama’s Knauer. “He knows how to work a crowd.”
How much longer? Koske doesn’t know. Maybe a year or two. He talks of finding and training a successor, maybe a pretty girl, who would climb from the burning car and remove her helmet, and when the crowd would see lots of blonde hair cascading down, they’d say, “Hey! It’s a girl!”
For the Florida performance, Benny the Bomb showed up a day early, alone, driving his blue Chevrolet Impala. The promoters provided the Buick, which Benny found barely acceptable, preferring a Ford Taurus because it blows up better. Fellow stuntman Chris “Flying Elvis” Morena, who would jump a car over a row of school buses into an until-recently-occupied mobile home prior to Benny the Bomb’s closing act, helped prepare the car, which took Koske all day to wire for explosives.
Finally, it’s showtime. Benny climbs into the car. The bolts holding the doors, hood, and trunk had been removed, and those parts wired shut for the ride to the track infield. Morena clips the wires. Almost all the crowd has returned to the still-dripping grandstands. Dressed in an old Leaf racing suit that was once red, white, and blue before too many explosions and subsequent washings faded it to a sort of singed gray, Benny the Bomb slips on a head sock and a helmet. He lies down on the front seat of the Buick, pulling a heavy fireman’s blanket over him.
The crowd starts the countdown: “Three, two, one . . .” Benny the Bomb can’t hear them, of course—he is a bit hard of hearing for reasons that should not have to be explained—but he anticipates the countdown just right and slides the lever on the detonator, triggering three mortars and some additional explosives. The fireball is enormous—bigger than usual—possibly, in part, because gasoline on the ground, which had leaked into the infield from demolition-derby cars, ignited, too.
Flying Elvis Morena, also in helmet and fire suit, rushes to the car and helps pull Benny the Bomb to safety. He is wobbly but coherent. “You never know exactly what will happen,” he says. “I think I could have gotten out, but I’m glad Chris was there to help me.”
Later, members of the track crew say they were not so sure. The explosion was much larger than they had anticipated. They used up all their fire extinguishers and had started pouring water on the blazing Buick, but it burned and burned. Koske’s special custom-built detonator was still in the car, and he had tried to get close enough to retrieve it, but it was just too hot. One by one, the tires exploded. Then, a moment later, another explosion sounded like a trailing-off trill of fireworks. “That was the detonator,” a dejected Koske says. He had a show the next week in Atlanta and needed that special detonator. “I don’t know what I’m going to do."
One way or another, the show will go on. If he can’t find a detonator, Koske still has some of those red, white, and blue matchbooks, and a long fuse. “Benny is a pro,” says Flying Elvis Morena. “They don’t make them like him anymore.”