Some people are born into a life of privilege and wealth most of us can only dream of. Banning’s Michael Hughes was born into a life in the limelight, although his experience has been much less glamorous than that of your average spoiled rich kid. Michael Hughes was born to race.
Hughes has been around the racing industry since he was birthed. Well, almost. He attended his first auto race when he was only two months old, and spent the majority of his younger years “bouncing around in the back of a pickup truck anywhere from Shreveport to Charleston” following his father’s racing career, which required extensive travel. “They were real stock cars back then. My dad would buy them off the showroom floor,” Hughes says.
Eager to have a fast lane career of his own, Hughes began racing minibikes at age 12, motorcycles at 14, and by the time he turned 17 in 1971, he had gone pro and was racing in the AMA flat-track league. “It was good money back in those days, but my parents were horrified. They thought I would kill myself. But the major contributing factor to racing motorcycles is that I couldn’t afford a car.”
His parent’s fears weren’t entirely unfounded. Hughes has been in several races where friends and fellow drivers have died in fiery crashes.
He continued racing cycles for the next 13 years, on everything from flat-track to ice racing, but harbored secret aspirations to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a NASCAR driver (his father had his first and only pro NASCAR race in 1960).
Hughes moved to Charlotte and started working on the NASCAR circuit as a mechanic. He also worked on several of the Busch team cars, all the while longing to drive his own. He came close several times, although a lack of funding always left him working on the pit crew instead of behind the wheel. After 10 years, Hughes, worn out from the grueling travel schedule and long hours that working in a pit crew demand, gave up his dream and moved to Las Vegas to work as a limo driver.
“Working in NASCAR is the kind of job that drains you. It’ll beat you down until you don’t want to live anymore, and when I quit, I didn’t want to live anymore. I just thought to myself—Vegas, as a limo driver? That kind of makes sense,” Hughes says.
Hughes loved Vegas for the enticingly posh nightlife and the renegade spirit embodied in the city. The job offered him a chance to be around the velvet ropes and exclusive events ordinarily reserved for the crème de la crème. He drank in every moment, but still longed for the fast-paced, adrenaline-pumping world of auto racing.
Then one evening, Hughes had an epiphany. A weird-ass epiphany.
After working all night, he came home around 8 a.m., plopped down on his couch, and flicked on the TV. He didn’t care what was on. It didn’t matter. He dozed off, still in his tuxedo, as Teletubbies started. “I had this dream with Teletubbies and flying limousines. As soon as I woke up, I thought: That’s it. I’m going to jump a limousine.”
It took him almost five years to pull it off, but eventually, Hughes did his first jump in Pahrump, Nevada, where he catapulted his limo “something really silly, something around 45 feet.” But those 45 feet were enough to make him dream of bigger jumps. His next was in Las Vegas, where he coasted the car an impressive 77 feet. (Hughes doesn’t actually jump over anything in particular other than dirt, mostly because it’s cost-prohibitive—hey, even mangled old junkyard cars are expensive these days.)
“Jumping a limo is pretty hard on the body. If this were a monster car with a special shock system, it would be a different story. I mean, the limo is usually totaled at the end of each jump, and the limos are pretty stocked. You have to get the limo up to speed, and when you hit the ramp it bottoms out every time. Then the back bumper drags on the ground. It’s amazing. In the air, it’s really quiet, but then you come crashing down with this horrendous, thundering crash,” Hughes says.
Although sailing a limo through the air for 77 feet would be enough to satiate most people’s appetites for danger, Hughes wasn’t done. He still wanted to go bigger, but his quest for distance went horribly awry in 2000 in Seattle, when he tried to jump 100 feet. Hughes knew he wasn’t going to clear as he approached the ramp and was going about five miles per hour slower than he needed to be. The ensuing crash broke his back.
But in 2002, Hughes came back and snagged a Guinness World Record for jumping his Lincoln Town Car limo 103 feet at the Perris Auto Speedway. Looking to improve, he attempted a bigger jump at San Bernardino’s NOS Events Center, this time aiming for 120 feet.
“I was circling the car around the track trying to gain speed, and it didn’t feel right. Then, sure enough, the head gasket blew as I was driving up the ramp. The engine could have kept going, but it didn’t, and I landed 30 feet short of the landing area,” Hughes says.
Luckily, Hughes was able to crawl out of the wreckage and walk away from the crash, to the cheers of the audience. “I was laying in the car thinking that I didn’t want to be taken away in an ambulance. Everyone in the crowd probably thought I was dead.”
Though he was wrapped in safety gear, the crash broke his back again.
But persistence is Hughes’ most enduring personality trait, as demonstrated by his 10 years trying to become a NASCAR driver. He’ll attempt the jump again at the NOS Events Center on August 25, adding an additional 18 feet to his pervious world record.
Jumping limos isn’t Hughes’ only aspiration. In a year, he plans on launching a rocket-propelled motorcycle—with himself riding it, natch—over “something really big.” He’s talking to people in Colorado, at Hoover Dam, and with Native American tribes around the Grand Canyon. He’s enlisting the help of Scott Truax, son of Bob Truax, who helped build Evel Knievel’s X-2 Skycycle for his failed 1974 leap over Snake River Canyon. (The contraption looks something like a cross between a Big Wheel and SCUD missile.)
Hughes, who’s all about legitimacy and the renegade Vegas spirit, has some degree of contempt for Knievel, since he never raced motorcycles.
“A smart guy thinks about the dangers and gets around them. You see, there are some people who have guts and balls, and then there are some people who are crazy and belong in a rubber room. I would put Evel Knievel in the last category,” Hughes says, adding that he wants to attempt his epic jump a year from now. “The rocket jump is kind of like my 401k,” he says.
And after that? “Who knows, maybe I’ll be the oldest person to ever qualify for the Daytona 500. I mean, I’m in really good shape,” says the 51-year-old, who works out six days a week, rarely eats fast food and doesn’t look like he could be any older than 40.
“I’m fast, you know? Even if it does take me 20 minutes to get out of bed some mornings.”