Skill at the flip of a switch

Film-inspired fan
whips up a storm
for mid-Missouri
Sunday, September 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 12:15 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

[Note: This is a longer version of a story that appeared in the print edition of the Columbia Missourian.]

Indiana Jones has nothing on Chris Camp.

The whip cracker and entertainer from Springfield, Ill., has 20 years of experience and three awards under his ammunition-studded belt. At the Heritage Festival on Saturday, Camp entertained the crowd with his speed and precision tricks while educating them in the history of whips and whip cracking.

It was the whip-wielding, treasure-seeking hero of pop-culture fame who inspired Camp to enter the world of whip cracking in the first place.

Camp was 11 when he went with his mother to see “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” For months after seeing the movie, he pestered his parents for a whip of his own. When the family ran across a cardboard box filled with old whips for $2 each at a stockyard, his parents caved in and bought two.

“They figured I’d either play with them for a week and be done with the fad or beat myself to death,” Camp said. “Either way, they figured it was $4 well spent.”

As he performed tricks of speed and precision Saturday for a crowd at the Heritage Festival, which continues from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at Nifong Park, Camp recalled how he taught himself to crack the whip through trial and error. He thought, like most novices, that swinging the whip in wide circles over his head was the key to getting a nice, loud crack.

“After about a week of doing this,” Camp said as he demonstrated swinging the whip in circles until he caught himself in it, “I convinced my parents to rent the movie.”

And movie-watching, along with a little reading and a lot of trial and error, was the main source of Camp’s early instruction. Luckily he grew up in a rural area, so after seeing a stunt in a movie he would head to the spacious backyard to practice. He learned the three basic movements in whip cracking — the cattlemen’s crack, the circus crack, and the overhead or flick — from a book by David Morgan, whom he describes as the “granddaddy” of whip cracking.

“David Morgan made the whips for the Indiana Jones movie,” Camp said. “And he’s made many of the whips I now use.”

With this basic knowledge in hand, Camp started to see the whip as an extension of his arm. He set up targets in the backyard and practiced hitting them as he imagined he was saving the world from bad guys.

“I pretended I was Indiana Jones or Black Bart,” Camp said. “My targets were my 12-inch ‘Star Wars’ figurines and my G.I. Joes.”

As Camp’s skill increased, the targets decreased in size. Camp entertained the crowd by joking that none of his friends would come over to play after he asked them to hold the figures in their hands so he could practice. As he told the story, he proved he was capable of such a feat by whipping in half a target held in his nephew’s fingertips.

Precision is not the only skill needed to be an international whip cracking champion, Camp said. He showcased his speed while announcing he recently bested the record for number of cracks in 60 seconds. The results are still being verified by the Guinness Book of World Records, but Camp is confident he will soon hold the world record for attaining 212 cracks in 60 seconds. His ultimate goal for speed is 240 to 245 cracks in a minute, which would require maintaining a four cracks-per-second average.

Throughout the summer, Camp does two or three shows per day, four days per week at festivals and events around the Midwest. Sometimes, such as this weekend, his wife and three children travel with him. He does tricks with his 2-, 4-, and 6-year-olds and enjoys having them participate in shows. His wife, Laura, said she feels comfortable having the children perform with him now, but at first had no idea what she had gotten herself into.

“I thought I was marrying a mild-mannered graphic designer with a little craziness about Indiana Jones,” she said.

Camp is still a part-time graphic designer and teacher, and he still has a soft spot for Indiana Jones. When asked how many times he’s seen “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Camp looked down and shook his head.

“It’s shameful,” he said. “Hundreds and hundreds of times in the last 20 years.”

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