The Central Florida Fair, whose 88th annual edition began an 11-day run last Thursday at the Central Florida Fairgrounds, doesn't lack for diversion. Acres of vertigo-inducing thrill rides, greasy snacks and informative exhibits ("The Amazing Dairy Cow!" ) compete for the attention of eager customers. With old-fashioned amusement going on all around, someone would have to walk on hot coals to get the crowd's undivided attention.
That someone would be Gary Shawkey. Last Saturday, Shawkey -- a motivational speaker and fire-walk instructor -- provided the fair's most heated entertainment as he attempted to set the Guinness world record for an uninterrupted march down a burning path. "The longest and the hottest walk in history" is what we were promised. (Sorry, Jennifer Lopez: Your trip to the Grammy podium doesn't count.)
A wood pile at the back of the grounds was visible evidence of the challenge. Pieces of red cedar and pine were laid three high along a 166-foot expanse that would be melted down as night fell, its embers then raked for the daredevil to trod across.
Surveying the setup, the T-shirted members of Shawkey's staff declared their assurance that he'd have no trouble beating the previous world record, which was a mere 50 feet of tootsie-roasting torture. The representatives of the Guinness organization, who had retained Shawkey's services to promote the impending opening of their Guinness World Records Experience attraction on International Drive, were equally optimistic. A huge 18-wheeler that had been dispatched by Orange County Fire Rescue, however, was a cool-headed reminder that playing with fire is always ... um, playing with fire.
The third degree
"If I can do it, anyone can do it," Shawkey said of the quest for sizzling self-realization. A former Herbalife representative whose Spring Hill, Fla.-based firm, Best Bodies International, leads "personal empowerment" seminars across the nation, the entrepreneur was certified four months ago to supplement his pitches with fire-walking lessons.
Though he had been introduced to the broiling exercise by motivational guru Tony Robbins, the similarities ended there. A portly little fellow dressed in sandals, a T-shirt and a dirty pair of shorts, Shawkey allowed that he was "not exactly a fit kind of an athlete." With that established, he lit one of the many Marlboros he was to suck down before show time.
He needed to stay calm: The previous evening, he and his people had "warmed up" for the event by doing a solidarity-reinforcing tramp across smoldering remnants of oak that had been heated to more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Some of his staff instructors had sustained "mild injuries," and he had burned his own feet "pretty bad."
This medical update was followed by an invitation for me to join the Best Bodies crew in a future walk. Not ready to put the ow! in "empowerment," I headed for the midway, where a rendezvous with a Philly cheese steak was the closest I came to making a burnt offering.
Though Shawkey's stunt was to begin at 6 p.m., the lighting of the wood didn't get under way until two-and-a-half hours later. The fire department wouldn't give the go-ahead before the day's high winds -- which set the fair's plastic pennants flapping like bat wings -- died down.
When the lumber was finally set alight, the assembled gawkers watched in awe as the blaze licked the air for two hours, then died. There's nothing like a bonfire to take civilized folk back to their Neanderthal roots.
Now dressed in a shirt and short pants that were decorated with cartoon flames, Shawkey looked like a sumo wrestler with a case of pyromania. Producing a skillet full of bacon, eggs and a raw steak, he set the late breakfast over the scorched pathway, proving its mettle as a genuine hot plate.
Pastor Don Eads, a Hawaiian minister and Shawkey's master of ceremonies, called for a silent prayer for his boss' safety. When the restless crowd broke its few moments of wordless contemplation, Shawkey strode purposefully onto the scalding course, his arms swinging furiously in the air with every fearless step. Lined up along the route, his people chanted "YES!" as he passed the Tiki torches that marked the 50-foot line. They were the glowing ghosts of the old record."Yo, Fat Boy is crazy," the woman behind me whispered in amazement.
Not crazy; just determined. Shawkey went all the way to the finish line, where his ecstatic followers crowded him in congratulation. In 45 seconds, a world standard had been set and a blow struck for the power of positive thinking.
He had, I noticed, sped up considerably in the final few feet. Motivation or no motivation, fire is hot.
If you want to follow Shawkey down the road to glory, you can enter one of his programs by calling 877-894-FIRE. The Central Florida Fair's cheese steaks are down the main aisle and to the left.