Thursday, December 6, 2007

Remembering Evel

Legendary motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel passed away last week, in his hometown of Butte, Montana.

My path crossed with Evel's on several occasions.

Far as I know, Evel's first visit to Boise was in the late 60s. The purpose of the trip was to promote himself (his lifelong mission), and to jump over some cars at Meridian Speedway.

(I'm not sure whether that visit was before or after his ill-fated attempt to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Vegas. That stunt took place in December '67, and is arguably what made Evel a celebrity (once he awoke from a crash-induced coma).)

I was a motorcycle-loving teenager, and eagerly made plans to go see him at the Speedway. I also remember, it was early-on in his notion of jumping over a canyon.

He originally had wanted to jump over the Grand Canyon - a goal worthy of his greatness. But the National Park Service immediately said, "No Way, No How!" So his vision diminished, and he set his sights on the Twin Falls Canyon. (At the time, Idaho's bureaucrats wouldn't get in the way of progress...)

He had brought the original "Sky Cycle," and parked it in front of the old Dodge dealership, down at 16th and Main, on a trailer. If memory serves, it was a 650 Triumph. (Although it may have been a Harley - those two brands were his favorites. But always painted red, white, and blue.) It was no ordinary motorcycle - it had small rocket engines mounted on either side, behind and underneath the pilot's seat. The rockets were silver, about the size of coffee cans, with the front end rounded off, cooling fins (?) wrapped around the main body, and a rocket nozzle emerging out the back. I believe they were designed to run on hydrogen peroxide, but I don't remember the details. I do remember that I thought it was awesomely cool to be standing so close to it, and touching it. Evel was hanging around in his white leathers, emblazoned with blue stars and red stripes, and eagerly talking to reporters. (His tastes in attire were similar to Elvis'. He was not a wallflower.)

The "gig" at Meridian Speedway went flawlessly.

The guy could handle a motorcycle! Before the jump, he spent 10 or 15 minutes working the crowd into Evel-frenzy, by racing up and down the track, aiming for the ramp and then turning aside at the very last minute. He could wheelie like nobody's business... standing on the back of the seat! He wheelied all the way around the (1/4-mile, I believe) oval track, and coulda kept going!

Finally he jumped. Over a bunch of cars, lined up side-by-side. I can't remember the number, but enough to be pretty dang impressive! He left town without any more broken bones than he had when he arrived. No small feat.

He came back a couple years later, and jumped over a bunch of cars (more than the previous time), out at Firebird Raceway. I was there for that one, too. But by then he was more of a celebrity than before, and my only exposure to the guy was watching his jump.

In the summer of 1972, there was an "Evel Woodstock" in Twin Falls.

That was a year before the actual "jump" attempt on the canyon, but he was already promoting the event.

I went with a couple of motocross-racing buddies and we spent a long weekend camping down there. Besides Evil's posturing (the main event), there was a series of motocross races at the jump site. My friends raced in the amateur classes; the pro races attracted world-renowned pro racers, mostly Europeans, who were our heroes.

By '72, ol' Evel was already pretty busted up. He still wore his trademark star-spangled white leathers. But his walk looked painful, and with the aid of a jewel-encrusted cane. He didn't let his crippled state hold him back, though... he was all over the place, and was quite approachable - as long as you approached him with the deserved reverence. After all, he was Evel Knievel! I don't remember talking to him, but I remember standing five feet away from him, and listening to him talk.

Late on the night we got there, three guys pulled in to the campground. They were from Arkansas or Oklahoma, and told us they had been driving for two days to get there. Sadly, they were also under the impression that Evel was going to do the jump. They were sorely disappointed when we clarified - that Evel was onsite, but no jump was planned for a year.

The main event was rather anticlimactic. The Evel faithful gathered 'round and listened to him promote himself and his jump plan. Then he got into his "Sky Cycle" - which by then had evolved into a rocket-ship and no longer bore even a vague resemblance to a motorcycle - and fired it up. It was on the ramp, aimed in the proper direction. But it was tethered by a shiny steel cable. I was standing next to the cable, and it vibrated crazily as the "Sky Cycle" jumped about, desperately wanting to blast into the void. (I later jokingly told my buddies it's a shame we didn't have cable cutters - we could've sent him early!)

Of course, the next year he went. He never got to his destination. He blamed it on equipment failure (premature parachute ejection). But the event brought together one of the biggest crowds in Idaho history, was broadcast live on "Wide World of Sports" (is that a sport?), and put Twin Falls on the map. (I wasn't able to attend; in '73 I was serving my mission in Uruguay - but I heard about it even down there. The fact that I was from Idaho made me an authority.)

Now he's gone. I s'pose it's a miracle he lived to 69 years. Who woulda thunk? (He looked a lot older than that, toward the end. And he even promoted a line of powered wheelchairs.)

So, was Evel a modern-day gladiator, or a side-show freak? Depends on who you ask. In either case, he was a unique individual, and I can unhesitatingly say he enriched my life, in a small and strange way.

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