Make it or break it

Millions are at stake and a life is on the line for one shot across the canyon
September 01, 1974

Right now it isdifficult to gain a perspective. Horses and beef cattle graze vacantly amongthe thistles, looking up occasionally with that innocent hauteur of theungulate to stare at the heavy trucks rumbling back and forth from the jumpsite. A red-tailed hawk turns lazily over the potato fields in the middledistance. Butterflies bounce on the hot, dry breeze—swallowtails and sulphursand big bright monarchs. A mounted cowboy trots past, fat and bespectacledunder his Stetson, with a shovel lashed to his saddle instead of thetraditional rifle. The workmen on the ramp sweat and curse with the easyfluency of carnival roustabouts, and indeed there is a carny air to the wholeproceeding. Even the rocket—the Sky-Cycle X-2, as it is styled in thepromotional literature—looks like a kiddy ride at an amusement park. It seemstinny and tiny, but perhaps we have been conditioned to gigantism by too manymoonshots. After all, this is only a canyonshot.

Staring down fromthe lip of the Snake River Canyon into the boiling green water below, onesuddenly grasps the enormity of the whole operation—the absurdity, thearrogance, the awful, febrile, frightening, heroic lunacy of it. Very soon nowhe is actually going to climb into that thing and they are going to shoot himout over this great gash in the earth, and he is either going to live or he isgoing to die.

There will be some50,000 people right here watching him do it, and millions more watching onhundreds of closed-circuit television screens. They will stare with about thesame comprehension as those cows and horses watching the trucks go by. Thehoopla artists from tee-vee will be babbling throatily about valor and dangerand the six million bucks he has already pocketed—the usual dry-cleanedobscenities of this age of excess—and for a long, loud moment our hearts willseize up and we will watch the high, arching trajectory, the trail of steam andchutzpah, and wish that we could close our eyes.

"I've createda monster," says Evel Knievel, "and I don't know how to controlit."

Well, if hedoesn't, there are plenty of smart-money guys who do.

The whole notionof a canyon jump came to Robert Craig Knievel more than eight years ago. He hadalready invented the unlikely art of motorcycle jumping, leaping a bike acrossever-widening rows of cars and trucks parked side by side between two ramps, anact accompanied by an ever-growing cacophony of applause and snapping bones.(Today, with more than 300 jumps under his pegs, he has crashed 11 times to thetune of 50 separate fractures, by his count—statistics that become morepainfully credible when you watch his walk: the crabbed, hip-stiff hobble of aland-mine victim.) Along the way, nurturing a talent for showmanship unequaledin the realm of American folk art since the days of Barnum and Buffalo Bill, hewrapped himself, as they say, in legend. Here he comes—onetime hubcap thief andbank robber, a hard-drinking, heartbreaking bar fighter, Montana mountain man,big spender, friend to the poor and downtrodden, Jesse James on two wheels;says the first thing that comes to his haid and it's always right, takes noguff off no one; star-spangled leathers, kidnapped his wife in order to marryher, to hell with the fat cats, $1,000-a-hole golf bets, blows $5,000 on freedrinks for everyone in New Orleens, don't give a dang what you say so long asyou spell my name right—that's Evel, with two e's.

In 20 minutes, itis said, Evel Knievel can tell enough anecdotes about his early life to keep areporter busy for 20 years just checking them out.

But fame, the realfame that transcends fact and generates fantasy in entire populations, does notaccrue merely by means of broken bones and baloney. Real fame, which includesreal wealth but eventually leaps beyond it, requires a darker component. Itrequires blood. It requires death. Suicide or murder. A bullet in the backfixed Jesse James forever in our consciousness; Frank James died old andremains a footnote. General George Armstrong Custer with his boots on, JohnDillinger with his Lady in Red, Hemingway with his shotgun, Mama Cass with herham sandwich—like that.

And Evel with hiscanyon.

The trick is tocombine the awesome grotesquerie of death with the attention of millions, andif possible to tuck in a little grace along the way. Thoughts of that sort musthave lain latent in the alcohol-clouded brain of Evel Knievel as he satdrinking one evening in 1966 at Moose's Place, a saloon in Kalispell, Mont.Evel was drinking the notorious Montana Mary, a sneaky concoction of beer andtomato juice favored by the vitamin-conscious miners, cowpokes and sod-bustersof those climes. Unlike its vodka-based cousin, the Bloody Mary, the Montanavariant works slowly but insidiously on the imagination of the imbiber, aidedin its devilish work by the high altitude that normally accompanies itsconsumption. Some time that evening between boasts and belches, Evel'sattention was caught by a calendar on the wall. It depicted the GrandCanyon.

"The more Istudied on it, and the more Montana Marys I put back, the narrower that durnedhole in the ground seemed to get," Evel recalls. "People talk about theGeneration Gap and the Missile Gap and the Education Gap, but I suddenly sawthat the real gap was right out there in the heart of the Golden West. And Iknew I could bridge the bastard."

It was then andthere that the monster was born.

Later, when theU.S. Department of Interior denied him airspace over the Grand Canyon—on thegrounds, apparently, that national parks are not meant for the suicidalself-aggrandizement of the citizenry—Evel shifted his sights to Idaho's SnakeRiver Canyon. It is not the same thing, of course, either symbolically or interms of size. Where the Grand Canyon measures from four to 18 miles from rimto rim, and up to 5,700 feet in depth, the Snake River Canyon, at the pointwhere Evel will jump, is less than a mile wide and 600 feet from the crumblinglava of its lip to the turbulent water below. Nonetheless, it's a long way overand a long way down—potentially fatal distances any way you look at them.

The plan, as itfirst exploded in Evel's fecund imagination, was-to jump with a real motorcycleto which some form of additional propulsion would be attached, maybe JATObottles, maybe a steam-powered booster rocket. Evel imagined himself roaring upa long approach road toward a ramp much like the ones he uses in his automobileand truck leaps. Millions would line the road, their cheers drowned out by thebellow of the big hawg. At the last moment the booster would ignite, kickingEvel and bike into a long, high trajectory. On the far side, if he could holdit, he would touch down on a landing ramp.

It didn't takelong to realize the impossibility of that dream. It would have to be a modifiedrocket shot if it was to work at all. "I started hunting for a rocketguy," Evel says, "the best one that money could buy. Finally JimLovell, the astronaut, told me about a fellow named Robert C. Truax who was oneof the founders of Nassau"—that's NASA to non-Montanans—"and who'dworked on the big space stuff right from the start. He was so excited by theidea that he dropped everything and came to work for me."

Truax had workedon a lot of the big space stuff, all right, but not for NASA as Knievel says;the engineer was once president of the American Rocket Society and conductedstudies that led to the Polaris missile. In any event, Truax proved to beinvaluable to the scheme: his down-to-earth aerospace sense perfectlycounterpoints Evel's soaring imagination. A short, taciturn man of 56 with asalt-and-pepper crew cut, he has done his best to ensure that the safestpossible vehicle would be built for the price Evel was willing to pay. Still,it might not be enough. Evel claims to have spent $1 million on the Sky-Cycleand the launch site, including $37,500 to lease the land surrounding thetakeoff ramp and thus preclude any further governmental interference. For allthat, one wonders if enough has been spent to ensure a successful jump.

If it has, thenBob Truax is in for a nice bonus. Evel carries a check for $100,000 made out inTruax' name. Significantly, it is dated Sept. 9—the day after the jump."That way if I don't make it," Evel says, "Bob doesn't either. Heh,heh."

The way it nowlooks, Evel will take off from a standing start at the bottom of a108-foot-long steel ramp angled at 56 degrees above the horizontal. TheSky-Cycle's steam jet, which should be "safer" because it usesnonvolatile fuel, will generate 5,000 pounds of thrust, enough to fling Evel atthe speed of 400 mph to an apogee 2,000 feet above the takeoff point. Duringthe liftoff he will pull in excess of five Gs—not enough to cause a blackoutbut maybe enough to give him a bloody nose and render him non compos for fourseconds, according to Truax. He will not wear a G suit, not even one of thesort worn by test pilots as long ago as World War II. Instead he will don aspecial star-spangled red, white and blue knit jump suit complete with crashhelmet. The cockpit itself is open and makes the Sky-Cycle seem more like amotorcycle, which it is not by any stretch of the imagination. It doesn't evenhave a steering system, for that matter, though there is a sort of fixedhandlebar for Knievel to cling to. This will be, plain and simple, a ballistictrip, with Evel along as the passenger.

To ensure thatinvoluntary movements of the rider do not throw the vehicle out of whack andsend it tumbling during its trajectory, and to keep him from being thrownforward, Evel will be strapped in with lap and shoulder harnesses. There is noejection system in the craft; if Evel has to hit the silk, he will have toscramble out and over the side and unleash his parachute. "If he getswarning soon enough that the vehicle chute isn't working—and if he works fastenough—he can get out with the reserve chute," says Truax. At the lowaltitudes involved in the shot, such action calls for a lot of luck.

Toward the end ofthe trajectory, which is computed to cover 4,781 feet horizontally, Evel willpull a lever at the right front of the cockpit that will deploy a drag chutefrom the rear of the Sky-Cycle. That will drop the vehicle nose first into thesagebrush where shock absorbers will dampen the impact. (One envisions theSky-Cycle bouncing across the desert at the end of the ride like some fat,finned and star-spangled pogo stick.)

On the face of itEvel is blasé about the dangers. "If the heater doesn't blow up and scaldme to death on the launch ramp," he says, "if the countdown goes right,if the Sky-Cycle goes straight up and not backward, if it actually reaches2,000 feet, if the chute works, if I don't hit the wall at 400 mph and if I canget out of it when it lands—I win. If it doesn't work, I'll spit the canyonwall in the eye just before I hit. Then again, I've got five backup systems.The fifth one is called the Lord's Prayer."

But that is thepublic Evel talking. In private he is less cocksure.

"Right now Idon't think I've got better than a 50-50 chance of making it," he says."It's an awful feeling. I can't sleep nights. I toss and turn, and all Ican see is that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death'shead. You know, I've always been concerned about kids—not just my own three butall kids—what kind of an image I'm providing for them, what kind ofinspiration. I don't know now. Maybe I'm leading them down the path toself-destruction. Our house in Butte is surrounded day and night by peoplewanting to look at me, to take something as a souvenir. And that damn littleRobbie of mine, the 11-year-old, you know what he has gone and done? He has gota big old sign out in front that says SEE EVEL JR. JUMP—25¢. It's not a goodthing."

Imitation may bethe greatest of compliments, but in Evel's case imitation can indeed lead todeath or a wheelchair, as nearly a dozen would-be Knievels have alreadydiscovered over the past two or three years. One of the best imitators wasformerly on Evel's staff. Robert (Wicked) Ward, age 26, of Buffalo and Atlanta,is a slim, grinning, long-haired daredevil who claims he recently cleared 19cars in a bike jump at Palmetto, Ga., just two cars fewer than Evel's"world record." One of Wicked's wrists is still wrapped in an Acebandage, and he speaks in a hoarse whisper, the result of a karate chopcourtesy of his handlebars during a bad spill. Wicked nods sagely as Evelrambles on about the dangers, both social and personal, of the canyon jump, butthe avidity in Wicked's eyes, the sparkling joy at the prospect of death,cannot be disguised. Not that Wicked would like to see his guru gone; it's justthat the act itself—the great hubristic leap, the slap in the face ofgravity—is too much.

Evel is sitting inthe lounge of the Blue Lakes Inn on the outskirts of Twin Falls, Idaho, notthree miles from the jump site. Well-wishers and autograph hounds surround himin an ever-changing ebb and flow. Twin Falls (pop. 22,700) is a smiling,open-faced town set in the midst of southern Idaho's temperate, potato-rich"Magic Valley." Its citizens don't quite know what to make of Evel. Theboosters among them realize that the jump will not only "put us on themap" but generate an unprecedented one-shot windfall of tourist bucks whenthe teevee crews and other gawkers arrive. The loners among them resent theshow-biz aura of the event, the impending, lemminglike descent of meat-facedstrangers determined to be in on the kill.

"Fiftythousand people?" says a cocktail waitress, bringing Evel a fresh gin andtonic. "Heck, I ain't never seen more than a thousand in one place. It'sscary."

"Fiftythousand, hell," snorts Evel, recovering from a mood of introspection."That's just tickets at $25 a throw. They'll be a hunnerd thousand morejust trickling around the edges. You'll need a helicopter or a quarter horse toget in and out of that jump site."

The size of thecrowd suddenly raises the prospect of an added danger: Can the eroded lava ofthe canyon's rim stand the weight of such a vast, milling mass? What if theledge just flakes off, precipitating Evel, Sky-Cycle, launch ramp and fans ontothe boats and rocks and raging currents below? It would be a cataclysm worthyof Nathanael West, particularly since there will be a small circus, repletewith daredevil acts, performing on the ledge below the jump site. The Crumblingof the Canyon....

"Not verylikely," Evel sniffs. But then again, what has ever been very likely aboutanything Evel does?

A woman reportertakes advantage of a pause in the spiel to request an "in-depthinterview." Evel stares at her as if a giant Idaho spud had suddenlystarted to talk.

"No in-depthinterviews!" he roars, slamming the floor for emphasis with his $22,000,gold-and-diamond-headed walking stick full of vodka, gin, bourbon and Scotch."And no tape recorders, neither! I know what you got in that big purse ofyours, lady. You got a tape recorder in there! I don't want no one writing upthese stories I tell about bank robberies and sexual conquests. No taperecorders!" Slam, bam, bam!

The reportershrinks back, blanching. She had waited five days to put in her request. Shehad never met Evel before. She did not recognize the web work of laugh wrinklesat the corners of his eyes—dead giveaways of a classic Knievelian put-on—northe fact that, where Evel is concerned, there is no such thing as an in-depthinterview. Ask him a straight question and one will get 50 crooked answers. Theman is a monument to logor-rhea, a master of instant self-history; in thephrase of one of his partners in the venture, "the white MuhammadAli."

"Come on,"says Evel to a companion. "We're going to shoot us some golf."

The Blue LakesCountry Club, a few miles downstream from the jump site, is a verdant oasistucked away under the rotten lava walls of the Snake River. Limpid streamsblack-bottomed with big trout wind through the golf course. Evel's adversary inthe match is Chuck Cosgriff, a bearded, barrel-bellied Idahoan of 30, who ownsthe biggest billboard company in Twin Falls and is generally conceded to be thetown's best golfer. He and Evel have teamed up in many a celebrity tournament.Today Cosgriff is competing in a Byzantine labyrinth of hole-by-hole andshot-by-shot bets against not only Evel, but the Knievel fils: Kelly, 13, andRobbie. Evel's pretty wife Linda, 31, and his nine-year-old daughter Tracy arealong to run messages, fetch lost balls and clubs and zoom back to theclub-house at the master's whim for more gin and tonics.

"We've beenmarried 15 years," Evel confides as Linda trots off on one of a few hundredharshly ordered errands, "and you know something? Her face is always thesame: a smile. Oh, I yell at her and boss her around, but she says she has onlyone job in life. To serve me. I made a deal with my kids, though. I promisedthem that if I ever yell at Linda or at them unnecessarily or too harshly, theycan punch me in the nose. If they can hit me, they get $100. If they can knockme down, they get $200."

The golf game isno great shakes. Evel demonstrates a larruping long drive, but his short gameand putting are inconsistent if not downright lousy. Cosgriff, by contrast, issteady and smooth, and his constant consumption of double Gibsons during thecourse of the match seems neither to aid nor to erode his game. The boys showflashes of brilliance and Evel watches them with pride and worry: the burden offathers everywhere.

"That damnlittle booger Robbie," he says when the younger boy flubs an iron shot."Come on over here, Robbie, and give your dad a kiss!" The kid blushesand turns away. "Come on, honey," says Evel with a wicked grin, addingsotto voce: "He thinks he's gotten too old to kiss his daddy good night. SoI told him, 'O.K., now, you're going to have to go to work.' The next morning Igot him up at seven o'clock and set him to a bunch of chores. That night hecome to me and said, 'If I kiss you good night, can I sleep late tomorrow?' Thelittle booger."

"He's a goodlittle golfer, though," says Cosgriff. "They both have the makins. Andthat's more'n I can say about their daddy."

Evel is up anddown, on and off. Between holes he drives his golf cart as if it were amotocross bike. On one late hole he blows both his drive and his second shot,then slams the iron against the golf bag. His rage is open, unfaked. But on the18th green he sinks an 80-foot putt to retrieve all his losses and win $5 fromCosgriff on the afternoon, an afternoon in which the betting ran to hundreds ofdollars in total but finally canceled out nearly even. So much for those$1,000-a-hole golf matches that have entered the legend.

During dinner thatnight he yells at Tracy. She throws a halfhearted punch that barely grazes herfather's nose. He laughs, and peels off a $100 bill.

Later he moseysinto the Blue Lakes Inn cocktail lounge for a nightcap or three. In attendanceare Bob Arum, president of Top Rank, Inc., which is orchestrating the wholeshow and claims to have paid Evel $6 million up front for a share of theaction, and a few of Arum's aides. Evel is in a combative mood. He chides Arumfor wearing a red and white seersucker suit—"Who do you think you are, theGreat Gatsby?"—and wonders aloud why he ever signed on anyone to help inpromotion of the jump.

"Hell," hesays, "I'm better than P. T. Barnum and Colonel Parker put together."Nobody denies it.

A couple of hisButte buddies join the party. These are the men who built Evel's launch rampand he welcomes them heartily—Coors all around.

"Hell, I don'tneed nobody," he continues. "Certainly don't need no smart Harvardlawyers. Hey, Ralph, remember that big old Euclid I used to drive up at theAnaconda mine? One day they dropped about a six-ton rock in the back of thatYuke, and when I took off I popped a wheelie. The front of the Yuke hit a4,800-volt power line overhead and blacked out all of Butte. Hell, it blackedout the whole county. The foreman tells me I'm fired, so what'd I do? I wentand picked up my pay and then I drove the Yuke on down to the foreman's littlehut and I dumped 17 cubic yards of dirt on it. Got on my motorsickle and roaredon out of there. I don't need nobody. Hell, maybe what I'll do now, I'll buyAnaconda and fire that foreman. Like they always said: God made man, and theWinchester made 'em equal!"

Arum leaps to hisfeet, resplendent in his Gatsby suit, and begins singing a Harvard fightsong.

By midafternoon ofthe following day Evel is ready for the first public unveiling of the Sky-CycleX-2 at the jump site. The vehicle is already mounted at the base of the ramp,dwarfed by the big sky overhead and the deep canyon below. Evel roars up in hisstation wagon and dismounts. He is dressed all in black and he starts to run upthe 40-degree earthen ramp toward the Sky-Cycle. About halfway up he starts topuff and wisely walks the rest of the way.

"Get thatcrane away from here," he yells to a workman. "Get them photographersaway till I call for them." He spies Wicked Ward standing guard at thebottom of the ramp. "Wicked, you keep them civilians the hell away fromhere. Chase 'em off if they try to get up."

Incipientparanoia? Evel has gotten extremely wary of late—"There are hundreds ofguys who want to know how this Sky-Cycle works, and if they find out, everyonewill be into the canyon-jumping game." So cautious has he become that heregisters at motels under aliases (Mr. Forbes and Mr. Rosenstein are two recentnoms d'espionnage); only the mention of a given code word, which is changedweek by week, will get a caller through to him by telephone. The press, whichonce scorned Evel as a blow-hard, is now getting scorned in return as jump daynears and the market for Evel stories rises.

The crane trundlesoff and Evel retires to his van, emerging a few minutes later in his red, whiteand blue leathers. He stalks up the ramp slowly this time, cane in hand, capeflapping in the hot breeze, posturing for the cameras. Suddenly a car roarsonto the site and brakes to a halt in a cloud of dust. Out jumps Jim Welch,president of Nabisco Confections, Inc. Welch, 43, a prematurely gray butboyish-looking Bostonian, has paid Evel $100,000 for the right to put a decaladvertising Chuckles candy on the tail fin of the Sky-Cycle X-2 and a label onEvel's helmet. He has been up all night and most of the day supervising theproper preparation of the decals. Now he runs up the ramp, labels aflap, to getthem pasted on before the monumental picture-taking session begins.

Evel stares downat the panting figure laboring up the slope toward him. "Hey," heyells. "We're going to forget this label for now. It's too big."

Welch slumps indismay. "But I made it smaller than we'd planned, for God's sake!" heyells piteously.

"Wicked!"yells Evel. "If one more civilian comes up this ramp, I'm going to kickyour butt!"

Jim Welch trudgesback down the hill, his shoulders slumped, as Evel climbs the 13 iron stepsleading to the cockpit. He has never attempted to enter the Sky-Cycle X-2 inthis position before. The cockpit is no roomier than that of a Grand Prix racecar, and set at such a steep angle it is 10 times more difficult to squeezeinto. Since all of this will be carefully scrutinized by the electronic eyes ofthe world on jump day and since the buildup for the jump itself can brook nogracelessness, the mere act of climbing into this fancy flying machine isfraught with high drama. And the danger of a cataclysmic pratfall.

It takes threeburly workmen to help Evel up and in. One places his hand squarely on thepristine white leather of Evel's rump and pushes manfully. Upsydaisy! Camerashutters chitter like a locust invasion.

"What if heslips on jump day?" says one of Arum's lieutenants. "What if he slidright down the rocket and landed on the tail fin? His legs would be two feetlonger."

But for now, atleast, he has made it. As the photographers scramble madly uphill at Evel'sorder, he half rises to lean out of the toylike machine and look around forArum.

"Hey,Bob!" he yells, his voice muffled by helmet and cockpit. "I don't wannado it! Haw, haw!"

Finally Jim Welchis permitted to affix his Chuckles decals, and once they are in place he asksEvel to smile for the corporate camera.

"Can you thinkof anything funny enough for me to smile about being up here?" Evelsnarls.

A few minuteslater Evel climbs out, much faster and more gracefully than he climbed into thecockpit, and disappears for another fast change of costume. The rest of theafternoon is to be taken up with a static firing of the Sky-Cycle's engine, anexercise that proves as tentative as Evel's climb into the cockpit. On thethird try the engine fires. A great gusher of steam, loud as a dragon's roarbelches from the tail pipe. Dust, rocks the size of a man's head, machine-gunbursts of pea gravel fill the air. Evel himself, standing a good distance fromthe rocket, dives for cover behind a cotton-wood tree. When the engine shutsdown, he emerges, pale under his tan.

"Did you hearthat?" he asks no one in particular. "And I'm going to ride that thing?Over there?" And he points across the gaping black canyon into thesagebrush distance where dust devils spin. "You damn right I'm going toride it. I'm going to go over that canyon like a frozen rope."

And so the stageis set, for what it's worth. (About $32 million, gross, Bob Arum reckons.) Themonster is alive and growing, nearly mature now, ravenous and snapping, waitingto be turned loose. Whether Robert Craig Knievel can control it remains to beseen. But even if he cannot, even if the monster of his own device turnsfinally and destroys him, he will have achieved his aim: true fame throughexcess. As he likes to say, paraphrasing Teddy Roosevelt, "I think it'sbetter to risk my life and to be a has-been than to never have been at all.Even though crippled and busted in half, it's better to have taken a chance towin a victory or suffer a defeat than to live like others do who will neverknow victory or defeat because they haven't had the guts to tryeither."

The night afterthe static test of the Sky-Cycle X-2, Evel sat with his wife and friends in thelounge of the Blue Lakes Inn, sipping a beer and telling a few hundred moretall tales. The lapels of his blood-red jacket spread like the wings of a giantbat; gold and diamonds winked on his broken hands; the trusty, $22,000 walkingstick stood at his side. Then the cocktail guitarist introduced a song he hadwritten just that day.

Evel is hisname,
Danger is his game,
The canyon is his aim.
I never knew a man
So determined to take a stand
Jumping from land to land,
On a motorcycle.
Evel Knievel is the man of the day.
He stands courageous in his suave but robust way.
He knows where he's goin', you can bet on that.
You never know, he might outlive us all at last....

Evel shook hishead and took a final swallow of beer. "No way," he said. Linda justsmiled and smiled.

PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIER TWO PHOTOSHEINZ KLUETMEIERThe Snake River is at the bottom of the canyon and the launching ramp is on top: they'll aim—and fire him. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERDiamonds, not to mention sponsor's decals, are a boy's best friend. PHOTOHEINZ KLUETMEIERRocket expert and designer Truax calls it a cycle, but it is more missile.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)