Writings and observations

rainey BARRETT
RAINEY

 
Second
Thoughts

Note to all media – especially Idaho: Evel Knievel did NOT jump the Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls. Evel Knievel got less than 150 feet out from the South rim and dived into the Snake River Canyon. Evel Knievel likely NEVER INTENDED to jump over the Snake River Canyon. Got that?

Sepember 8, 1974. It was my first full week as a private pilot. I flew to Twin Falls to bring film of the “jump” back to a Boise TV station. So I was at the site when the fizzing, phony rockets lashed to an aluminum clad motorcycle scooted up the ramp and out – very briefly – into space.

Robert Craig Knievel was on the downhill side of his stunt career at that point. He’d been in various jails a number of times. Finally, one judge told him to go to jail again or join the army. He actually got the name “Evel” from a jailer in Montana who couldn’t spell. He tried – and failed at – a number of career choices including being the owner of a small time hockey team. At some point, he got interested in motocross and rode on the circuit for several years. Another dead end.

He got together some other starving cycle circuit riders in 1966 and had the idea of doing “daredevil” stunts including the jumps he was famous for. Many of the longer ones were in Las Vegas. Pretty good money for a while. But Evel had expensive tastes. At the end, he said he spent about two million more than he made in his lifetime and died broke.

The Idaho jump was the idea a friend of his after Kneivel had been turned down for a permit to jump the Grand Canyon. Twin Falls Commissioners granted the license and he built his “takeoff” ramp on the South side. Publicity went into overdrive. ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” got into a tizzy to get it all on “live” national television. Local Idaho stations didn’t have the satellite gadgetry they do today. So those wanting to show the Knievel “Snake River Canyon jump” on their own air had to have a film crew onsite. That’s how I got involved.

Nobody really stopped to look into the engineering and/or aeronautics of such a feat. Ol’ Evel just strapped a couple of noisy, smoky little rockets to the aluminum-enclosed “Buck Rogers” cycle inside. That was really it.

As “earth shaking” promotions of that sort often are, it completely lacked any sense of reality. But, Evel waved profusely to the crowd – and cameras – cranked up the “space cycle,” the phony rockets spewed a lot of smoke with some flashy sparks and made a whooshing sound. All the cameras rolled. Kneivel rode straight up the ramp, made a very small arc and disappeared. He went no further than 100 feet or so – nearly straight out. From the South side of the canyon, we couldn’t see where he went.

The parachute popped open as planned. The cycle tipped nose down and ol’ Evel floated down inside while the little “rocket ship” bounced off a few rocks. The crowd got excited. The camera guys pushed and shoved to get to the edge of the canyon. Lots of screaming by the crowd. But that was it.

Evel lived to jump ramps in Vegas and elsewhere for several more years before getting so busted up he couldn’t lift either leg over a bike. Some county fairs and a rodeo now and then. But after the Snake River Canyon “jump” his career petered out.

He died Nov. 30, 2007, at the age of 69. His busted up body is buried in Butte, Montana, where he was born. His son Robbie made some long jumps after Dad was grounded. But he found little success after a couple of widely-televised crashes and many broken bones.

A few weeks ago, after years of refusing to get involved with more “daredevils” and all the legal liabilities, Twin Falls Commissioners sold a permit for a future second try to a Texas promoter named “Big Ed” Beckley. He outbid several competitors by agreeing to pay $943,000 for a two-year lease on state land near the canyon rim. Beckley will also pay the State of Idaho $25,000 land rent each year, buy a $10 million liability policy and share some of whatever revenue he gets from various sources as he promotes whatever he intends to offer a couple of years hence. Once his project is up and ready to go, he’ll pay more permit fees, buy more hold-harmless bonds and underwrite other costs.

Now Ol’ Ed may well come up with a real machine able to clear the nearly half mile distance from one rim to the other. He just might. Or – he could very well just slap some rockets on a fancy piece of sheet metal with a motorcycle inside and fizzle his short way out into space for another scenic parachute trip. We’ll see. At nearly 300 pounds and in his late 50′s, “Big Ed” probably won’t be the actual jockey.

In the meantime, to all media – ALL media – the headline “Texas stuntman picked to re-create Evel Knievel jump over Snake River Canyon” contains some flatly false information. Evel did NOT jump the canyon. On that September day. Or any other. And I’d bet the farm he never intended to.

Still – standing there about 100 feet from the ramp that day – I wouldn’t have traded places with him for anything. ANY thing! Heading back to Boise an hour later, I know we were much more comfortable in that Cessna. And we got all the way across that damned canyon.

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Rainey