Where Egos Dare

See No Evel

I didn't trust that plywood ramp, but the Morton twins thought it would work. This did nothing for my confidence. I didn't trust them either. Chuck the Dot did his best Steve McQueen, convincing no one. At least "Oh Boy" Bob was supremely confident. Eight 31-gallon galvanized-steel garbage cans wedged side-by-each span exactly 14 feet. It looked longer from the seat of a Schwinn American, despite the solace of extra top-end potential afforded by the two-speed kickback rear hub.
Nobody wore a cape, and our motorcycles – even the Dot's Hodaka - were at home in their garages. Some of us were crazy, but none of us were stupid. Strictly human-powered daredevilry here: Sting—Ray's, a Yamaha Moto-Bike and my American: an XR-750 with pedals. Nobody would admit any Evel inspiration. We pledged allegiance to Roberts, Lackey and DeCoster. That other guy was an over-inflated carnival act immortalized on little kid's lunch boxes, ABC's Wide World of Sports Halloween costumes and the glorious Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle, complete with adjustable ramps, 14-piece brick wall and hoop of pathetic simulated fire. We were easily amused.

Still, everybody in the alley between Santa Theresa and Filice Drive was looping some Evel Knievel videoclip in the back of his head. Mine was the ever-popular Caesars Palace fountain jump on December 31, 1967. I knew the story by heart. Evel slams a shot of Wild Turkey, drops $100 at the blackjack table, and then goes over the bars of his Triumph twin on the safety ramp. He slams into the tarmac in sickening slow motion, busts both ankles and a wrist, crushes his pelvis and ends up out cold in the Dunes parking lot. Linda Evans was allegedly behind the camera – yeah, Linda Evans. Thankfully, our reenactment was less newsworthy. The Lord, in this case had pity on children. Moto-Bike-boy was cued up ahead of me and cleared the cans before the neighborhood buzzkill dialed 911. I pedaled home with both wheels and my spinal column intact.

I didn't quite buy the whole King of the Daredevils shtick then. I still don't. Robert Craig Evel Knievel Junior was born on October 17, 1938. He died in November of 07 and I'll miss him. Nobody has ever gone farther on pure diamond-studded 24-karat chutzpah and a Harley-Davidson XR750. He was a walking…okay, limping, trash-talking superhero who could pull longer wheelies than "Oh Boy" Bob on the immortal Kawasaki F21M. If intestinal fortitude were legal tender, the man could've bought Bill Gates. I still didn't get it. Unlike the other figments of our imaginations, Evel got hurt.
Badly. So did Roberts and Lackey, but racing against other motorcycles was nobler launching one over busses. It didn't involve a cape, live snakes or Roman gladiator music, and the odds looked considerably better.

Whether it was a box of live rattlesnakes, 13 Pepsi trucks or the Snake River, watching was like dropping your breakfast toast on the kitchen floor. Either you get lucky and it lands jelly side up, or there’s a mess to clean up. Some people pay a lot of money to see life compressed into a few seconds. Not me. I watched my friend Joel try to clear Uvas Creek on his Kawasaki G5. When he didn’t, a rusty culvert on the other side ended the G5, his knee and the basketball season with one sick thud. That cured me of the desire to jump anything that wasn’t part of a motocross lap. Motorcycles come with enough endemic risks to make gratuitously flying through the air seem like toast with no jelly at all. Worse yet, most of the people who paid to watch Evel and his various imitators were secretly rooting for jelly side down.

He worked in the copper mines, took a shot at pro rodeo and hockey, was a self-proclaimed safecracker, card shark, con artist big-game hunter, insurance salesman, Honda dealer, hockey promoter, ski jumper, pole-vaulter and corporate pitchman extraordinaire. His Elvis-esque leathers are enshrined in the Smithsonian, along with an equally rare pristine XR-750. EK scored a cameo spot with Lindsay Wagner on The Bionic Woman. As much as I have to respect the man, I’ll never forgive him for that. Evel Knievel might’ve been America’s hero for a while, but he wasn’t mine.