Nothing says “America” like the Fourth of July and star-spangled white leathers. Nobody knows this better than motocross racer turned X Games champ, turned entrepreneur, turned rally racer, turned TV star Travis Pastrana. Our family has been Travis fans from his early 125cc motocross days. He was great with the kids, signing autographs just about any time and in general, representing the sport, himself and his sponsors well.
This past Independence Day weekend, he planned to pay tribute to one-of-one legend Evel Knievel by completing not one Las Vegas jump on a modern-day Indian motorcycle, but three. It would be a world’s record event, as is usual and customary with this type of endeavor. Much has been written about Evel Knievel, some of it by me. The late Mr. Knievel called my home for an interview not long before he passed away. Honestly, it was one of the biggest thrills of my career. One of the points he made during our conversation was that he’d backed himself into the same corner many, many times. If he jumped 10 buses today, the next venue wanted to see him try to jump 11. It was a game he couldn’t win, but he had few alternatives.
Evel was a pioneer and was perhaps as famous for the jumps he missed as he was for the ones he made, along with his social life and brash bravado, which I can assure you had softened by the time he called me. There will never be another. His antics had an impact on boys of the time that can’t really be compared to anyone else. Even now, seeing one of his jump bikes is a special thing for guys of the era.
Evel certainly didn’t ride the first wheelie, but he made riding wheelies cool. Pastrana did do the first double backflip in competition and a host of other firsts and came along at just the right time to take advantage of freestyle and the trick riding wave, even creating his own touring show and TV show, Nitro Circus.
What Travis proposed for Evel Live was to build a televised special around three of Evel’s most renowned jumps. For openers, he’d jump 52 crushed cars, two more than Knievel jumped in 1973 at the L.A. Coliseum, if that went well, and it did, he’d jump 16 Greyhound buses, two more than Knievel’s 1975 Kings Island jump. For the piece de resistance, he’d jump the fountain at Caesar’s Palace, the fail that put Knievel on the map and in the hospital.
The TV show was pure American kitsch, riddled with never-been-done befores, world records and healthy helpings of doubt and skepticism from the hosts. And the requisite pyrotechnics. It was also classic with Pastrana doing a masterful job of breaking records while paying tribute to Knievel, not an easy thing to do as often these events are pure one-upmanship.
I’ve covered several jumps done by Louis Rocket Re in my time. While Lou and I don’t have Thanksgiving dinner together, we do have a friendship. You do develop a relationship with these people and you are genuinely fearful for their wellbeing when it’s show time. I’ve been lucky enough to get some pretty cool pictures of Lou and one autographed one of him hangs in my den. He was jumping a beautiful Laverda as Knievel had done before him and I remember being nervous for him. He wasn’t jumping a dirt bike he had jumped a few years earlier at our county fair and the vintage Laverda added many of the challenges Pastrana faced, without the added pressure of live television. A lot of that worry and skepticism from the host is real.
In the end, Pastrana succeeded on all three jumps. We learned that his Indian Scout weighed somewhere between 348 and 400 pounds depending on who was describing it and that in general Pastrana had to be on his game to make all three jumps.
Pastrana has worn many hats in motorsports and has had, or created, opportunities for himself that Mr. Knievel could only dream of. Pastrana was racing Pikes Peak in a Porsche just a few weeks before Evel Live.
So yes, Pastrana made history on Evel Live, but even he knows there will only ever be one Evel. Back then kids would have been jumping bicycles from makeshift ramps all across America the next day.
Yesterday, our city removed a small bridge on the street I grew up on. They won’t be replacing it. I took some pictures to share with old friends who moved away. Some of us had lived on one side, some on the other. During our texting reminiscence, it didn’t take long before someone suggest we’d have to try to jump the gap. That’s the kind of impact Knevel had in our lives. Without him, that wouldn’t even be a concept.
Here’s to all the daredevils who dream what we can only imagine and do what we can only dream.