The Devils And The Deep Blue Sky

Evel Knievel crash-landed his most famous jump. Forty years later, stuntmen are racing to succeed where the legend failed.
Knievel Flight Path
Knievel intended to soar 1,600 feet across Idaho's Snake River Canyon, but his rocket ship's parachute deployed prematurely and carried him back. Photograph by Dmitri Alexander

Sporting a star-spangled jumpsuit and clutching a hollow scepter that typically concealed a stash of Wild Turkey, Evel Knievel strode through a crowd of more than 10,000 on the rim of Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Potato farmers, housewives, hippies, bikers, Boy Scouts, topless women, and a marching band all surged forward into a chain-link fence that was the only barrier between them and their hero, the man who took flight on the wings of a Harley. People were so pumped that many had rioted a day before, burning Port-A-Potties and ripping the roofs off of beer trucks.

Undistracted by the Woodstock-like bacchanal, Knievel stoically climbed a 150-foot-high earthen mound at the lip of the canyon and approached a steel launch tower. Mounted onto the girded structure was the Skycycle X-2, a red, white, and blue rocket ship with wheels on its belly and Knievel’s name emblazoned down the side in gold. When he reached it, he didn’t even glance back to acknowledge his fans. He simply raised his scepter to the sky.

The date was September 8, 1974, and Knievel was minutes from attempting his most dangerous stunt ever. No longer satisfied to jump a mere 100 feet over a row of cars or trucks, he wanted to fly an order of magnitude farther—more than 1,600 feet across the deep, sheer-walled Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls. The British journalist David Frost, who was covering the jump for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, greeted Knievel at the base of the tower. “Are you afraid?” he asked. Knievel looked borderline catatonic, his eyes unfocused and his breath coming in gulps, but he replied with signature deadpan cool. “I think that a man was put here on Earth to live,” he said, “not just to exist.”

A crane lowered Knievel to the cramped seat of the Skycycle. Tilted upward at a 56-degree angle, he saw only sky; far below lay what he had described to a reporter as “that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death’s head.” The Sky-cycle’s inventor, Bob Truax, stood nearby. Though he was a renowned rocket scientist who had helped develop the U.S. military’s Thor and Polaris missile systems, he, too, was concerned. Afraid that any media leaks would steal the thunder from the actual event, the jump’s promoters had only allowed Truax to test one Skycycle prototype, and it had crashed.

The announcer ominously counted down to one. The Skycycle blasted off with a gush of white steam. And almost instantly, the crowd could tell that something had gone wrong. The landing parachute deployed prematurely. The rocket ship corkscrewed to the right. Knievel made it across the canyon, but the wind caught the chute and blew him back. Dangling straight down, engine spent, the Skycycle sank to the bottom of the canyon and smashed into the rocks. Evacuated by helicopter, Knievel suffered only a cut to his nose. The real wound was to his pride: Until his death in 2007, he was haunted by the false rumor that he had gotten scared and triggered the chute.

This summer, with the 40th anniversary of the epic jump fast approaching, Scott Truax drove me out to the site in a red, white, and blue panel truck that looked exactly like Knievel’s “Supervan.” The son of Bob Truax, who died in 2010, Scott had been at the canyon that day as a six-year-old boy. Now 46, he had thinning hair shaved close to the skull. He wore baggy shorts and thick-framed white sunglasses, giving him the look of a landlocked surfer. Truax parked the van by the earthen mound where the launch tower had once stood, and we got out and climbed to the top. The view was dizzying. The golden canyon wall and brushy plateau that Knievel attempted to reach were much farther away than they looked in videos; the Snake, which probably would have drowned him had he landed directly in it, lay hundreds of feet below.

Scott Truax

Any sane person would gaze at this landscape and think that Knievel’s jump was lunacy. But his most passionate fans don’t see it that way. They say Knievel’s scheme could have worked. And to prove it, five teams are racing to pull it off—and claim Knievel’s mantle in the process. Scott Truax is one of those believers. He has dug out his dad’s original Skycycle plans and assembled a team to construct a replica. And he has enlisted a Hollywood stuntman to fly it. This fall, Truax will return to Snake River. “I am building a rocket to prove that Evel Knievel didn’t chicken out and to pay homage to my dad,” he said as we stood by the precipice. “Our goal is to cure history.”

The Snake River sequel hit full stride in a government meeting room in Boise last fall. The men assembled there looked like they had answered a casting call for The World’s Wildest Stuntmen! Red Bull–sponsored BASE jumper Miles Daisher sat in a white folding chair; the professional skydiver Scott Smith lounged nearby. Scott Truax stood in the back of the chamber with his Skycycle pilot—Eddie Braun, who had wrecked cars for The Dukes of Hazzard and The Fall Guy and coordinated stunts for movies like Rush Hour. Seated in front of them was Big Ed Beckley, a 63-year-old, Texas-based showman who, at 326 pounds, billed himself as the “World’s Largest Motorcycle Daredevil.” Finally, there was the boyish-looking Troy Hartman, who, after his expulsion from the Air Force Academy, became famous for feats like escaping a car dropped from a plane and skydiving with his parachute fully on fire.

Big Ed Beckley

All of them were chasing one of the stunt world’s most coveted feats—a triumphant Snake River leap. Doing the jump “is like recreating Houdini’s most famous failed trick,” Smith later told me, “only it is even more iconic.” Success would require not just the raw bravery of Knievel—who had the “biggest balls on the planet,” as biographer Leigh Montville indelicately put it—but also the ingenuity of the finest garage inventor. Riding a homemade rocket ship over a canyon was only somewhat less audacious than flying a paper airplane to the moon.

The stuntmen all wanted to touch down on the same piece of earth on the north side of the Snake, Knievel’s original landing site. Smelling money, the Idaho Department of Lands decided to auction the lease to those rights. The bidding opened at $50,000 and climbed rapidly. Daisher folded first, after his $658,000 bid was surpassed. Braun had started the auction willing to commit $1 million, but after $850,000 he and Truax got cold feet and bowed out. Hartman quit at $860,000. That left only Smith to duke it out with Beckley.

Of all of the daredevils in the room, none seemed more improbable—or colorful—than Big Ed. Beckley had discovered his motorcycle-riding talents as a teenager growing up in western Kansas, and he was 21 when he saw Evel Knievel perform for the first time. Beckley was impressed not just by Knievel’s riding but by his lifestyle. As motorcycle racer Skip Van Leeuwen recalled in the documentary True Evel, Knievel would tell kids to study and treat their parents right, and “two hours later, he’d be chasing 15 girls naked around his boat.” Beckley was inspired. “Here I was living in pucker brush, scooping manure for all of these farmers, and it was like, ‘God, there has to be something bigger and better than this,'” he says.

The “Supervan”

Beckley got a job with a touring stunt show called the Death Riders and, for $150 a night, jumped over trucks and people on his motorcycle. He detonated sticks of TNT at his feet, which felt like “being stung by a thousand wasps,” and drove his motorcycle down hundred-foot-long tunnels of flaming straw bales. Before long, Beckley discovered that he could make more money for less work—a single, spectacular jump over a long row of cars and trucks—and by the mid 1980s, he was performing at the Silverdome, the Superdome, and Madison Square Garden. What Beckley and his contemporaries could never do, though, was surpass the most famous rider of all. “There was one gunfighter we all wanted to get, and that was Evel,” he says.

So Beckley came to the auction armed with decades-old ambition. He also had a deep-pocketed supporter: His then-girlfriend, an affluent Texas rancher and businesswoman, was staking him. “Don’t you dare let them beat you!” the other stuntmen heard her urge him repeatedly. “This is your dream!” Smith made his final offer: $941,000. Beckley countered at $943,000, and the lease was his.

Earlier that month, Beckley had made his own pilgrimage to Knievel’s launch hill in Twin Falls. “I was standing on the edge looking out across the Snake River Canyon,” he says. “When I felt them icy fingers coming up my back, I knew that was Knievel. And he said, ‘Go for it!'”

Scott Truax parked his ancient Ford Festiva—a vehicle he affectionately called the “Turdmobile”—in front of an unmarked warehouse in Twin Falls. He entered through the office while I waited outside, then slowly raised the articulated main door to reveal a cavernous workspace. Stepping into it, I walked past the parked Supervan, which gleamed with an immaculate coat of new paint. A sign taped to the wall read, “95 days till launch.”

Truax hadn’t given up after his defeat at the auction. In fact, he was now buzzing with the pride of a new parent—the night before, his team had fully assembled their rocket ship for the first time. “Everyone went ape,” he said. “I didn’t know whether to cry or to be sexually aroused.”

The all-white Skycycle X-2 perched on a red stand in the back of the warehouse, like some secretive piece of Cold War weaponry. The nose cone yielded to a long, missilelike fuselage. The center of the body had a small, open cockpit, like that of a World War I fighter plane, and a trio of short fins flared from the tail. The machine was an Atomic Age vision of the glamorous techno-future, minimalist and sleek. At the same time, it looked like something built from instructions in the back of Boys’ Life.

Knievel’s fantasy had been to conquer the Snake on what amounted to a motor-cycle with wings, but Bob Truax—whose hobby of building steam engines for drag racers had been brought to Knievel’s attention—convinced him the design was not feasible. He didn’t need a rocket bike, but rather a rocket ship. “The way my dad sold that to Knievel,” Scott Truax told me, “is he said, ‘You are going to be like an astronaut.'” Knievel enlisted Bob to engineer the vehicle in the style of an independent (if exceptionally qualified) inventor.

Big Ed Beckley jumping Harleys for fans in Texas

In the warehouse, Scott Truax showed off his father’s design. “Rather than build something custom, my dad would almost always modify something that could do the job,” he said. Similarly, Scott’s team, led by Bob Truax’s longtime collaborator Craig Adams, used portions of a fuel tank from a Grumman Albatross seaplane to create the Skycycle’s front fuselage; repurposed a B-50’s air tank for the rear section; and salvaged the tail fins from a helicopter. The vehicle was Steampunk, quite literally—rather than burn hydrogen-oxygen fuel, the engine tapped the raw power of steam, super-heated to 467°F.

I watched as Adams and Scott Truax slid a heavy circular assembly into the rear of the Skycycle. The newly machined part was designed to hold the tail fins securely in place, but the men now saw that the bolt holes weren’t aligned correctly. That was a minor problem, Adams said, something that could be repaired in a couple of hours. The life-or-death issue they needed to resolve was the infamously flawed parachute design. Adams explained that when steam blasted from the original Skycycle’s engine back in 1974, it created low-pressure “base drag” that sucked the lid off of the parachute canister, which was mounted right next to the exhaust nozzle. So Adams designed a new parachute canister with a lid that had ¹/10 the surface area. The chute would also be packed in much more tightly and the lid more robustly secured.

Beyond that and a few other safety modifications, such as a stronger nose assembly, the team was replicating the original design down to every last, unlikely detail. “When my dad was rummaging around for a piece of metal to use as the diaphragm to cap the engine and hold in the steam, he decided to go with a couple of dog-food can lids,” Truax said. He and Adams did the same. At the end of the countdown, a metal plate would punch through the lids, steam would gush out, and Braun would be blasted into the great Idaho beyond.

“This is your typical redneck stock car track right here,” Big Ed was saying. “Old beat-up guard rail, grandstands that need paint, and speakers that are junk.” He smiled, as if there were no place in the world that he would rather be. We were in Abilene, Texas, where Beckley and several assistants were gearing up for a stunt that would take place midway through the evening’s slate of dirt track races: jumping over eight trucks on his custom Harley Sportster.

If the event was any preview for how Beckley might approach the Snake River, the proceedings didn’t inspire confidence. The Sportster’s carburetor was leaking gas. A crew member had forgotten the instructions to the radar speed gun, so Beckley couldn’t verify the accuracy of his speedo-meter (precise velocity being essential to precise soaring). Beckley had recently started using a safety ramp—a flat extension of the landing ramp, topped with plywood and supported by two-by-fours, that would cover the final two trucks in the line in case he pulled up short. Travis Smith, his mechanic, wasn’t reassured. “You better not land on that safety ramp,” he said.

“Why not?” Beckley replied.

“I’m scared to walk on that ramp,” Smith said. “I could blow it over.” Reluctantly agreeing, Beckley sent his assistants on a Home Depot run to buy additional two-by-fours.

Beckley had jumped the Sportster for a crowd only once before—on March 7, 2014, at a monster truck show in New Mexico. Realizing he didn’t have enough room in the small arena to get the bike up to speed, he poured cola syrup on the concrete leading up to the jump. The idea was to make the ground tacky, so that his tires would grip better and propel him faster, but the surface just wound up being slippery. Beckley didn’t clear the cars. Instead, nearly 800 pounds of man and machine smacked onto a shoddily constructed safety ramp, which collapsed and sent Beckley flying. He broke six ribs, collapsed a lung, tore his kidney, and got a concussion; his brain wouldn’t stop bleeding. While being rushed to the ER by helicopter, “I actually died twice,” Beckley says. “They had to use those jump-start cables to fire me back up.”

rocket bike and rocket ship specs

The accident and four-week hospitalization that followed should have sapped even a Knievel-size reserve of courage. But just three days after his release, Big Ed flew to Twin Falls for a round of meetings about the Snake River project. And in the following weeks, he enlisted a talented builder to make him a rocket bike: Paul Stender, who was famous for absurd, jet-powered vehicles, including a flame-spewing outhouse and a yellow school bus that did 367 mph.

Beckley’s vision for his launch vehicle is akin to Knievel’s original one; he wants a true rocket bike. “I will not be inside of a rocket ship,” Beckley says. “That will be for some other fool who has no balls.” (This from a man who once sailed over the whirling blades of two helicopters—Beckley’s “Human Veg-O-Matic” stunt from the 1980s.) Stender’s design shows Beckley leaning far forward on a motor-cycle with a nose cone and stabilizers up front, tail fins, and a hydrogen peroxide–fueled rocket engine protruding from the rear. In preparation for launch, Big Ed has even been exercising and dieting, and says that he is down to a relatively svelte 260 pounds.

Rivals like Scott Truax and the skydiver Smith are skeptical of Beckley’s plan. Rather than launching in a rocket from a tower, Beckley says he will freely ride his motorcycle down a steep, 565-foot ramp—basically an oversize Olympic ski jump—trigger the rocket engine, and blast off. And while Truax’s crew has been working for more than a year, using a simple and (mostly) proven design, Beckley is attempting something new and complex. When I passed on this criticism, Beckley fired back: “They can talk smack all they want to, but our design is just as proven as theirs, only more, because ours didn’t end up in the bottom of the river.” But as of midsummer, he and Stender had not yet started building the bike. “My best guess is he’s going to fail,” Smith says. “He is never going to make it to the launch ramp.”

At the racetrack in Abilene, the safety platform had been shored up, and the trucks were in place. Stepping onto the track, I stood at the foot of the launch ramp and noticed that it didn’t seem to be lined up with the landing ramp, 80 feet away. I asked one of the crew to check it out, and he summoned Beckley. Big Ed took one look, said, “I agree with you,” and shoved the tip of the ramp a few feet to the left.

Minutes later Beckley was airborne in the night sky, a roaring Harley beneath him and a cheering grandstand full of people to the side. The jump looked flawless, but it wasn’t. Just like in New Mexico, Beckley landed short, on the safety platform—which fortunately held up this time—and only inches from one edge. “I’m so glad this is over,” he said, basking in applause. “We almost made the 10 o’clock news there.”

Back in Idaho, during my summer visit, Truax took me offroading in the Supervan. The tall vehicle swayed from side to side as the tires dipped into ruts. Truax steered across a grassy plain, occupying the vehicle’s lone seat, while I simply tried to keep from sliding out of the open side door. After a few minutes he parked in what looked like an arbitrary spot, but the location was carefully chosen—50 feet farther and we would have driven off of a cliff.

This was his new launch site. After spending a month poring over satellite imagery, scouting locations, and talking to people around town, he was able to lease private land on both sides of the Snake for the relative bargain price of $50,000. He regretted that the team would need to launch six miles upstream from the original 1974 site, but the essence of the endeavor would remain the same: blasting over the Snake in an oversize Knievel action toy.

Truax hopped out of the Supervan and shook hands with a local contractor, who unfurled plans for the launch tower on the hood of his truck. The two men, using the blueprints for reference, paced out distances and spray-painted the ground to mark where the tower’s supports would stand. “In a few weeks, this is going to look totally different. We are going to have an 86-foot-tall launch ramp headed that way,” Truax said, pointing across the canyon.

In the Big Ed camp, meanwhile, the project was not proceeding smoothly. Or at all. Back in May, the Fox Broadcasting Company had announced plans to televise both the Beckley and Truax attempts in a show the network billed as Jump of the Century. Since that time Beckley had been waiting for Fox to cut him a check—he’d requested $4 million—before he and Stender started building. He never got it. The network canceled the show in late July; as a Fox spokesperson tersely explained, “Due to production timelines and budget concerns, we have decided to not move forward with the Jump of the Century.”

When I called Big Ed to commiserate,he said there was no longer any chance he would attempt the jump in 2014. But next year, watch out. “We are not done,” Beckley said. “We will be doing this jump, whether Fox is our media partner or someone else.” Smith, Daisher, and Hartman all confirmed they were eyeing possible attempts next year as well, especially if Truax failed. Until somebody actually conquered the canyon, the grand prize of daredevilry was still anyone’s to claim.

Knievel also couldn’t get a television network to broadcast his jump live. Right up to launch, the media criticized his scheme for being impractical, foolish, and possibly suicidal. It was all of the above. But the Snake was also the ultimate expression of the Knievel spirit, in which you do something in the most thrilling way possible, not the most rational. It would be a lark for NASA to launch someone over a river, but more momentous to see the inventor of a jet-powered outhouse do the same. It’s exciting to watch lithe motorcycle acrobats do backflips in the X Games—but arguably more thrilling to witness an overweight 64-year-old soar over a row of trucks on a Harley. Being an athlete is not the same as being a daredevil. “Those guys who are doing it now are great,” Beckley says. “What we do is jump over stuff that could kill you.”

At Truax’s launch site, after the measurements were through, he and I stood at the rim of the canyon. As we looked across the gorge to the tabletop farmlands where the Skycycle was supposed to land, he riffed about his top two idols. Bob Truax wasn’t a heart-on-his-sleeve guy, Scott said; “he never told me he loved me.” But he felt lucky to have him as a father and was honored to be furthering his legacy. “I can’t help but think he would be really proud.”

As for Knievel, Truax said he admired his attitude as much as his riding. Knievel was far from perfect. As biographer Montville and others have noted, he was a thief, a womanizer, and by almost every account, a quantum-grade jerk. But there was a reason he had inspired so many people, from kids on dirt bikes to professional stuntmen. “Knievel just went out there and did it, and sometimes he crashed,” Truax said. “And when he crashed, he got up. And I think that is kind of the American spirit.”

This article originally appeared in the October 2014 issue of Popular Science.

Evel Knievel