Idaho News

Evel Knievel couldn’t do it, but this stuntman might make canyon jump

Stuntman Eddie Braun gives feedback after getting into the cockpit of The Evel Spirit, a steam-powered rocket, Sept. 1 at his team's shop in Twin Falls.
Stuntman Eddie Braun gives feedback after getting into the cockpit of The Evel Spirit, a steam-powered rocket, Sept. 1 at his team's shop in Twin Falls. Twin Falls Times-News

Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun grew up idolizing daredevil Evel Knievel. As a child, Braun met Knievel at Ascot Park, the Southern California dirt track where Knievel made his first public jump.

“From that moment on, I didn’t want to become anything else but a professional stuntman,” said Braun, who appeared in the original “Dukes of Hazzard” TV series and served as a stunt double for actors Charlie Sheen and Ray Liotta.

On Sept. 17, Braun plans to strap himself into a steam-powered rocket cycle nearly identical to the X2 Skycycle used by Knievel in his ill-fated attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon on Sept. 8, 1974. The jump aboard the “Evel Spirit” — expected to reach a top speed of 400 miles per hour — will start from the canyon’s north side, just east of the Hansen Bridge east of Twin Falls.

The canyon is about 200 feet narrower at that spot than the 1,600 feet Knievel tried to clear. The trajectory will be at a higher angle, Braun said, and he expects to clear the canyon wall by 1,000 feet.

Braun’s team — also including Scott Truax, son of Knievel’s 1974 engineer — is the last remaining of several that sought to jump the canyon in 2014, the 40th anniversary of Knievel’s attempt. And if their jump does happen, they’ll be the first to follow through after decades of people talking about re-enacting the event.

“What better way to pay homage to the guy who inspired me and led me to become everything that I am professionally?” Braun told the Idaho Statesman last week. “I like to say I’m not doing something that Evel Knievel couldn’t do. I’m simply finishing out his dream. How many people get to finish the dream of their hero?”

It’s unclear how many people will turn out to watch the jump. Space will be limited, with only 499 people allowed at the Jerome County launch site without organizers obtaining a county permit.

Chute stopped Evel in midair

Knievel failed to reach the north wall of the canyon when the rocket cycle’s parachute deployed early and stopped the ship’s forward thrust. The rocket floated toward the water before a gust of wind blew it back to the rocks on the south shore, below the launch site. Knievel suffered only minor injuries and a bruised ego.

People still debate whether the parachute malfunctioned and opened early or whether Knievel, born Robert C. Knievel in Butte, Mont., pulled the chute cable himself. He always claimed a glitch caused the problem partway across the 1,700-foot-wide canyon.

Decades later, Knievel, who died in 2007 at age 69, blamed rocket ship engineer Robert Truax for the failure. Truax was a former U.S. Navy engineer who developed concepts that led to high-profile projects such as the Polaris submarine mission and the military’s pre-NASA space programs, the Los Angeles Times reported when Truax died in 2010 at age 93. The New York Times called him one of the 20th century’s “premier rocket scientists.”

“I was so mad at that engineer. That guy was an idiot,” Knievel said in a 2005 documentary, “Absolute Evel.”

Scott Truax, who was 6 on the day of Knievel’s jump, built the Evil Spirit using his dad’s plans and drawings.

“I’m doing this to prove a point: that I believe my dad’s rocket would have worked had the parachute not come out too early. Other than that, it would have been fine,” said Truax, 48.

Many of the rocket ship’s components are leftover parts from Robert Truax’s work for Knievel’s rocket.

“It doesn’t get any more authentic than that,” said Braun, who said he and Truax worked on the project and made refinements to the ship over the past two years.

Marred by out-of-towners

Because Knievel failed to cross the Snake River Canyon, the feat often gets overshadowed by the sideshow that took place around the jump. Knievel promised a weeklong festival complete with celebrities, a golf tournament and fun. Although the 50,000 spectators he said would show up didn’t materialize, those who came upset locals by skinny-dipping, partying excessively and fighting.

“It got messier and messier. People didn’t want them around,” said Lori Thompson, who was 14 at the time of the jump. “We weren’t allowed to ride our bikes around town” because her mother worried it wasn’t safe.

Knievel also allegedly left town without paying certain business debts.

Tim Woodward covered the 1974 attempt for the Statesman. In a 2007 column, he summed up his memories: “Far from historic, it was three days of insanity best forgotten.”

Stuntmen and daredevils certainly didn’t forget it, and 2014 was not the first time another jump had been proposed. Notably, Knievel’s son Robbie visited Twin Falls in the early ’90s and again in 2010 to tout a possible jump (the second time with a camera crew following him). Both times, his project went nowhere.

Thompson, who now lives in Haines, Ore., stopped in Twin Falls last week with her family. She has mixed feelings about Braun’s attempt but sees it as a positive event if it brings favorable attention to Twin Falls.

Buhl resident Michael Hart, 64, shrugged his shoulders when asked what he thought of the idea.

“It’s one of these stupid things people do,” he said as he looked across from near the Perrine Bridge to the 1974 launch ramp.

Gil Hunt, 49, of Abilene, Texas, was 7 when Knievel made his attempt. He said he has fond memories and is excited about Braun’s plan.

“That’s awesome,” he said while passing through Twin Falls on a vacation in the Northwest.

From daredevils to BASE jumpers

Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar was 3 when Knievel’s jump took place. His family went to a friend’s home and stood on the “hot tin roof” of a storage shed to watch the launch.

“In the day, I think the excitement of Evel Knievel coming to your town was a big deal ,” said Barigar, a former journalist who has pored through old newspaper accounts of the jump. “I suspect what happened is that a lot of people got caught up in that excitement and sort of forgot how to do their jobs. ... I think it got away from people a little bit when it happened.”

Barigar is also the CEO of the Twin Falls Area Chamber of Commerce, and in recent years has told news outlets he thinks a second jump — if done right — could be good for area businesses.

Reading the old stories, Barigar said he doesn’t believe the 1974 event was as “catastrophic and horrible” as some people painted it.

“Was it the brightest spot in Twin Falls history? Probably not. But it drew a lot of attention to the event,” he said. “I think the bad things that happened got managed as best as they could at the time. It left a sour taste in people’s mouths for a long time.”

He said Knievel’s jump — and today’s tolerance of BASE jumpers parachuting next to the Perrine Bridge — personifies the libertarian streak that runs through the West.

“That’s how cool we are in Idaho and laid back about what it is you want to do with your life. I think Evel Knievel was a little bit of that, too. It was this no-holds-barred, he’s going to do things the way he wants to do it guy,” said Barigar, who met Knievel and fielded calls from him periodically as Knievel checked in with the chamber.

John Sowell: 208-377-6423, @IDS_Sowell

Watching the jump

Eddie Braun said his jump over the Snake River Canyon will be available for viewing on a network TV station, but details about which network and what time the launch will take place will be announced later.