TWIN FALLS — Forty-two years ago this month, Robert “Evel” Knievel Sr. famously failed to launch himself over the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket.
On Friday, Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun fulfilled Knievel’s dream by propelling himself over the canyon in a replica of Knievel’s X-2 Skycycle, built by Scott Truax, the son of Knievel’s rocket designer, Robert Truax.
In the decades since Knievel’s failed attempt in 1974, numerous daredevils — including Knievel’s son Robbie — talked about recreating the jump.
Several years ago, as the clock ticked close to the 40th anniversary of Knievel’s jump, a handful of rocketeers vied for the opportunity to use Knievel’s dirt ramp, still piled on city-owned property on the canyon rim, to do what Knievel couldn’t.
But only one team, called Return to the Snake River, ever came close to pointing a rocket over the canyon.
That rocket, the Evel Spirit, stood Friday afternoon with its nose to the sky, waiting for commands from inside the “supervan” where the team prepared for the stunt of Braun’s lifetime — flying three-quarters of a mile through the air at 430 mph.
“Mad Mike” Hughes, who calls himself the “King of the Daredevils” and had pitched his own jump of the canyon to the Twin Falls City Council, doubted Braun would succeed.
“I wish him the best, but this is beyond scary,” Hughes said Friday morning. “I wouldn’t blame the guy if he walks away before the jump.”
Hughes launched a similar rocket — the X-3 Skylimo — 1,374 feet in January, 2014, near Winkelman, Ariz. Braun needed to fly 1,600 feet to cross the Snake River Canyon safely.
Texas daredevil “Big Ed” Beckley, whose unfulfilled plan to jump the canyon from Knievel’s dirt ramp cost him $1.7 million, still harbors feelings of resentment toward Twin Falls and the Idaho Department of Lands, but had kind words for Braun Friday morning.
“I pray that Eddie will be successful and healthy,” Beckley said.
Beckley obtained a landing site by paying nearly $1 million to the state for a two-year lease along the canyon rim in Jerome County. The lease, he said, was contingent on his receiving the required permits from all other agencies, including the city of Twin Falls. Twin Falls eventually pulled out of Beckley’s jump, which was scheduled for September 2014.
“Idaho needs to give me my money back,” Beckley said.
Where it all started
Evel Knievel made a living defying death. So does Eddie Braun.
But that’s where the similarities between the two men end.
Knievel, a motorcycle daredevil, was larger than life. And when he announced that he would attempt to jump the canyon in 1974, the quiet town of Twin Falls, at the time population 22,000, would never be the same.
“Bobby Knievel took our breath away. Our innocence soon followed.” Times-News columnist Steve Crump wrote on the jump’s 20-year anniversary.
Knievel wasn’t a newcomer to Twin Falls; he’d been hanging out with locals off and on for years. He had one eye on the Snake River Canyon long before he got the idea to jump the Grand Canyon, an idea that was quickly squelched by authorities.
Knievel lived in Boise in his early 20s and hung out with the biker crowd. Boise biker fan Alan McIntire gave him the nickname “Evel.”
Before his failed canyon jump, national reporter Geraldo Rivera declared Knievel “more popular than Ted Kennedy, David Cassidy or John Lennon.”
“Evel Knievel was the ultimate showman — a superhero, cape and all,” said the 54-year-old Braun, a 30-year veteran of film and television. “Knievel inspired a generation. I wanted to be him.”
But the town’s enthusiasm turned to shock when Knievel came to town, followed by some 25,000 — mostly unruly — fans.
Bikers hijacked a Twin Falls firetruck and took over the police station. Fans set afire 200 portable toilets and the cross at Shoshone Falls, tipped over a beer truck, and stole 2,600 cases of beer from the Jaycees.
An Akron, Ohio, man, in town to watch Knievel jump, made his own dive into the Snake River prior to Knievel’s fall into the canyon.
Tom Rauckhorst, 21, leaped from rocks 200 feet above the river, crushing three vertabrae when he hit the water. Rauckhorst swam to shore and climbed the canyon wall, where he found two campers who rushed him to the hospital on a motorcycle.
Many came to town to watch Knievel succeed or die. He did neither. The Skycycle’s chute deployed on the ramp and dragged Knievel into the canyon, disappointing fans and the 100,000 closed-circuit viewers who had paid to see it.
The stunt was “an exclamation without a point,” the Times-News editorialized.
When Knievel and the rocket disappeared into the canyon, about 1,500 bikers broke through the safety fence and rushed the canyon rim. One woman went over the edge but fell only 10 feet to a ledge below.
“Knievel’s jump was, quite simply, the damnedest thing Twin Falls had ever seen,” Crump wrote.
Evel’s daughter Alicia Knievel Vincent of Butte, Mont., saw the Snake River Canyon for the first time on Friday.
“I was just a twinkle in my dad’s eyes” in 1974, she said as she shared some of her family’s memories of the jump.
“Dad was terrified,” Vincent said. “He truly thought he was going to die, but he was too far into it and couldn’t back out.”
Braun, on the other hand, was calm and collected.
He and Scott Truax kept Friday’s launch under the radar to prevent a reccurence of the 1974 fiasco.
“Eddie’s heart’s in the right place,” said Chuck Coiner, who watched the jump from his nearby shop. “He didn’t want a spectacle.”
The Evel Spirit floated down on land Braun leased from Coiner, a former state senator, and Coiner’s sister, Karen Lindemer.
“It was a good event,” Coiner said Saturday, “something we can be proud of.”
Coiner and Lindemer donated much of Braun’s payment to the Hansen School District.
When the city of Twin Falls first backed Beckley’s jump over Braun’s, his team said, “Let’s go get our own land. That’s what Evel would do.” That’s when the Braun quietly secured land about 7 miles upstream from the Knievel’s ramp.
Many of Knievel’s cronies were part of Friday’s launch. Gary Davis, Knievel’s own stuntman, was the stunt coordinator. Stunt engineer Craig Adams was also part of the 1974 attempt. Knievel’s widow, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, and many of the Knievel family came to support Braun.
Braun idolized Knievel when he was a young boy, and even broke his arm jumping his Schwinn bicycle over garbage cans imitating him. He met the daredevil when he was 12.
“I have the chance to fulfill the dream of my hero,” he said, holding back tears. “When I say I’m going to do something, I do it.”
And do it, he did. The launch itself was flawless.
Knievel’s autograph with the message “Happy landings” went over the canyon with him. So did a vial containing the ashes of Todd Swayze, one of Knievel’s biggest fans.
Tamara Swayze, from Calgary, Alberta, said her husband met Braun at Evel Knievel Days in Butte, Mont., about 4 years ago, and they became fast friends. He was to help Braun with the launch, but Swayze died of cancer in February.
When Braun returned to the launch site after the jump, he was greeted by cheering friends and fans.
He told Knievel’s daughter-in-law Shelli Knievel that he blacked out from coming off the ramp, but he came to shortly seconds later.
“I realized I was still in the rocket,” Braun said. “At that point I told myself, ‘I got this.’”
“Were you scared?” asked one of Knievel’s young grandchildren.
Braun replied simply.