Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Man Restaging an Evel Knievel Jump
to Vindicate His Father

from The New Yorker:

Forty-two years ago, Evel Knievel attempted—and failed—to ride a rocket, built by Scott Truax’s father, across the Snake River Canyon, in Twin Falls, Idaho.
Scott Truax wants to “cure history.” His prescription: a Hollywood stuntman riding a steam-powered rocket built from surplus parts across the canyon that yawns above the Snake River, in Twin Falls, Idaho. The malady in question is a haunting image of a similar rocket, the daredevil Evel Knievel’s Skycycle X-2, drifting nose-first into that canyon forty-two years ago.

Knievel’s failure, which followed a year of massive hype, was an epic burst soufflé of grandiose American nonsense and, it seemed, an emblem of the times: a disgraced president had resigned, the Vietnam War was grinding to its inglorious conclusion, and the economy was gasping. America circa 1974 was fat Elvis, sweatily trying to maintain the spectacle, buttons ready to pop.

And, for Truax, the rocket failure was a family matter. His father, Robert Truax, a former Navy engineer, designed the rocket and ultimately took the blame. After a lifetime of impressive rocketry, he became best known for his involvement with the canyon jump. Knievel eventually turned on him. “I was so mad at that engineer,” he said in a 2005 documentary, “Absolute Evel.” “That guy was an idiot.”

Scott Truax, who is forty-eight, spent his early childhood watching his father build Knievel’s rocket in their family garage, in Saratoga, California. He was six years old on the day of the jump, which he watched from atop a motor home that his family rented and drove to Idaho. Later, he worked alongside his father on various other rocket projects, often with an eye toward his father’s lifetime goal of making space travel affordable. The elder Truax died in 2010, his goal unreached. (Knievel himself died in 2007.)

Four years ago, Scott Truax moved to Twin Falls and began building rockets for a redo of the canyon jump using his father’s original plans. He hoped that the new jump would take place on September 8, 2014, the fortieth anniversary of the Knievel fiasco, but those plans fell apart. Now he says he’s going to do it this summer. He says about $1.5 million has been spent on the project so far, with the funds mostly coming from his partner, the stuntman Eddie Braun, and that he’s determined to make it happen, one way or another.

“The whole point,” he told me recently, “is to prove the rocket my dad designed would have worked.”

Scott Truax, far right, attended the 1974 jump with his father, Robert, third from right, the rocket’s engineer.

In 1974, I was eight years old, living on a dairy farm with my family in Gooding, Idaho, about thirty miles from Twin Falls. Knievel, a blustery, drunken ne’er-do-well who boasted of his youthful criminal exploits, bounced checks and broke promises, and inanely risked his life, was a hero to a lot of kids, and I was no exception. He showed up on TV on Saturday afternoons in his red-white-and-blue Elvis suits, giving earnest stay-in-school speeches. The ever-tan actor George Hamilton played him in a movie. Once, according to his biographer, Leigh Montville, Muhammad Ali told him, “You’re the white Muhammad Ali,” and Knievel replied, “Then you’re the black Evel Knievel.”

Like many children, I had the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. It was the best-selling toy for boys in the Christmas season of 1973. Lots of us tried to imitate Knievel, building ramps and riding off them on our Huffys and Schwinns. In 1976, a trio of Boston University physicians studied the nationwide rash of E.R. visits prompted by kids imitating the daredevil and published a paper in the journal Pediatrics with the title “The Consequences of Imitative Behavior in Children: The ‘Evel Knievel Syndrome.’ ” They urged doctors to be aware of it. “Any parent of children ranging in ages from 2 to 16 will recognize the foregoing cases as typical examples of everyday behavior in almost every neighborhood in the United States,” they wrote, adding, “While there is little question that thrill-seeking daredevils have been a part of our society since its earliest times, never in the history of man have the activities of these ‘heroes’ been so promptly and realistically reported for viewing by the children of the nation.”

In 1974, leading up to his date with the canyon, Knievel successfully landed eight straight jumps. Each step of the way he talked about the canyon jump, and I was paying careful attention. That jump would take place in my back yard, practically. My grandparents lived at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon, where my grandfather was the superintendent of the city sewer system. Surely I had to go to this. Obviously so. But my parents said no. The jump was on a Sunday, and we were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, which meant we kept the Sabbath day holy. (I’ve joked that this planted the seeds for my departure from the Mormon Church. Maybe I wasn’t joking.)

That was in the first stage of my lifelong fascination with Knievel, one that would expand and change as I grew up and learned of the many unsavory aspects of Knievel’s character. And it probably explains why, when I began writing a novel set in the town where I grew up, one of the first chapters I wrote involved a young man defying his parents to go and watch the canyon jump.

Not curing history, exactly. But rewriting it.

Knievel contained multitudes. Talking about his childhood in Butte, Montana, he said he was both “a good safecracker” and “a good kid.” He ran a protection racket as a young man, and once apparently burgled the county courthouse. Though he eventually came to be described by some as “The Greatest Daredevil Who Ever Lived,” his unique quality was not his courage. Many others have done things more dangerous and foolhardy. He was, though, from the start, a grandmaster of charismatic bluster. (This is the trait that Ali recognized immediately.) He persuaded the owner of Caesar’s Palace, in Las Vegas, to let him jump his fountains—a jump that ended in a stunning, spectacular crash—by calling him up repeatedly, pretending to be different reporters, and inquiring about a rumor that Evel Knievel was going to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace.

By 1974, he had made about seventy big jumps, from his leap over a box of rattlesnakes in Moses Lake, Washington, in 1965, to his vault over ten cars in Philadelphia, in 1973. He was famous for crashing, but he usually landed. He had become a regular on the Saturday-afternoon television staple “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” He also drank hard and boasted of womanizing—but spoke of his wife in the most worshipful manner. He admired Liberace. He urged kids to believe in God and stay away from drugs, though whispers of drug abuse dogged him. He was notorious for not paying bills, and, as he became rich, he spent money with breathtaking excess. “There’s nothing in this world—I don’t care whether it’s furs, diamonds, automobiles, houses, anything you can name that is the best—that I’m not going to have two of,” he said in the documentary.

Robert Truax was not an obvious partner for Knievel. His work on liquid-propelled rockets was considered a major contribution to the American space program, and he was a leader in developing major missile programs. The New York Times called him “one of the premier rocket scientists of the 20th century.” By the nineteen-seventies, he had left the Navy and launched Project Private Enterprise, his effort to use cheap surplus parts to build rockets that would put civilians into space. “He hated the concept of the space shuttle,” Scott Truax said. “His whole idea was to promote low-cost access to space.”

Truax first became acquainted with Knievel through an engineer the daredevil had hired to build a rocket to cross the Grand Canyon. After the two met, they hit it off quickly. Knievel had hoped to jump the canyon on a motorcycle; Truax helped persuade him to ride a rocket instead. “Evel didn’t like the idea of being kind of a passenger, but my dad sold it to him by saying he was going to be like an astronaut,” Scott Truax said. True to form for the low-cost rocket man, the elder Truax built the fourteen-foot, one-thousand-three-hundred-and-fifty-pound Skycycle X-2 from surplus parts. The fuselage was an external fuel tank for a Grumman HU-16 Albatross seaplane. The steam engine was a repurposed oxygen tank from a B-50 bomber. Scott Truax told me that his earliest memories involve his dad working on that rocket in the garage. “He called those wondrous years. It was the most fun I think he ever had on a rocket project.”

During this time, the friendship between the daredevil and the engineer deepened. When, much later, Knievel had such harsh words for his father, it took Scott Truax by surprise—in part because Knievel and his father had remained friends after the Snake River Canyon jump. They even worked on a couple of other plans together. “They got along famously,” Truax said. “Because of my dad’s age and status, he was one of the rare people Evel listened to.”

One consequence of the frugal approach to building the rocket was that Robert Truax was not able to conduct a test of the parachute system. They had only one parachute, Scott Truax told me, and Knievel’s team was afraid a test effort would damage the chute.

Twin Falls in 1974 was a town of twenty thousand people. It sits on the high desert of southern Idaho, on the southern side of the Snake River Canyon. Knievel’s circus came to town the same week as the county fair and rodeo, and it was like nothing most people in the agricultural area had ever seen. Knievel promoted the occasion as a week-long festival that would feature fifty thousand spectators, high-wire acts, golf tournaments, food and drink, and fun. “Celebrities names were whispered,” the local Times-News reported, “fewer than 48 hours” before the jump, “but the only ‘stars’ sighted so far were Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen, and Ali McGraw, all reported to be ‘camping’ somewhere else than the big motels.”

By then, people had been arriving for days, camping in the canyon parks, skinny-dipping in the pools and lakes, partying. The crowds were smaller than predicted but rougher than many locals liked. One woman who lived near the jump site told the newspaper, “It seems there should be something we could do to make these people control themselves, like take their bikes away or something. I suppose we will just have to move out and give our property to the hippies.” Knievel’s team constructed a ramp on the north side of the canyon—a hill of dirt that, to this day, remains visible on the canyon rim as you drive into town.

Before the jump, Knievel wavered between self-aggrandizing hyperbole (“I’ve never been afraid in my life of dying under any circumstances. I think that a man was put here on Earth to live, not just to exist, and today is the proudest day of my life”), self-pitying determination (“I wish I didn’t have to be here and that I didn’t have to do this”), and bullying obstinacy (he punched a cameraman). He posed in the canyon for the cover of Sports Illustrated. “You know,” he told the magazine, “I’ve always been concerned about kids—not just my own three but all kids—what kind of an image I’m providing for them, what kind of inspiration. I don’t know now. Maybe I’m leading them down the path to self-destruction.”

The parties turned rowdier; there was some minor-league rioting the night before the jump. Knievel and his entourage burned about every bridge possible with locals, and left a trail of unpaid bills. Each reality fell short of the hype, from ticket sales to celebrity attendees. Madison Square Garden showed the jump on closed-circuit television, and sold tickets for the event. “The Garden looked to be about one-fifth full,” a writer for The New Yorker reported. “The most exciting thing that happened was when a fellow in front of us got mad at a fellow sitting next to him.” The day of the jump, Jack Perkins, of NBC News, said, “It’s Evel Knievel versus the Snake River Canyon, with the Snake River Canyon the sentimental favorite.”

By the time Knievel’s rocket left the ramp that afternoon, its untested parachute cover had already failed, and the parachute popped out; within seconds it was fully deployed, dragging Knievel down into the canyon, where he landed in the river. Scott Truax remembers hopping down from the top of the family motor home and rushing to the canyon rim with the rest of the crowd. For about twenty minutes, no one knew whether Knievel had lived or died.

After he graduated from high school, Scott Truax worked side by side with his dad on a rocket intended to take Knievel to space. The Navy ended up buying it from them for another purpose. In 2000, Scott got into custom home-building. The economic crash, in 2008, put an end to that business, and that’s when he decided to pursue the canyon jump. He moved to Utah for a few years, and then to Twin Falls. “I had wanted to recreate the Skycycle jump since I was a little kid, and just started hammering hard,” he said. “I’m sort of like a pit bull. I never let it go.”

He figured that moving to Twin Falls would help garner support for the jump, but it turns out that a lot of people still have a bad taste in their mouths from the original event. Still, he started building the first rocket, without an idea of who might pilot it or whether he could make the jump happen, and he started a Facebook page called “Return to Snake River.” Within a couple of days, the Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun got in touch with him, and the two became partners in the endeavor.

Truax believes—and the initial trajectory of the Skycycle indeed suggests—that his father’s rocket would have cleared the canyon if it weren’t for the parachute failure. While he and his partners have mostly followed Robert Truax’s original plans, they departed in one key area. “We completely reëngineered the whole parachute system, and we did a test,” he said. “And the chute stayed put.”

He now has three rockets and a ramp, along with his replica of the “Supervan” that carried the rocket to the jump site. He has secured the rights to use private land on both sides of the canyon east of town. To avoid the entanglements of a full-time job, he has worked as a temp and in construction during the past year. He said he’s still fine-tuning the details of the jump but is set on proceeding this summer. “We’re going,” he said. “No matter what.”

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