Three jumps. One night. Two legends.
Travis Pastrana has more than earned his reputation as a bonafide action-sport icon. One of the most decorated freestyle athletes in X Games history, he’s the motocross champion who simultaneously dropped millions of jaws in 2006 with the first-ever dirt-bike double back flip. He’s the guy who backflipped a motorcycle between two rooftops. Who went skydiving, shirtless, without a parachute—and lived to tell the tale.
Not surprisingly, he’s eyeing a few records set by Evel Knievel.
Evel—well, he hardly needs an introduction. He’s the legendary two-wheeling daredevil who jumped, and crashed, his way into American pop-culture history in the 1960s and ’70s. He started his stunt career by not quite making it over a box of rattlesnakes and mountain lions (the snakes escaped)—and it only got crazier from there. He graduated to vaulting vehicles: cars, trucks, and buses, his signature white cape sometimes flying in his wake. At one point he tried to rocket across a canyon, but was thwarted by a premature parachute. Funny thing, though—the more he wiped out, the more famous he became and the more people wanted to know: Would he make the next one? Knievel holds the Guinness World Record for most broken bones sustained in a lifetime, at 433.
Stunt performers and extreme-sports athletes ever since owe a debt to his legacy—of big dreams, big cojones and nerves of steel. His stunts, many of which were televised on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” opened the taps to lucrative film and merchandise deals, and set the table for the billion-dollar extreme-sports industry that would follow decades later. Pastrana, on July 8 in Las Vegas, hopes to pay homage to that legacy while putting his name in the record books with three epic, Evel-inspired jumps. Here, in graphic form, are the particulars:
First up: The crushed cars.
By February 1973, Knievel had been jumping motorcycles for money for nearly a decade. But for most of that time, when he soared over vehicles, the obstacles usually numbered in the teens. His jump at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum was in another league altogether: Riding his Harley Davidson XR-750, Evel promised to soar over over 50 stacked, crushed cars, 18 abreast.
He delivered, landing at the end of the safety ramp, having spanned a distance of 120 feet. And after the successful stunt, Knievel addressed the crowd of nearly 24,000, who had paid $8 a ticket ($4 for kids). “Did they come to see me die?” he asked. “No, I don’t think they did. As I came down that ramp, I could feel everybody’s good wishes and prayers. I don’t think anybody in L.A. wants to see me get killed.”
Pastrana will attempt to best that record by jumping the equivalent of 52 crushed cars. But unlike with his freestyle jumps, he’ll be attempting these on an Indian Scout FTR750 bike, similar to the Harley that Evel rode. It will be a major X factor in the evening’s proceedings, since it’s heavier, with less in the way of suspension than what Pastrana is used to—built for speed and handling, and not for his usual high-flying, acrobatic brand of jumping.
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Next up: The Greyhounds.
In October 1975, Evel emerged from one of several prematurely announced retirements—and he did so with high ambition. Nearly five months earlier, at Wembley Stadium in London, he had attempted to jump 13 single-decker buses, and come up just a little bit short. Having hit the last bus, he crashed in spectacular, wince-worthy fashion, breaking his pelvis and his back. And somehow, before being whisked away on a stretcher, he pulled himself up to stand at a microphone and tell the crowd they were the last people to ever see him jump.
Yeah, right. That October, he upped the ante to 14 Greyhound buses at King’s Island.
Evel made the jump. His front wheel pulled up on him toward the end of his hangtime, he told ABC commentator Frank Gifford afterward: “If I’d gone another three feet it would’ve looped over backward on me.” He announced that with this feat, having spanned 133 feet, he had “jumped far enough.” He would go on to perform, but not to pursue any longer distances.
Pastrana will push that limit, and is looking to clear 16 Greyhound buses. Of the three jumps he will attempt, this one will require the highest speed and the longest run-in.
The night will wrap up at the Caesar’s Palace Fountain, the site of one of Knievel’s worst wipeouts—and likely the one that thrust the then-little-known stunt performer into the national spotlight.
Lengthwise, this was Evel’s most ambitious jump, as he was shooting to clear more than 140 feet. When he missed the landing, he crashed at around 90 mph, tumbling head over heels, over and over. In the process, he crushed his pelvis, broke his left hip, right ankle, hands and wrists. “The helmet saved my life,” he later said. Still, he suffered a concussion that put him in the hospital, in a coma, for nearly a month.
And while ABC declined to broadcast that Caesars Palace jump live, its notoriety piqued the network’s attention. Its programmers went on to broadcast many of Evel’s subsequent stunts on its popular “Wide World of Sports,” some of which still rank among the highest-rated specials in the show’s history.
Since Evel made the fountain attempt in 1967, the Caesars Palace property has become considerably more built out, which will pose significant challenges for Pastrana in his own go at the fountain. With less than half the space Evel had to work with, and jumping in the opposite direction, Pastrana will have a far shorter approach and a shorter run-out—meaning he’ll have to reach jump speed more rapidly and stop faster on the other side. In some ways, he’ll be saving the most challenging stunt for last.