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On the face of it Evel is blas� about the dangers. "If the heater doesn't blow up and scald me to death on the launch ramp," he says, "if the countdown goes right, if the Sky-Cycle goes straight up and not backward, if it actually reaches 2,000 feet, if the chute works, if I don't hit the wall at 400 mph and if I can get out of it when it lands—I win. If it doesn't work, I'll spit the canyon wall in the eye just before I hit. Then again, I've got five backup systems. The fifth one is called the Lord's Prayer."
But that is the public Evel talking. In private he is less cocksure.
"Right now I don't think I've got better than a 50-50 chance of making it," he says. "It's an awful feeling. I can't sleep nights. I toss and turn, and all I can see is that big ugly hole in the ground grinning up at me like a death's head. You know, 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. Our house in Butte is surrounded day and night by people wanting to look at me, to take something as a souvenir. And that damn little Robbie of mine, the 11-year-old, you know what he has gone and done? He has got a big old sign out in front that says SEE EVEL JR. JUMP—25�. It's not a good thing."
Imitation may be the greatest of compliments, but in Evel's case imitation can indeed lead to death or a wheelchair, as nearly a dozen would-be Knievels have already discovered over the past two or three years. One of the best imitators was formerly on Evel's staff. Robert (Wicked) Ward, age 26, of Buffalo and Atlanta, is a slim, grinning, long-haired daredevil who claims he recently cleared 19 cars in a bike jump at Palmetto, Ga., just two cars fewer than Evel's "world record." One of Wicked's wrists is still wrapped in an Ace bandage, and he speaks in a hoarse whisper, the result of a karate chop courtesy of his handlebars during a bad spill. Wicked nods sagely as Evel rambles on about the dangers, both social and personal, of the canyon jump, but the avidity in Wicked's eyes, the sparkling joy at the prospect of death, cannot be disguised. Not that Wicked would like to see his guru gone; it's just that the act itself—the great hubristic leap, the slap in the face of gravity—is too much.
Evel is sitting in the lounge of the Blue Lakes Inn on the outskirts of Twin Falls, Idaho, not three miles from the jump site. Well-wishers and autograph hounds surround him in an ever-changing ebb and flow. Twin Falls (pop. 22,700) is a smiling, open-faced town set in the midst of southern Idaho's temperate, potato-rich "Magic Valley." Its citizens don't quite know what to make of Evel. The boosters among them realize that the jump will not only "put us on the map" but generate an unprecedented one-shot windfall of tourist bucks when the teevee crews and other gawkers arrive. The loners among them resent the show-biz aura of the event, the impending, lemminglike descent of meat-faced strangers determined to be in on the kill.
"Fifty thousand people?" says a cocktail waitress, bringing Evel a fresh gin and tonic. "Heck, I ain't never seen more than a thousand in one place. It's scary."
"Fifty thousand, hell," snorts Evel, recovering from a mood of introspection. "That's just tickets at $25 a throw. They'll be a hunnerd thousand more just trickling around the edges. You'll need a helicopter or a quarter horse to get in and out of that jump site."
The size of the crowd suddenly raises the prospect of an added danger: Can the eroded lava of the canyon's rim stand the weight of such a vast, milling mass? What if the ledge just flakes off, precipitating Evel, Sky-Cycle, launch ramp and fans onto the boats and rocks and raging currents below? It would be a cataclysm worthy of Nathanael West, particularly since there will be a small circus, replete with daredevil acts, performing on the ledge below the jump site. The Crumbling of the Canyon....
"Not very likely," Evel sniffs. But then again, what has ever been very likely about anything Evel does?
A woman reporter takes advantage of a pause in the spiel to request an "in-depth interview." Evel stares at her as if a giant Idaho spud had suddenly started to talk.