Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Remembering Evel Knievel's Snake River Jump 40 Years Later

Originally published on ThrottleX

A little more than 40 years ago, famous daredevil Evel Knievel squeezed into the cockpit of a strange open-top rocket known as Skycycle X-2 and attempted to jump a 3/4-mile chasm at Snake River Canyon, near Twin Falls, Idaho. Ultimately, the attempt was a failure and boondoggle. And for some, the incident is symbolic of the United States in the 1970s.

In the wider context, the pain of Vietnam was still fresh on that September day in 1974, as well as the anger and embarrassment of Watergate. American industry was in decline. This was when Harley-Davidson was earning the awful reputation its critics still (unfairly) point to. The remaining Apollo lunar missions –– easily the greatest examples of American technical prowess –– had been scrapped. Stock market crashes and an oil crisis had exposed the country's weakest points.

For several months leading to this day, Knievel had built a tide of public interest in the Snake River jump. Millions of dollars had been spent promoting and now televising the event across the nation. Thousands of onlookers had come to see it in person, lining both sides of the canyon.

As crowds cheered, Knievel, bedecked in his famous stars-and-stripes jumpsuit, had been delivered to the launching platform on a throne suspended from a crane. He hadn't just walked; he had descended as if from on high. It was American spectacle at its finest.

(Interestingly, one of the financial backers was Vince McMahon Jr. –– now owner of the WWE, and someone who knows a thing or two about creating a spectacle.)

After a dramatic countdown, the rocket fired and: Pfft. Its parachute deployed on ignition and immediately started to slow the Skycycle X-2 as it arched above Snake River Canyon.

"Whoa. It looks like he's..." one of the ABC commentators stuttered, more confounded by the immediate anti-climax than concerned for Knievel's safety. "Whoa. There's been a mistake."

The rocket wobbled in the sky, emitted some showy red smoke and drifted to the canyon floor. For Knievel, there was still drama because he would have drowned had the rocket gone into the river. But for the crowd it was a failure. After all the bombast, Knievel had come up short.

A few hours later that same day, President Gerald Ford announced he had pardoned Richard Nixon, saving the embarrassed former president from any possibility of indictment.

In the aftermath of the jump, dozens of investors and vendors suffered financial loss. To this day there exists in Twin Falls, Idaho, deep bitterness toward the whole affair. The American spirit had not conquered. Simply having the arrogance to dream something had not been enough to make it a success.

In the months leading up to this September and the 40th anniversary of the Snake River jump, no less than seven modern daredevils had expressed interest in attempting a similar feat. Many said they wanted to make things right, they wanted to heal the hurt caused by that failure. But in the end none did more than talk. September 8, 2014, came and went without note.

And perhaps that's for the best. Now is a different time, and maybe there's no reason to open those old wounds. As Knievel himself said after the whole affair: "In every adversity there's an equivalent to benefit if you look for it."

Rather than dwell on the botched jump, Knievel went on to do other things. Forty years on, not too many people remember Knievel's failures. They remember instead an icon of American spirit. They wear and decorate their motorcycles with his famous No. 1 graphic. To many, he is the sort of man they aspire to be.


Meanwhile, America is strengthening after a long, slow recession. Harley-Davidson is now one of the most respected and most trusted motorcycle brands in the world. And while we may not hold a monopoly, there's no doubting that the U.S. is an innovator once more. Maybe, in the end, Evel's jump wasn't a failure after all.

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