Sad news came that Evel Knievel died yesterday. He was, in a era of increasing blandisms, a guy you could count on to do some kind of wild stunt, on short notice. My one intersection with Evel was in 1974, when the world seemed to be focused at watching his stunts in Idaho become one front page after another. It was a time, before cable television (ok, there was HBO in New York, that was it!) and all those other supposed advances which have made our society so forgiving, open, and free in the exchange of ideas.
Along with Allen Green, photo colleague and marketing whiz who would later become known as the genius behind the Flexfill and Steadybag, I trotted off to Twin Falls, Idaho, where we decamped to a small, ruralesque motel for three or four nights, as part of the amazing road show which accompanied the “Evel Knievel Snake River Canyon Sky Cycle Jump.” Tens of thousands of folks gathered for that several day party, and Evel played it like a perfect diva, limiting his time with the press, showing up just enough to cause mass hysteria among not only the 4th estate, but the bikers (Hell's Angels was doing security)and the folks from home who just came to watch. The rocket cycle itself, although designed by some NASA style engineers, didn't do a terrific job in the power/weight calculations. But no one knew that until Sunday afternoon. For the three days leading up to the 'launch' there were practice runs, engine blasts, and Evel spouting off about how fantabulous he was. Pure fun!
An AP shot ( I never got that close to the SkyCycle)
He was 36 years old, I was 28 (spent my 28th birthday in Twin Falls, actually) but he seemed like much more of a grown up in his understanding of how to treat a crowd and build an event. His promoters, Shelly Saltzman and Bob Arum, were well known for their prowess in promoting Boxing, and had taken Evel's project in hand and the turn out was quite impressive. In an area which saw mostly gophers and prairie dogs, thousands of people, each with at least two or three beers in hand, showed up for the big show.
What none of us had figured was that what could have been an enormous story - whether he made it or not - "Evel Knievel shoots across the canyon", would be eaten alive by the real news story of that day. Lacking cell fones (not for another 20+ years would they be everywhere) the news reached us by jungle telegraph. I assume someone having a Coors, listening to an AM station with an average of a few thousand listeners, heard the news that Sunday morning, President Gerald Ford had issued a Pardon for Richard Nixon. Talk about feeling 'out of position!' There we were, in the middle of a hay fever attack, trying not to get beat up by bikers, putting lens caps back on lenses when changing quickly (Dennis Brack gave me hell for that move!), and shooting with no remote cameras near the edge of the canyon. Well, in the end, the Skycycle fizzled, the steam rocket power didn't hit full pressure, and the parachute came out on the way UP. In short, the cycle slid up the platform and made it off the rails, hung there briefly, then headed down into the canyon, landing near the water, Knievel unhurt. It was, alas, a massive let down. No zooming contrails. No incredible neck-turning zooming motions. Nothing you might expect from a combination of Knievel and rocket in the same space.
Ford Pardons Nixon: Me? Out of Position, again!
Once it was clear he wasn't hurt, all of our talk all reverted what was happening in Washington. The Nixon Pardon, which I happen to believe was a brilliant stroke - it spared the country from years of further Watergate dread - ate up every story around. No one, frankly, cared about Evel anymore. And there is nothing like feeling you are in the wrong place, at the wrong time. The one good that which came out of the trip was this:
I had, since my early days of shooting in Vietnam (1970 onwards) normally been shooting with 24mm, 35mm, 105mm and 180mm lenses. My semi famous shot of the GI on Lang Vei was done with the 24mm. Well, my mentor Raymond Depardon had been bugging me for several years to give up the 24 (too wide!) and go with the 28. “Tout ce que tu peux faire au 24, tu peux faire au 28, et mieux,” he said. [“Anything you can do with a 24, you can do with a 28, and better!”] Well, as Allen and I packed the car in Twin Falls, to head back to Salt Lake City to spend the night, I left my 24 sitting on the roof of the car. Somehow in the discussions of Nixon, Evel, Jerry, and the bikers, I'd just forgotten to pack it. Somewhere in the boonies of Idaho is a 35 year old lens, dusty and busted no doubt, probably turned into a condo by a family of small scorpions.
A new generation Evel-type, Colorado Springs (during the Pikes Peak Race)
So if I became better in my use of wide angle lenses, and I think I did, I suppose I owe it to Evel Knievel, the man who knew how to leap over places like no one else. I'm kind of sorry I never saw him blow over twenty semi trucks, and actually land the jump. Nowdays, moto cross kids regularly fly several stories into the air, doing acrobatics as they soar. It all started with the man from Butte, Montana who realized that selling the sizzle was more important than the quality of the steak. We're just sayin… David