By Arlin Harmon
One of the great things about the sport of motorcycles is the unique people you meet. I’ve been thinking about one person in particular I met in the late 60’s. He became a good friend. He’s gone now, but left memories that won’t be forgotten. He was one of those special personalities. Wild and crazy like a lot of us have been at times in our lives.
It was the summer of 1967. We lived in Tacoma, WA, and I had just bought a brand new TT Triumph 650. I grew up on bikes, but this was my first Triumph, and I was excited to ride. I bought the bike at Cycle Craft, and they were sponsoring a guy named Evel Knievel. I had no idea who he was, but they gave me passes to a national flat track race in Centralia, WA, and this Knievel guy was going to perform there.
For me, I just wanted to see all the neat racers. Eddie Mulder, Dick Man, Gary Nixon, Gene Remario, and a lot more that I just can’t think of at the moment. They were all going to be there- I couldn’t wait!
We arrived at the fair grounds in Centralia, and the atmosphere was electric. The smell in the air of Caster Bean oil, and the sound of those bikes! Boy, those English Twins had the sound of the times, mixed with the big singles and those big ass V-Twin flat heads- all mixed together. I couldn’t sit still. It still makes the hair on the back of my head stand up. This was way cool. I had to get closer to the pits, and see the bikes making that great sound. As we went through the gate, there stood Evel, talking to Gary Nixon. We said hi, and we kept moving toward the pits.
Just before the show started, all the riders came out to give a wheelie demonstration. Up and down the front straight they wheelied, one after another. I couldn’t believe it. Then out came this Evel Knievel guy in red, white, and blue leathers, with a cape and all. He did good wheelies, but not up to par with some of the racers.
We watched more races, and then it was Knievel’s turn to show everybody what he did. When he lined up to jump 13 cars, I understood what the attraction was. I couldn’t hardly stand to watch. It scared the hell out of me!
After the last race ,we headed for the parking lot. Evel was standing at the gate again, talking to people. I said bye, and told him how much I enjoyed the show. We talked briefly, and found out he was coming to Tacoma. Gail and I were playing music at the time, so we invited him to stop by where we worked a club called the Players. Anybody out there remember any of those places?
Evel came to see us, and we became friends. Spent a lot of time together, riding around Tacoma on race bikes, wheelieing all over the place, and BS’ing with everybody. Evel was a great talker. Have you ever heard the phrase, “The guy could sell ice cubes to an Eskimo”? Well, he was the guy. His mind was going all the time—all day and most of the night. Living on his wits!
The jump in Tacoma was at Graham Speedway, on a Friday night. We had to play music that night, and as it turned out, I was glad I didn’t go. Evel missed the 13 car jump, and got hurt really bad. When we went to see him in the hospital, he was already telling everybody he was going to do it again, and how he would make it next time. It took about three weeks for him to recover enough to make the jump again. We raised lots of hell in those weeks, and had a blast doing it.
In those days Evel had a truck and trailer to carry all his equipment. He carried his bikes in a small trailer he pulled with a van, and usually had a driver to help with set up. But this time he was all alone, but not worried. He always got help with no problem. He asked me to come out and help him set up for a practice jump. I agreed to meet Evel at Graham Speedway, and another friend I knew from the Players club, Danny Speidel, came to help out.
It was a hot day, and the dust at Graham Speedway was everywhere. I rode my bike there while Danny helped with the truck and trailer. We got everything set up for the jump, except the ramps were set closer together—about 8 car lengths apart.
Evel just wanted to be sure the setup was right. I didn’t realize it then, but I was about to be on the receiving end of one of Evel’s best sales pitches. It started with something like: “Ah man, if my bike wasn’t broken, I could at least get the feel of the run up to the ramps. There’s only one good line—through that gate, over the track, and back in the infield. It would really help me out if I could just make a slow run up to the ramp. If I don’t, I’m afraid I might not be able to do it. Would you let me ride your bike to check it out?”
I must have been out of my mind, but somehow these words came out of my mouth. “OK, just take it easy, it’s only got 200 miles on it.” Evel didn’t even have a helmet, but I didn’t think he needed one – after all, it was just a slow approach to check out the path.
There he went on my bike. Out across the infield, over the end of the track, and out through the fence into the field, to turn around. I started getting nervous, but I couldn’t do a thing about it. He sat there for a while, revving the motor a little. My bike had TT pipes—boy! did it sound good.
As he made his way toward us, on his way to third gear, he took it easy, just like he said, and veered to the right, going past the ramps. Oh, that wasn’t so bad, I thought, as he turned around to make another run. The second run was just like the first, except he stopped at the bottom of the take off ramp, and asked Danny and me to move the ramps a little to the right, as he rode my Triumph up the take-off ramp to check the alignment.
Then he said those words I’ll never forget: “Just one more, and we’ll go home.”
As we watched him ride through the dust bowl in the infield, back across the track and disappear out of sight, I had that feeling you get when you just know something is up. We could still hear my bike’s pipes, only this time they were a lot louder. He just kept sitting there, revving the motor over and over. He sits there for what seemed like ten minutes. Danny and I were standing on the very top of the landing ramp, so we could see the whole run. I just started to say “let’s go get him, something’s wrong,” when all of a sudden I heard my brand-new Triumph start singing a song I hadn’t heard before. As the motor screamed, we spotted the rooster tail spraying up from the rear tire. Then the bike jumped in the air, as Evel hit the edge of the track, landed about halfway across, shifted again and hit the infield. He was haulin’ ASS. I looked at Danny, he looked at me, and we both said he’s gonna do it. We jumped! Evel hit the ramp wide open in third gear. The bike took off straight, but turned to the right in air, and landed hard on the ramp, breaking Evel’s right wrist. He held on, and got the bike stopped. When I got to him, I was just glad both he and my bike were OK. He was in pain for sure, but his first words were “I’ve got to go back and do it again. If I don’t, and leave this way, I may never do it again!”
“God, man, are you crazy? Your wrist is broken!”
“Tape it up—I’ve got tape in the truck.” Still can’t explain why, but those same words came out of my mouth once again. “OK.” As I taped up his wrist, he asks me to tape his hand to the handle bar so he wouldn’t let go. “Are you kidding? OK.”
“One last thing, can I use your helmet this time? And let’s slide those ramps back another 30 feet or so.” We did, and Evel made the jump, just about perfect, in fact. My bike was fine, Evel’s wrist was broken and sore, but we all felt better about the whole experience. He went on to make the next jump at Graham Speedway, and wowed out the crowd. As he did for the rest of his life.
For me, I had been exposed to something I’ve never felt since. Pure adrenalin, from meeting someone that did what they said, no matter what the odds were. A real “Proud to be an American” spirited guy. Maybe that’s why so many were his fans. He truly left his mark on the world, as a one of a kind. I think anyone that’s ever just wanted to be a little wild on their bike, has some of the same stuff Evel had—only a much smaller dose! .Maybe that’s what draws us to motorcycles, our adventurous spirit, and living a little on the wild side. Evil will be missed, but not forgotten.
Goodbye to Evel Knievel, motorcycle enthusiast, great American spirit, my friend.