“I’ve always said that when the canyon jump comes, if I miss it I’ll get somewhere quicker where you’re all going someday … Dying is a part of living, and none of us is going to get out of here alive.”
– Evel Knievel
It looks like a prop from a superhero movie.
A jet-powered motorcycle enclosed in a sleek red, white and blue aerodynamic shell is being built to carry the world’s largest stunt man over the world’s longest motorcycle jump.
Big Ed Beckley dubs himself the “world’s largest motorcycle daredevil.”
At 6-2 and 280 pounds, Beckley pushes the limits on the laws of gravity. He’s carried his large frame over more than 1,400 successful motorcycle jumps, the longest being 156 feet – 15 full-sized cars – that he’s performed in several venues.
But now the world’s biggest stunt man plans on making the world’s biggest motorcycle jump.
Last week Beckley, also a successful businessman, acquired the lucrative rights to recreate the most infamous of Evel Knievel’s stunts: a failed attempt to jump a 1,600-foot-wide section of the Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the attempt. Knievel basically strapped himself into a giant bottle rocket, launched off a steep ramp and overflew the canyon. He had hoped to parachute down softly on the other side. Instead, his chute opened early, the wind carried him backward and he bounced off the wall of the canyon before splashing into the river below. Amazingly he escaped the failed feat with only minor injuries.
But now Beckley, who will be 64 years old when he becomes the first to attempt the jump in 40 years, plans to succeed where Knievel failed.
“I’ve always wanted to make my mark in life,” Beckley said. “I just hope it’s not against the north wall of the Snake River Canyon.”
Acquiring the rights to perform the jump was a feat in itself. Beckley has been working at it for years. He finally got the go-ahead when he won an auction in Twin Falls, Idaho, at a cost of more than $900,000, at the end of last month. He had to beat out several production companies bidding on the chance.
“This is history,” Beckley said. “How does a guy from Bridgeport, Texas, get up to Twin Falls and bid $900,000 to make this jump? It’s because I got a lot of good people backing me.”
Now cable stations like History Channel and Discovery are vying for the rights to air the historic jump when he attempts it next September.
LIVING THE DREAM
Beckley grew up in the small West Kansas town of Scott City. He’d always wanted to race motorcycles, but his large size prevented him from becoming a competitor. Then in 1971, he saw Evel Knievel perform at the Kansas State Fair, and his life’s trajectory was forever changed.
“He’s the reason I got into this. I started to jump myself two years afterward, and it’s been my dream to do this ever since,” Beckley said. “I always wanted to be a racer, but I was too big for that. I’d have to have twice the size of motorcycle as everybody else to keep up. But doing the jumping stuff just took twice as much guts as anyone had, and I figured I might have that.”
He performed his first stunt in 1973 at 23 years old. He jumped over the little downtown section of Dighton, Kansas.
“I got paid $350 doing it,” he said. “It was more than I made working at a truck stop at the time. I liked that lifestyle.”
Throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s Beckley traveled the nation, jumping every obstacle in his path. At times he weighed as much as 380 pounds, easily earning the moniker as the “world’s largest motorcycle daredevil.”
The only thing bigger than his girth was his courage and his smile. The energetic 63-year-old’s body is now covered with scar tissue from a lifetime of punishing performances. He’s broken both shoulders, had multiple concussions, blown out ear drums, destroyed knee caps, dislocated his right arm seven times and left arm five times and crushed two discs in his lower back.
“If it scares you, I’ll do it,” Beckley said. “I’ve lived my whole life in Kansas and Texas, and I believe in frontier justice. I’ve looked down the barrel of a gun before. And I’ve held the gun. I feel like an old west gunfighter. And this is how I’m making my mark – staring death in the eye. With Jesus Christ as my buddy. We’re gonna make it.”
ENGINEERING THE FEAT
Beckley has lots of faith – but he also has a team of engineers working on his upcoming stunt.
They’ve created model simulations documenting exactly what the speed his motorcycle will be going at each moment of the stunt.
“The rocket’s lit right there,” Beckley said while watching the simulation. “By the time I get to this point I’m going 250, then I’ll hit 325 in the air and by that time, I run out of fuel. Then I’ll launch a chute.
“The bike kicks out of gear when I hit the rocket, then in midair I kick it back into gear so I can use the wheels and motor as a gyro to steer it. I’m actually on a motorcycle. It has an engine in it.”
That’s the big difference between Beckley’s jump and Knievel’s, whose vehicle was just a rocket.
“We’re going to use a motorcycle that is up to speed,” Beckley said. “And we’ve got technology that is 40 years advanced.”
He’s going to use an earthen, paved ramp as big as a football field to launch himself over the canyon. After the high-speed launch has propelled him into the blue Idaho sky, over the void of the canyon and the glistening water below, he’ll coast on a parachute safely down to the other side. At least that’s the best-laid plan.
Despite his age, he feels like he’s in the best shape of his life for this jump.
“I’m 280 and going to drop about 30 or 40 pounds over the next few months,” Beckley said. “I was jumping back in the 1980s and ’90s at 380 pounds. I’m in better shape now than I ever was back then.
“Losing the weight helps because I’ll be reaching 3 G’s. Every pound I take off will feel like 3 pounds taken off of me that won’t be pushing against my chest and lungs, and that’s really important.”
If it all goes according to plan, Big Ed will have made big history by this time next year on his superhero-like motorcyle.