People derive pleasure from watching others tempt fate and defy odds. It explains the allure of the Indianapolis 500 after all these years — and of the daredevil Evel Knievel.
After he was through busting himself up with death-defying jumps, the Evel one retired to Las Vegas. Sometimes he would call the sports office seeking scores of games he had wagered on with deadline approaching, which can be death-defying in its own right.
After Knievel died in 2007, and even before that, he had many imitators. Most were fearless kids who jumped their high-tech dirt bikes over stuff — school buses, flattened cars, fountains at iconic Las Vegas hotel-casinos — much as he had on his Harley-Davidson.
In most cases, they made it look easy. Jumping over stuff on a dirt bike with trick suspension is a lot easier than doing it on the kind of heavy equipment Mel Gibson might have wheeled around in a “Mad Max” movie.
But the fearless kids didn’t have the charisma and panache that Evel Knievel was known for. They didn’t carry a custom walking stick filled with whiskey and drink from it on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny and Ed and Doc Severinsen.
Travis Pastrana probably came closest. Last summer in Las Vegas, the Nitro Circus star replicated three of Knievel’s most fate-tempting (if slightly reimagined) jumps for a special called “Evel Live” on the History channel.
The engaging stunt man and former NASCAR competitor honored Knievel’s legacy by jumping 52 cars, 16 buses and the fountains at Caesars Palace. Huge crowds cheered wildly when Pastrana tempted fate and defied odds. Many in the throng wore Evel Knievel T-shirts or brought Evel Knievel toy sky cycles and lunch pails.
Pastrana’s jumps attracted 3.5 million viewers, making “Evel Live” the most watched cable TV special of the year.
“Evel Live 2” was broadcast Sunday on History.
It did not go as well.
The sequel was based on freestyle motocross star Axell Hodges attempting to break Robbie Maddison’s record for longest jump between two ramps — 378 feet, 9 inches across San Diego Bay on New Year’s Eve 2011.
As they say in the disclaimer, do not attempt this at home. Even if a bay runs through your backyard.
One probably should not attempt it when the wind comes up at San Bernardino International Airport in California, either.
During a practice jump days before the scheduled flying leap, Hodges crashed. He fractured his ankles and turned his body into a giant raspberry. Had he not grabbed hold of his bike like a boogie board before falling off, he, too, might now be sipping whiskey from a walking stick to ease the pain.
Kelly Knievel, Evel’s son and a longtime Las Vegan, was on hand to provide expert commentary. Practice might make perfect. But in this case, he said, it made for a disappointing TV broadcast.
Kelly Knievel said when his dad would practice major jumps, it was always at a shorter (read: safer) distance. There wouldn’t be a phalanx of technicians in lab coats making database entries on laptop computers. As they were in baseball in those days, launch angle and exit velocity were inexact sciences when Evel Knievel took flying leaps.
“We used to stand in front of the cars when he was making his practice run, and we’d go thumbs up for faster, thumbs down for slower,” Knievel said. “And then we’d make a safe sign for ‘We think that’s it.’ ”
When Hodges ate it big time, the History channel and Nitro Circus people went into scramble mode. Here’s what they came up with: Wooden barriers were set ablaze, and X Games gold medalist Vicki Golden crashed through them on her motorcycle. It looked like an outtake from “Ghost Rider” before Nicolas Cage’s skull caught on fire.
Love this shot from @hamiltonick of @vgolden423 smashing her way to a world record!! Honored to have been part of #EvelLive2 and can’t wait for Axell Hodges to break some more world records later this year! 🔥🏍 pic.twitter.com/CtmOHzjqDO
— Kimberly Pressler (@MissPressler) July 11, 2019
I was disappointed in #EvelLive2 tonight!
— Laura (@laura24fan) July 8, 2019
“It was a big letdown,” Kelly Knievel said about broken Axell not attempting the record jump. “I’m sure it was a big letdown for the crowd. I haven’t seen the ratings yet.”
“Evel Live 2” was not listed among the top 25 in the Sunday overnights, meaning it finished behind two episodes of “Mike Tyson Mysteries” and “Real Wives of Potomac.”
If you were a vice president in charge of programming for a certain cable network and had a custom walking stick, you might have taken a big belt from it and left the cap off.