Hollwood stuntman finishes what Evel Knievel started by succesfully leaping the Snake River Canyon
Some 42 years after Evel Knievel’s failed attempt to leap over the quartermile-wide Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket, Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun has finally realised his childhood hero’s dream by safely landing his replica rocket on the far side of the deep and rocky canyon.
The figures detailing Braun’s leap are truly staggering. When he pushed the launch button he unleashed 10,000bhp instantaneously, was subjected to a near-intolerable force of 8 Gs as he soared up the 122-foot ramp - set at a 56° angle - reached 420mph and a height of 2000 feet in just 3.9 seconds, and successfully guided his Evel Spirit craft some 4826 feet (0.91 miles) from his launch point. “Essentially, I was riding a controlled explosion,” Braun said in an exclusive interview with MCN.
Perhaps even more astonishing is the fact that Braun did not use a modern, updated and re-engineered version of Knievel’s famous Sky Cycle X2, he used an exact replica of the 42-yearold craft, built from the 1974 blueprints and even incorporating some genuine spare parts from the original Sky Cycle. The Evel Spirit was built by Scott Truax, son of the late Bob Truax – the rocket scientist who designed and built Knievel’s craft.
$1.6 million project
So how on earth did a 54-year-old Hollywood stuntman who has worked on more than 258 films and TV shows (including Sully: Miracle on the Hudson, Avengers Assemble and all three of Jackie Chan’s Rush Hour movies) end up self-financing a $1.6 million leap across a canyon to finally complete his hero’s dream?
The story starts at Ascot Park Raceway in Gardena, California, in 1971 when Eddie Braun was a school kid. “Like every other child across America back then, I wanted to be like Evel,” he says. “I met him at Ascot Park when I was 10 and the man had a cape on – I mean, he was a superhero! He put his
‘The man had a cape on. I mean, he was a superhero. I wanted to be like him’
arm around me and was very friendly – all I wanted to do was be like him. Not long after meeting him I got my first proper injury when I broke my arm trying to jump my Schwinn Sting-ray over trash cans and I never looked back.”
By the time he was 17, Braun had got into the Hollywood stunt business and over the last four decades has worked on some of the biggest movies and TV shows. It was only when he started winding down his career four years ago that he started thinking of a way to bow out with one last hurrah and had the idea of leaping Snake River. “I never understood why Evel never went back to finish the job”, Braun said. “I figured I had the skill set, the mental fortitude, and the experience to make that jump and finally finish it.”
Half a crackpot!
There were two things Braun insisted on before he would go ahead with the project: one was the backing of the Knievel family, and the other was the co-operation of Scott Truax. He explained: “If I didn’t have the blessing of the Knievel family then I would have just felt like a bad impersonator. There have been too many guys who dress up in red, white and blue and wear a cape and try to be Evel. When I first contacted Kelly Knievel he hung up on me in less than five minutes, thinking I was just another crackpot. So I had a friend contact him and explain that I was a professional stuntman so next time Kelly listened to me. By then he had done some homework on me and realised that I was only half a crackpot!
“The family is quite rightly protective of Evel’s name and I explained to Kelly that I wanted to use the spelling of Evel with an ‘e’ and not with an ‘i’. He looked at me deadpan and said ‘What, are we playing f*cking Jeopardy here? You want to buy a vowel?’ I said ‘Yes, I want to buy an ‘e’ from you and call it Evel Spirit.’ I think that proved that my
motives were pure and that the jump attempt wasn’t about me.
“The second thing I needed was the help of Scott Truax. He wanted to do it just to clear his family’s name because his father – who was a brilliant rocket scientist – was mostly known as the guy who built the rocket that failed to leap the Snake River. Scott had a lot of his father’s spare parts for the Sky Cycle as well as all the blueprints so the DNA of my rocket is the same as Evel’s.”
‘ Stunts are not scientific’
While Knievel fired two test shots prior to his attempt (both went straight down into the Snake River), Braun only had one rocket built and that’s the one he’d be strapping himself into. But there was method in his apparent madness. “Since we were going to be precisely replicating everything that Evel did – same rocket, same ramp, same ramp angle – then Evel’s test shots and ac- tual jump attempt counted as my test shots too - they just happened to be done 42 years ago! None of Evel’s attempts were successful but they gave me enough information to work on. But there were still a lot of unknowns because Evel never felt the full power of the motor – he had drag the whole time because his parachute came out as soon as the rocket left the ramp.”
Braun didn’t even carry out any computer simulations, but he wasn’t worried. “Stunts are not scientific things – there’s a lot of gut instinct and best guesses involved. We don’t computer simulate the stunts we do in Hollywood because that would just be impractical.”
What his small team did do was check the power output of the Evel Spirit. “We needed to know how long it would burn for and we needed to know what kind of pressure it would exert and the numbers we got were scary. It was clear that the canyon itself would just be an afterthought – we were worried that I was gonna end up in the next county! We had well over 10,000 horsepower – delivered instantaneously. And that’s in a vehicle that weighs just 589kg.”
‘ Strapped to a bomb’
There was no way for Braun himself to prepare or practice for the attempt either. After all, how do you practice piloting a rocket? “I’d never ridden a rocket before! But I’ve spent years being very tightly confined in various vehicles and I’ve had to make a lot of decisions under duress. It’s a very stressful thing being basically strapped to a bomb and having to think clearly about what you have to do and when you have to do it.
“If you watch the Snake River footage of Evel and look at his body language, he just was not comfortable in that rocket – he was completely out of his element. His family told me he
‘It’s very stressful basically being strapped to a bomb – you have to think quickly and clearly’ EDDIE BRAUN
wasn’t happy at all and, having done it myself, I don’t blame him – it sucked. I’m used to being uncomfortable and under duress but that jump was truly miserable!”
Braun added: “I had so many sleepless nights and went through so many emotions, crying many times and just being so frustrated at so many things before I finally got to that moment when I climbed into the rocket.”
While Knievel’s attempt at the Snake River was a masterpiece in hype and self-promotion and attracted worldwide attention, Braun’s effort was so low-key that there were only a handful of spectators on hand to witness it. He even launched one day ahead of the date he had announced but this was all part of the plan as Braun explains
“I paid for it all myself and it cost me $1.6 million but that meant it was my money, my rocket, and my rules.”
As Braun – a keen motorcyclist who owns a Yamaha RD400 and a HarleyDavidson Softail Heritage - squeezed himself into the extremely tight confines of the Evel Spirit on launch day, the big concern was whether he would black out from the massive amount of Gs he would be subjected to.
After reaching a top speed of 430mph in just 3.9 seconds, Braun’s task was to wait for the rocket to stop rolling and then deploy the parachutes that would help him drift safely back to earth.
The Knievel family were elated with Braun’s successful leap and one young Knievel is now aspiring to be just like Eddie Braun. “The best compliment I ever got was when Evel’s daughter, Alicia, texted to tell me that her son Ridley wanted to dress up as me for Halloween Can you imagine how I felt? Evel Knievel’s grandson – the grandson of my hero - wanting to dress up as ME for Halloween? That’s a feeling you just can’t put into words.”
It took Braun three years and $1.6m to get to this point