Rocket Man!

Holl­wood stunt­man fin­ishes what Evel Knievel started by suc­ces­fully leap­ing the Snake River Canyon

Motorcycle News (UK) - - Feature - By Stu­art Barker MCN CON­TRIB­U­TOR

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

The jump over Snake River was a lit­tle un­der a mile...

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