Columns

Will anyone ever jump the Snake River Canyon? 2014.09.04

By RICH FOLEY

Next Monday marks the 40th anniversary of daredevil Evel Knievel’s unsuccessful attempt to jump across Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. For those of you who weren’t around in 1974, Knievel, famous for numerous motorcycle jumps over cars, busses, and an attempted jump  over a fountain, tried to jump the Snake River in his rocket-powered “Skycycle.” A malfunction and early deployment of an emergency parachute sent Knievel floating down into the canyon below.

I have to admit, I hadn’t thought of the Snake River jump for quite some time. Then, a  few months ago I heard  a story on the radio that a man named Big Ed Beckley was planning to commemorate Knievel’s failed jump by making it himself. Suddenly in my mind, in was 1984 all over again.

Back in those days, the folks at Michigan International Speedway would invite local journalists to the Detroit Press Club when there were race drivers appearing. Since I almost never throw anything away, the cassette tape I still have from this particular visit confirms the date as Jan. 4, 1984. The big attraction was Bobby Allison, fresh off his 1983 NASCAR Cup championship.

Also appearing were sports car drivers Al Holbert and Joe Varde who were going to race at MIS later in the year. A special bonus was getting to meet Morgana, The Kissing Bandit. Morgana had a few years of fame by interrupting sports events to kiss various players, including Pete Rose and George Brett. 

Morgana was there to promote an autograph appearance at the annual Autorama car show coming to Detroit. Also signing autographs with her at the show was John Stamos, then famous for playing Blackie on the soap opera “General Hospital.” Unfortunately, today’s face of Greek yogurt didn’t make the event. His absence, though, was more than made up for by the appearance of daredevil Ed Beckley.

Back then, Beckley had yet to add “Big” to his name, although he admitted at the time to weighing 326 pounds. He added that the motorcycle he used for his jumps weighed only 250 pounds, comparing himself to a jockey who outweighed his horse. But until I met Beckley, I’d never heard of a jockey who carried passengers.

Yes, the car-jumping stunt Beckley planned for his appearance at the Silverdome in Pontiac included his wife riding along behind him. Although she weighed a relatively svelte 126 pounds, her additional weight was enough to severely reduce the scope of the jump.

Beckley, who often jumped 15 cars by himself, was only planning to jump five with his wife aboard. Since the construction of the Silverdome  precluded leaving the doors open to give him additional room to accelerate before and slow down after the jump, the size of his jump had to be scaled back.

About this time, the curmudgeon of the Detroit Press Club was heard from. Originally from Blissfield, this man eventually became a top executive with the Detroit Lions and still attended the Press Club events. His specialty seemed to be asking rude questions of guests, particularly race drivers whom he didn’t seem to have much respect for.

He kept quiet while Allison, Holbert and Varde were speaking, but the idea of Beckley doing a motorcycle jump with his wife was too much for him. He asked Beckley if there was a history of mental illness in his family that would make him want to do such a thing.

Without missing a beat, Beckley said,  “Folks, you’ve just met my father!” The whole room erupted in laughter. Another club member then stood up and congratulated Beckley on being only the second person ever to shut the man up.

And that was the last I heard of Ed Beckley for 30 years. In May, the Fox network announced plans to televise “The Jump of the Century,” featuring Big Ed Beckley jumping the Snake River Canyon.  Time being short, hitting the exact anniversary date of Sept. 8 was impossible, so the jump was set for Oct. 27.

Even that date turned out to be unrealistic. Citing logistical and budget problems, Fox pulled out of the project a month ago. Beckley, who paid the Idaho Department of Lands $943,000 to lease the land needed for the jump, now has over $1 million of his own money sunk into the project.

But, since Beckley had arranged for a lease on the needed land through next year, he still has time to find another media partner and make the jump in 2015. I can hardly wait.