Forty years ago, Evel Knievel strapped himself into a rocket and tried to fly over Idaho’s immense Snake River Canyon. He didn’t make it. But the stunt launched his lunacy into legend and inspired a generation of adrenaline junkies like Eddie Braun—the man who, this past weekend, completed the epic stunt Knievel couldn’t in a tribute to his hero.
Braun is a career stuntman and an early inductee to the cult of Knievel. He didn’t jump the Snake River Canyon to out-class Knievel. On the contrary, Braun’s “return to Snake River Canyon” jump was intended as more as an homage than anything—not that that diminishes his incredible achievement.
“My rocket’s called Evel Spirit, not Eddie Braun, for a reason,” he told Jalopnik in a recent interview.
Knievel famously attempted to jump the Idaho canyon in 1974 in the steam-powered Skycycle X-2 rocket, but he failed to reach the other side when the vehicle’s parachute prematurely deployed. Miraculously, he wasn’t hurt badly, which is more than you can say for many of Knievel’s other jumps.
Braun believes he spent $1.6 million dollars to fly 2,000 feet at 400 mph. The whole flight didn’t last more than a couple minutes.
A few days after his historic flight, Braun talked with us about why he did it, what it was like, and what’s next.
So where did your fascination with Knievel come from?
“I met Evel Knievel at Ascot Raceway,” he told me. “The guy was wearing a cape! He was like a superhero. I was a kid, he was nice to me, and touching him was like touching Superman’s cape. From that moment on, I wanted to be Evel Knievel.”
Today we know Knievel’s personal life was a lot messier than the clean white jumpsuits might have suggested, but the influence Braun felt from Knievel’s character is a story we’ve gotten used to hearing from enthusiastic fans—some of whom became professional stunt people.
“Right after [meeting Knievel] I got my first injury. Jumping my Schwinn Stingray over trashcans. Broke my arm. I might have been 11,” Braun said.
“I was very fortunate not too long after that at, 17 years old, I got into the film business as a professional stuntman. That’s all I’ve ever been.”
Braun explained that he picked a good time to get into the stunt game– “the heyday of ‘80s cheese”, as he put it. He ended up getting thrown out of windows, crashing cars and jumping off bridges in shows like The Dukes Of Hazzard, The Fall Guy, CHiPs and other action flicks. He eventually went to be Stunt Coordinator on all three Rush Hour movies.
And how do you get a job like that?
Braun says he didn’t try out for any particular movie; he “just got around the right guys at the right time. I must have impressed them because they kept me around!”
He broke down the stunt profession pretty simply: “the stunt business has two types of people: ‘super talents’, and ones with heart.”
“Super talents are the specialists,” Braun explained, “like gymnasts and motorcycle racers. I’m no specialist. I may not be the smartest or most talented stunt guy, but I can take a beating. And I can take one again and again and again. I could take a beating like no other, They call it ‘heart.’ You really have to have heart if you’re gonna do well in the stunt business.”
When you’re on a movie set, you don’t just have to nail your performance once. You have to do it over, and over, and a few times more so the director can capture different versions and different angles. This is especially brutal if your scene involves getting kicked or hit or thrown out of a moving vehicle, he said.
After 30 years of beatings, Braun’s idea of a retirement party was completing Knievel’s Snake River jump.
“I never set out to do what Evel Knievel ‘could not’ do.” Braun said, repeating that several times to make exactly clear what he meant.
“There’s only one Evel and I’m not him. However, I am the small child that he inspired. To be a stuntman, and to fulfill his dream.”
That dream Braun’s referring to of course is the Snake River Canyon jump. Well, it wasn’t really a “jump” so much as a very short flight. The “Skycycle” is basically a rocket with a parachute. It launches straight into the air from a platform and lands, well, hopefully somewhere flat after deploying a parachute.
How did the successful jump actually come together?
“I like to say I’d been preparing [to jump the Snake River Canyon] my whole life,” Braun said. The reality was a little more complicated, but mostly because Braun had to wrangle people and land rights to make his dream of Knievel’s dream come true.
“What I did was not a technological feat by any means,” he said. “It was akin to riding a barrel over Niagara Falls.”
Yeah, a barrel doesn’t sound a whole lot safer than a steam-powered rocket design from the 1970's. Which failed.
As some fans may remember, when Knievel couldn’t clear the canyon 40 years ago, the failure wasn’t blamed on bad wind or a hangover. The original Skycycle’s parachute popped prematurely and the rocket’s designer Robert Truax took responsibility. He did not attempt it again.
The failure of the first rocket is exactly why Braun wanted to make his jump with the same design.
Truax passed away in 2010, and his son Scott was a kid about the same age as Braun when Knievel came falling out of the Idaho sky. If a tribute to the Snake River Canyon jump was going down, Braun knew Truax had to be part of the program.
“Scott grew up to be master fabricator,” Braun explained. “Scott loves all things fast and cool as well. But more importantly he’s just a great guy.”
“He said to me: ‘I have my dad’s old blueprints, and a lot of the spare parts even.’ I said, ‘I have the skill set, and for now, I have the money, want to build me a rocket?’ His motivation came from within. He wanted to vindicate his father. His name had always been associated with Knievel and associated with a failure. This was his chance to set that right.”
And as you know by know, set it right he did:
Braun described the hardware he used to clear the canyon as “almost form and finish identical” to Knievel’s. The propulsion system actually was identical: just a good old fashioned steam rocket. Thankfully the parachute system was dialed in just a little better this time.
What was the hardest part?
“When we were approaching the 40th anniversary, even the town of Twin Falls started getting greedy,” he said. “So they held a public land auction for the right to use the original land. But at the end of the day it became such a cluster screwup.”
Braun told me major action-sport/beverage concerns like Red Bull were circling the project, looking for a profitable angle on the 40th anniversary of Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump. He didn’t think too highly of these outfits.
“If you did not have passion, if you were just looking for a buck, those people weeded themselves out,” he said.
I’m guessing the energy drink companies decided trying to replicate Knievel’s stunt would cost more money than it was worth, though Braun said “we were extorted several times” while his team was putting its jump attempt together.
Braun refused to elaborate any further than “we chose to pay ransom rather than stopping or killing the project.” I guess we’re going to have to wait for his documentary to come out for more details.
“There’s one other guy a lot of people will never know about: Steven Golebiowski,” he said. “My business partner. He’s the guy telling me ‘watch out this is gonna get really expensive!’ He saw what I was doing and why I was doing it.”
By that Braun meant Golebiowski knew this was a passion project. The three major players were living off savings to make this jump happen, and all-up Braun says he dropped about “$1.6 million” into the operation over “about three, three and a half years.” “Never did I think it would take this long,” he added with a laugh. But the timing turned out to be pretty much perfect.
So what was the actual jump really like?
“To be a stunt performer you have to have a mindset, to be able to function, and make intelligent decisions, under extreme duress,” Braun explained to me. It didn’t sound like the first time he’d said it. “We call it ‘the hot seat.’ Much like racers or athletes. We have to perform under pressure and get used to it. That’s the common denominator [between professional stunt people.]”
“As uncomfortable as was in the rocket, as scared as I was in that rocket,” Braun went on, “I was very familiar with the intense pressure that surrounded me. It’s not pleasant, but it’s a very familiar unpleasantness. There were certain things I had to do at the right time and I just went through the steps.”
Braun told me the Snake River jump broke down pretty much like any movie stunt. “It was simply a very elaborate action sequence to perform. We do it all the time.”
Just another day on the job for a professional maniac
Where’s the next canyon?
“I’m winding down my career. I did it to pay homage to the man who inspired me,” Braun said. He also made it clear that he did it for his own four kids. I think the idea was to set an example of following through on dreams, not jumping over canyons, because Braun hasn’t raised a family of stunt people.
“Thank goodness they have no interest in doing what I do,” Braun said with a laugh.
Now when Braun says he’s going to find “bigger canyons to cross,” he means it metaphorically.
“As far as riding a rocket, I am one and done. Now I know why Evel Knievel never tried it again. I can assure you I will not be climbing into any more Skycycles. The only rocket I may get in again is at Disneyland.”