The Snake River Canyon Jump: Redeeming Evel Knievel's Legacy

By David Konow

On September 8, 1974, Knievel attempted to fly over Snake River Canyon in a custom built rocket, but the parachute opened early, and he never made it to the other side. Now, fans are trying to recreate the jump to prove it can be done.

If you were a kid growing up in the ‘70’s, chances are Evel Knievel was one of your heroes. A motorcycle daredevil, he was a real life superhero to many kids who wanted to fly on their bicycles and Big Wheels, and he a major icon in seventies pop culture along like Fonzie, Kiss, and The Six Million Dollar Man. Knievel represented virtue and heroism, and he always tried to preach a positive message to the youth of America that we indeed live in a great country, and you can be whatever you want to be in life in you put your mind to it.

One famous lecture he gave before performing a stunt, which is hilarious in hindsight, warned kids about the evils of drugs, comparing them to race car drivers who cheated by putting nitro in their cars. The cars go faster for five to ten laps, “then they blow all to hell. And you kids, if you put nitro in your bodies, in the form of narcotics, to think you’ll do better, you will, for about five or ten years, then you’ll blow all to hell.”

Yet like another seventies icon, Billy Jack, Knievel was deeply flawed in his personal life, to where the contradictions of his private and public personas were glaringly obvious. For many years he battled the bottle, he had a violent temper, and his career essentially ended when he beat the shit out of a journalist with a baseball bat over an unauthorized biography that enraged him.

Before that fateful incident, there was another event that showed the world that Evel wasn’t Superman after all, the Snake River Canyon jump in Twin Falls, Idaho.

On September 8, 1974, Knievel attempted to fly over Snake River Canyon in a custom built rocket, but the parachute opened early, and he never made it to the other side. Many were under the impression that Evel chickened out and deployed the parachute early, a perception that haunted him for the rest of his life.

The rocket was built by Robert Truax, and he never got over this incident either. Truax was a famed rocket scientist, but he’s today known for building an infamous rocket that didn’t work. Now his son, Scott Truax, is hoping to redeem the legacies of Evel, as well as his father, by recreating the Snake River Canyon jump, working from the original research and plans, and fixing the rocket’s initial flaws.

We first learned of Scott’s plans from Popular Science magazine, and to look at the technology behind the Snake River Canyon rocket was fascinating. As the magazine reported, the rocket runs on steam, heated to 467 degrees, and to get it up in the air, it will require 6,000 pounds of thrust. It’s supposed to fly at 2,964 feet high at 396 miles per hour. The steam will run out after 4.5 seconds, and the parachute will then deploy for the landing, if all goes according to plan.

The initial plan was Evel Knievel wanted to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. A mock-up was created with some wings on it, as well a fake rocket motor. An aerospace engineer named Doug Malewicki took a look at it, and told Evel’s manager, “If he tries to fly this, he’s gonna kill himself. The wings aren’t right, the rocket’s not stable.”

“You should tell Evel this.”

“Who am I? He wouldn’t listen to me.”

“No, no, no, leave me your phone number.”

Doug then got a call at two in the morning from an irate Evel, yelling, “Who the hell are you, what do you know,” etc. Doug explained the whole thing to Evel, who finally said, “Well, what would you do?” Doug suggested an enclosed motorcycle that looked more like a rocket, and he’d build a scale model.

That model was the X-1, and they called it a Skycycle. The X-1 needed a rocket motor to propel it, and Malewicki went to a defense contractor named Aerojet, who gave the engineer a quote that was ridiculously expensive. As Malewicki was leaving, he was told, “You know, you might want to talk to Bob Truax, he’s been building steam rocket engines for dragsters.”

“The X-1 was a very nice rocket,” Scott Truax tells us. “Very sexy looking, but it was kind of ill-conceived because there was no way to land it.” With the initial design, the rocket was going to come apart in the middle, and Evel would parachute out. Once Evel and Malewicki had a falling out, Knievel asked Truax to take over. Truax rebuilt and re-engineered the entire rocket, which was now dubbed the X-2. “It was more of a pure rocket instead of an enclosed motorcycle,” Scott explains.

Scott was there at the Snake River Canyon jump, and it was a huge let down for many that Evel didn’t make it. “It is rocket science, and like they say shit happens, and it happened that day. “Luckily it was a steam rocket instead of a solid rocket engine, which burns a lot hotter,” Scott continues. “I didn’t melt or burn the parachute, and Evel only survived with a few cuts and scrapes. People thought Evel chickened out, but he didn’t, it was a malfunction in the parachute deployment system. Fast forward forty years, and it’s my team’s mission to prove that my dad’s rocket would have worked.”

Scott went back to his father’s original research and plans, and today he says, “I almost feel like we’re cheating today because we have all of my dad’s date to build on.” In rebuilding the rocket, “it’s much easier with the modern manufacturing processes, like waterjet cutters.”

Parachute technology has certainly come a long way since, and Truax says, “We’re using what’s called ballistic parachutes. These are deployed with little compressed air rocket motors. We’ve also added some support structure in the nose of the vehicle. My father’s rocket was built more like a World War II aircraft, so it was a little more flimsy in the nose. Our rocket was built more like a modern day dragster or a NASCAR.”

Adjusted for inflation, Truax tells us the rocket costs just about the same as it did back then. (His father spent $150,000 in the ‘70’s, and this current rocket cost a little over a million.)

The new Snake River Canyon jump was supposed to happen last year, but it still hasn’t come together yet. One issue that still needs to be worked out is how the jump will be broadcast. It was originally shown on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, but today Truax is not sure if he’s going to go for a conventional broadcaster, or have the event shown on pay-per-view.

Stuntman Eddie Braun will be doing the jump in the place of Evel, who passed away in 2007. Braun has done stunts for Transformers, and The Avengers, to name a few, and as Turax tells us, “Eddie’s the real deal. He’s a man of amazing character, a good family man, and he would be a really good role model for today’s youth.”

Clearly, another reason for this jump is to try to bring back what Evel represented to kids in his prime. “Evel was a guy who inspired an entire generation to believe nothing was impossible,” Truax says. “If you could dream it, you could do it. I don’t think kids have that kind of inspiration, that kind of mentor / idol these days.”

As far as the potential risks of the Snake River Canyon jump today, Truax says, “I wouldn’t put Eddie’s life on the line” if he didn’t think the jump couldn’t be pulled off. “That being said, do I think it’s dangerous? Absolutely. All it takes is one malfunction, and it can end very badly. But we’re more confident than my dad was that we’re going to get Eddie on the other side of the canyon, and he’ll be able to walk away unscathed.”

Along with, “Can this stunt be pulled off?,” there’s also the question of how many people of today’s generation know the legend of Evel Knievel. In today’s popular culture, anything older than a week ago is quickly forgotten, and sure, like Truax tells us, “This project means a lot to people around my age,” but what will it mean to today’s generation?

Truax says a lot of little kids in his neighborhood have seen the rocket as his team has been working on it, and they think it’s the coolest thing in the world. “I think little kids will get it,” he says. “People in our demographic will absolutely get it.” Not to mention if you love extreme sports, Evel was the godfather who pioneered them back in the sixties.

“I’m thrilled to think that Evel could inspire another generation to think like he did, and be inspired to do anything.”