Lee relaxing in his hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada. Life on the road was tough!
Late 1972 found the tour on the road again, their next destination being Las Vegas, Nevada. As usual the drama was not confined to the performance only. Something interesting always seemed to happen on the road. Mike and Lee were in need of fuel so they pulled into a gas station that advertised “We Take All Approved Credit Cards”. They filled the two tanks with a total of 70 gallons of diesel fuel. Then Lee pulled the rig over to the separate gasoline pumps so he could fill the tank on their generator. While Lee was doing this Mike went into the station office to pay the bill. Mike had Evel’s Mobil credit card. Soon Mike exited the office and approached Lee. “The clerk says they don’t accept the Mobil credit card” said Mike. Lee was standing practically under the big sign that attracted him to this station in the first place. Now he read the sign for a second time. It said “We take all approved credit cards.” That seemed to cover it. What could the problem be? At this point Lee got into a discussion with the clerk. The clerk just kept repeating “We don’t take Mobil”. Lee asked him “Can’t you just charge it to this card? We already pumped the fuel.” The clerk once again responded with a firm “No”. At this point Lee told him “You need to take the card or drain it!”
The clerk didn’t like that comment and his return was “I’m paid to pump gas, not drain it.”
Lee demanded that the clerk call his boss, which he did. The boss’s order was “Drain it.”
The truly pissed off clerk proceeded to cut the end off of a long garden hose, grabbed several 5-gallon gas cans and approached the rig.
Before he could begin the transfer Lee had one more question for him, “How much was that fuel anyway?” The clerk told him the total cost.
“I’ll pay cash” said Lee. The truly angry clerk picked up his hose and cans and stomped into the office. I think one of the writers for the film Cool Hand Luke must have been watching this scene unfold when they came up with the line “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate”.
They finally reached Las Vegas in January of 1973. The standard routine was to drum up interest in the jump so as to boost ticket sales. Evel was always coming up with new ways to promote himself. This time it was something he called the Jet Bike. You will recall that Evel bought the Jet Bike from a man named E. J. Potter. It was a used vehicle that had a history of speed runs on dragstrips. Potter had built the bike himself from a Fairchild J-44 jet engine. The three-wheel bike ran on gasoline. It had no cooling system. It depended upon fast moving air to keep it cool. Evel drove the bike up and down the streets of Las Vegas at a very slow pace so everyone would notice. He even had a police escort so as to attract more attention. The bike was meant to go fast, not far. There was a small gas tank up front which had to be refilled rather frequently as in every three or four blocks. To this end Lee and Mike raced ahead of Evel to their rendezvous points, gas stations. Evel would pull into the station and the guys would gas him up and off he would go while they moved on ahead to the next filling station. By the time Evel entered the final service station the Jet Bike engine was extremely hot because it there was no fast moving airstream to whisk away the heat. Evel turned off the bike and as usual the engine purged itself of any remaining fuel by dumping it on the ground. The dumped fuel usually wasn’t a problem but this time the extreme heat of the engine caused the gasoline to ignite and a blaze erupted underneath the Jet Bike. Mike instinctively backed off and threw down the pump handle. The situation worsened as the boys noticed smoke coming out of the gas station pump. At this point Evel got in the patrol car with the police officer who took him back to his hotel. Back at the gas station the boys were feverishly looking for a fire extinguisher. They rushed into the station office looking for help. When they asked the attendant on duty where the extinguisher was he calmly responded “It’s over there on the wall somewhere”. They found the fire extinguisher and put out the pump fire. It seems that an accumulation of old papers had gotten stuck down inside the pump and they were causing all the smoke. It could have been much worse! After all the excitement Lee approached the owner of the station and asked “What do we owe you for the damages?” His surprising answer was “You don’t owe me anything. Everybody in town will be over here to see the station that Evel Knievel set on fire.”
It was finally show time at the Las Vegas Convention Center and Evel was offering more than jumps. An unadvertised member of the show was quick draw artist Mark Reed. Evel and Mark were ready to have a little fun with the crowd. Evel was about to make his jump when he suddenly retrieved his helmet bag and emptied it out on the approach ramp. “There’s $50,000.00 there and I challenge anyone to out jump me!” he announced. It wasn’t really $50,000.00. It was mostly cut up phone books but Evel knew there would be no takers. At this point Mark approached the ramp in full cowboy regalia. Strapped to his waist was a holster that cradled two six-shooters. Mark indicated that while he was not there to out jump Evel he could easily out shoot Evel or anyone else. He promptly pulled his gun and fired off two incredibly fast shots. “You shot that guy twice” said Evel. “Yup”, said Mark.
Mark drew once more and with lightning speed he pulled off three shots in rapid succession.
Evel was impressed but he had a challenge for Reed: “What if one guy was in front of you and another one came up behind you?”
Mark Reed drew again and this time he simultaneously drew both guns firing to the front with the right and to the back with his left.
“You shot that front guy twice” said Evel.
“No, I shot him three times” said Mark. He was so fast that Evel could not even keep track of the shots he heard. Mark had a long career as trainer to Hollywood western stars and he even performed on the Ed Sullivan stage.
Maybe this says something about why Evel was so successful. There were plenty of people who did motorcycle jumps; but, Evel stood out and became world famous. His fame had a lot to do with his showmanship, publicity stunts, and the skillful people he surrounded himself with.
Dallas, Texas is a big place and something is always going on there. Back in January of 1973 the Ice Capades were performing at the Fair Park Coliseum. They would be sharing the venue with Evel Knievel whose show was set up in an adjacent section of the building. Evel did five jumps in Dallas. As a bonus a number of the skaters approached Evel and his men and invited them to watch their show. The only thing that impressed Lee about the skaters was how dirty their costumes were.
When the jumps were all over Evel asked Lee to accompany Linda to the bank with the proceeds of the Dallas performance. After Linda had completed her transactions Lee went up to the bank president to ask him for a favor. Now keep in mind that the bank president knows that Lee works for the famous millionaire performer Evel Knievel. Lee asked the president to cash the $1,000.00 payroll check he had just received from Evel. The banker was only too happy to comply. Lee knew the check would bounce and he figured that the bank would not bother waiting for it to clear since it was signed by the famous Evel Knievel.
About six months later Evel asked Lee “Do you remember that check you cashed in Dallas?”
Lee quickly responded with a knowing “Yes.”
“Well”, said Evel, “I just made good on it.”
Los Angeles was another venue that brings up for Lee more memories of events that the public are very unlikely to have been aware of. Evel spent a lot of his time at a Sunset Boulevard bar called Filthy McNasty’s. There he hobnobbed with the rich and famous while the boys did preparation work at the Memorial Coliseum. Evel wanted to make sure the upcoming show was advertised as much as possible and for very little cost while he lounged at McNasty’s or on the local golf courses. To this end he instructed Lee to park the truck, all 60 plus feet of it, outside their motel on Sunset Boulevard. This Lee did. He placed it right up against the curb that was festooned with parking meters. Lee, Mike, and other crew members used the show cars for daily transport to and from the Coliseum which was just outside of town. Each day when the crew returned they would find the truck covered with parking tickets. Lee dutifully brought these to Evel when he and the other guys joined Evel at McNasty’s. Evel’s response to the mounting pile of tickets? “That’s alright” he said. Evel was more than willing to pay the parking fines since they were less than the cost of conventional advertising like billboards. This went on for a while until one day when Lee found a note on the big Kenworth. The note was a warning that the police department was going to tow the truck away on the following day if it was not moved. Lee informed Evel that “They’re going to tow that truck if we don’t move it.”
The ever-confident Evel responded with “Oh hell, they don’t make a wrecker big enough to tow that truck. Just leave it where it is.”
The next day Lee and Mike were returning to the city from the Coliseum. As they drove along the 6-lane freeway they saw Evel’s truck going in the opposite direction.
“I wonder where Evel’s going with that truck” Lee said to Mike.
Then they noticed that rather than moving under its own power it was being towed. They immediately took the nearest exit and got back on heading in the same direction as the truck. They caught up with the wrecker and followed it to what looked like a large salvage yard. It was then they noticed that the front bumper was missing. The tow operator had removed it so as to prevent damage to the truck.
Lee entered the yard office and inquired as to how he could get the truck back. Next he called Evel and apprised him of the situation, “Remember when you said they don’t have a wrecker big enough to tow that truck? Well, they found one.” Evel wasn’t too happy about that call, especially since he had to be called away from a round of golf he was playing at the time.
“Well pay them and get it out of there” was Evel’s annoyed directive.
Lee paid the fine and drove the truck back to the motel on Sunset Boulevard. This time he parked it on a side street out back. The LA cops did not bother it again after that.
Contrary to what Evel believed, they did make a tow truck was big enough to pull this rig. That’s Lee standing next to over 60 feet of truck.
That wasn’t all that was going on before Evel made his jump. A camera crew showed up to tape a preshow while he was practicing. Lee was there of course and so was J. C. Agajanian, one of Evel’s promoters for the Los Angeles show. It had been raining recently and everything was wet, including the launch ramp that went up to the top of the grandstands. Evel decided to do a practice jump. He began by driving up the ramp. He made it about one third of the way before he started to slip back. The bike fell over and Evel was tossed into the seats where he tumbled backwards. Mr. Agajanian was a bit concerned and he yelled out to Evel “Are you OK?”
Evel’s response was “Yes, I just broke one finger” and with that he held up to the camera a crooked finger. Later that night Evel was interviewed on the Johnny Carson show where he again showed off the broken finger which Johnny described as being “… bent like a corkscrew”.
Lee knew better though. For all the time that Lee had known Evel that finger was bent over just as it was in LA. Nothing had changed. Evel was just taking another opportunity for publicity.
The above is a link to a video on YouTube. It shows an interview that Evel Knievel made on the Johnny Carson show in 1973. My friend Lee Ratliff appears at about the 14 minute (14:18) position in the clip.
The night before the first performance found everyone hanging out at Filthy McNasty’s again. At one point Evel asked Lee “What are you guys going to do tomorrow?”
Lee quickly answered “Me and Mike are going to lift the SkyCycle off the cradle and get it welded up if we can find someone to help us.”
Evel told Lee “You can do it yourself.”
This riled Lee a bit so he shot back with “Well we probably could but I’m not going to” The table went silent. Lee continued “I just had back surgery that I had to pay for with my own money because you don’t give me medical. I’m not going to screw that up.”
Evel responded just as quickly with “Well then, you’re fired!”
Lee came back with “Well, in that case I have a couple of things to tell you.” He was on a roll!
“The lack of medical insurance was number one. For two Mike tells me that you claim that those tools of mine were bought with your money. Well I had those tools before I even knew you existed!”
Evel knew when he was wrong and the next words out of his mouth were “You know, the only time we have any trouble is when we’ve been out drinking.”
Evel shook Lee’s hand and that was the end of it. Lee was fired a total of about three times, this being the second as best Lee can remember.
Evel’s jump was usually the high point of any show but it was not the only performance his men put on. They also shared the arena with other local acts. The night before Evel’s jump in the Los Angeles Coliseum there was a celebrity demolition derby. All of the cars were driven by people who were famous Indy drivers. Evel’s entry, piloted by Bobby Unser, was a Rolls Royce. When Evel appeared on the Johnny Carson show just a few nights before he bragged about how all of the cars in the derby were brand new luxury cars. Johnny found this a bit perplexing because the small amount of prize money was less than the value of any one car. Eve’s response was that “When the derby is over none of those cars will be worth anything!”
Lee remembers that Evel’s claims were a bit exaggerated. Although the Rolls looked nice, it was not new and it even had a slipping transmission. Lee advised Bobby Unser “You’ll be the first one out.” He was. Lee recalls that Bobby was very friendly, a real nice guy. His brother Al was not.
The demolition derby night was followed by a party at J. C. Agajanian’s home, a huge mansion high up on a hill overlooking Sunset Boulevard. Everyone was there including the Unser brothers, Mario Andretti, and Tom Sneva. In order to get on the property Lee had to pass through a large gate that lit up at night. The home was surrounded by a spacious veranda that hung precariously over a cliff. Inside the home was decorated with a mosaic tile floor that depicted Indy race car number 98. All the cars that Agajanian sponsored had the number 98 on them. There was also a five-car garage and an indoor pool. Evel was at the top of his game and his entourage was proof of it.
There was one more bit of drama leading up to the jump night. As you recall the launch ramp went far up into the grandstands and was quite steep. It took a lot of speed just to get up it without sliding back as Evel did during practice. He wanted to make sure that once he got to the top there was no mishap such as sliding back down or difficulty turning around. Evel called over his current pilot, Denny Davis and gave him instructions:
“Denny, I want you at the top of that ramp to turn me around” Evel said to Denny.
Denny was having none of it. “Bob, I’m not going to do that. I could be hurt and crippled. I don’t have any insurance.”
You could hear a pin drop in the cabin of the big rig where they were standing. Everyone knew what was coming next.
“Denny,” Evel began, “I want you to call a cab, go back to the motel, get your stuff and leave town. Don’t take one of my cars. I don’t want to see you again.”
Denny complied. That’s how Evel treated a person that everyone considered a good friend of his. Many of his employees went around walking on eggs and hoping that they would not be the next in line to endure Evel’s wrath. Did these guys really have a legitimate beef with their boss? At the time Evel had yachts, diamonds, fancy cars, and airplanes. He had all the money he could spend and did spend it, on himself. You be the judge.
By the way, all the jumps that weekend were successful and they were televised by ABC Wide World of Sports. But then the real story was what happened behind the scenes.
Evel Knievel’s travelling roadshow next appeared in Cleveland, Ohio at the Cleveland Convention Center. This is where Butch Wilhelm, introduced earlier in this story, joined the show. He had performed with Evel years before when he was part of the Evel Knievel Daredevils. He was a midget who was very comfortable with himself and the people he worked with. Lee remembers Butch as one of the most likeable persons who ever worked for Evel. Butch took a lot of ribbing from the guys, including Lee, and he handled it all with a wonderful smile and good natured friendliness. Lee remembers the times when Butch would sit up front with Lee when he was driving the big rig between shows. Lee would wait for Butch to fall asleep and then play with the electric window on Butch’s side. Butch would wake up and Lee would accuse him of playing with the button. Butch would look for the window button (there was none on that side of the front seat) and then Lee would operate the window again when Butch wasn’t looking. One time Lee even messed with the height switch on the seat Butch was in. Lee was hidden behind the cap ‘sleeping’. This sort of friendly teasing went on all the time and Butch was the man who could handle it easily.
One of the first things Lee did when Butch became part of the show was to make a ramp for him. Butch needed the ramp for his jumps over a lineup of Tonka©Trucks. Butch would mount his dirt bike, all ready to go, and then check to be sure that Lee was standing by to coach him.
He absolutely refused to jump if Lee was not standing there. You can bet that Lee was always there.
Evel’s jump at the Cleveland Convention Center was most likely over a row of 13 cars. Evel made the jump but the landing was less than perfect. The back wheel of his motorcycle hit the safety ramp rather than the landing ramp. That meant that technically he failed to make it over all 13 cars. If the safety ramp was not in place he would have landed on car number 13. Evel was aware of this although not everyone in the crowd was.
Evel approached the microphone and gave an unprepared speech:
“You people came here to watch me make this jump. I didn’t quite make it. So, I’m going to do it again.”
Evel jumped a second time and cleared all the vehicles and landed properly on the landing ramp. The crowd went wild with cheers!
Lee says that that was the only time he saw Evel make two jumps at one show. It wasn’t often that Evel apologized for anything. Cleveland saw a rare side of the master stunt man.
As March of ’73 rolled along the Evel Knievel roadshow was in Uniondale, New York. They were scheduled as one of many simultaneous events occurring at the Nassau Coliseum. Once again the real story was not the jump so much as it was the events leading up to it. The Coliseum was a busy and confusing place. Different events were taking place at the same time in adjacent halls and the management clearly was not up to the task of making everything run smoothly.
The hockey rink was covered over with wood ramps to accommodate the female roller derby teams. The Knievel gang enjoyed the interaction with their neighbors. Two of the roller queens tried to make a Manwich© out of Butch (he loved it). All was good noisy fun until it came time for Lee to set up the ramps. The ramps went up but the bleachers did not. The Nassau Coliseum was supposed to provide bleachers for Evel’s fans to observe the jump. The management informed Lee that no bleachers were available. That means that the people who paid dearly for tickets would have to observe from the floor. The view down in front would be OK but otherwise nobody would see much. Then of course there were the safety concerns of having spectators sharing their turf with a man jumping cars with a 60 mph motorcycle.
Evel was not happy so he decided to stir the pot. He got on the podium and addressed the itchy crowd who had already been kept waiting while Evel tried unsuccessfully to work something out with the Coliseum staff.
He started with “I always get paid before a show. They haven’t paid me. So, I’m not going to jump!”
Evel left the stage and gave the order “Lee, put the bikes back in the truck. I’m not going to jump until I get my money.”
Evel then left. The crowd was getting real agitated now. Lee was nervous too. “I thought a riot was about to happen” says Lee.
The standoff lasted about an hour and Evel finally returned. He addressed the crowd again and told them that he got his money and so the jump would go on. Evel did his jump but most of the people there never saw it. Recall that there were no bleachers so it was impossible for most spectators to see what was happening. That is when the rioting began right there inside the Nassau Coliseum. It was a dangerous place to be and all Lee could think about was getting the bikes and ramps back in the trailers and moving on out of there. Lee directed the crew to pack up as fast as possible. That’s when he noticed a “little girl”, as he described her, snapping pictures of him. She was probably in her early 20’s. “Why are you taking pictures of me?” he said. “Evel’s the star, not me.”
Then Lee detected the smell of mace. That could only mean that things were escalating. Some folks in the crowd were ready for a fight. Concerned for her safety, Lee told the girl to get in the trailer. He followed her in after locking it up. Later that night after things had calmed down Lee would take her out to dinner. Mike had other thoughts. He decided to exit the trailer with the mace gun in hand. There was always a large mace gun handy in the trailer and Mike liked to show it off to folks. Now he was headed for trouble, gun in hand. Evel was long gone at this point. Lee decided it was time to exit the scene and he did so on foot with the girl in tow. Lee later learned that the police eventually turned up and calmed things down. Mike took it upon himself to give the police a guided tour of the inside of the front truck which included Evel’s dressing room. The police were not so easy to impress. They soon confiscated Evel’s sword cane that Mike claims ‘fell off the wall’. The sword cane was a hollow cane that contained an illegal sword inside. According to Lee that cane never once fell off the wall of the truck in thousands of miles of travel all over the USA. He suspects that Mike was really showing it off to the cops, unaware that they would respond so negatively. They also did not like it when people used mace so they arrested Mike on the charge of having in his possession a ‘noxious gas’, the mace. Needless to say Mike did not make it to the next show (it’s hard to believe there was a next show after the debacle of the first one). Evel was highly annoyed.
The bleachers materialized at the second show. There was also a snow fence erected between the bleachers and the performers. What could go wrong this time?
Evel is what went wrong. He delivered another impromptu speech during which he singled out a person in the stands who looked like a Hell’s Angels member.
“Look at that guy” Evel said while pointing at the leather-clad biker. Evel proceeded to rain a series of insults on the man. The Angel responded by flipping Evel the bird.
To the crowd Evel yelled “Did you see that? Are you going to let your kids witness an obscene gesture?”
Lee thinks Evel wanted to incite another riot and thereby pay back the Coliseum folks who had treated him so badly. It didn’t work this time. The show went on without further incident.
Mike got out of jail. Evel did not get his cane back. Apparently the cops told Mike that he could let Evel know that they would return the cane if he came down to pick it up personally. Evel never went after the cane. He suspected that he would be arrested the moment he entered the police station.
All that was left to do was for Lee and crew to pack everything up and get out of town. It wouldn’t be that easy, though. Lee began the task of dismantling the ramps using his own tools. Suddenly someone from the Coliseum staff yelled to him “Hey, you can’t do that!”
“Why can’t I?” was Lee’s response.
The union worker responded “Because we gotta do it. We’re union.”
Lee tells me that he has a bit of a stubborn nature and doesn’t enjoy being pushed around and that probably explains his next move. Lee packed up his tools, put them in the truck and sat down. This did not set well with the union workers.
“Hey, leave your tools there” the union crew chief said.
“Heck no! Those are my tools” was Lee’s rapid response.
It took quite a while for the union guys to find some tools and then begin the disassembly. All the while they taunted Lee by goofing off and making the job last as long as possible. They exited as their shift ended without completing the job. It was left up to Lee and Mike to use a forklift to load everything into the trailer.
The boys were eager to get out of town as quickly as possible. They roared off with little thought as to the best route to take and they soon found themselves entering the Lincoln Tunnel. At the toll booth the toll operator expressed his opinion about taking such a long truck into the tunnel.
“I don’t think you can make that turnoff at the end of the tunnel” he opined. “How long is that rig?”
Lee quickly shot back with “Fifty-five feet”. (It was actually 64 feet.)
“Sixty-five?” said the toll operator.
“No, fifty-five” said Lee.
“Well, I still don’t think you can make that turn at the end of the tunnel” he said again.
For one last time Lee assured him “I’m sure I can make it” and off they went. Lee was very nervous at this point because he had no idea what it looked like at the end of the tunnel since he had never been over this route before.
Lee and Mike never noticed that turn that the man in the toll booth was talking about. They just kept on going straight after exiting the tunnel. This brought them into what is called the garment district, a narrow lane defined by legions of box trucks parked on both sides. It was no place to be traversing with a huge double trailer that was both wide and long. Mike and Lee worked together to monitor how close their mirrors were to the trucks on each side. They had inches, not feet, between them and the other truckers. All along the gauntlet delivery people were letting them know what they thought of the two guys dumb enough to try to fit their oversize freighter through the narrow passage.
They made it through without a scrape. The duo finally made it out of there and onto the Jersey Turnpike where they were promptly pulled over by the police. The ticket was for being overweight, overlength, and for driving without an overage permit.
Lee and Evel is presented as a series of six chapters. If you want to be notified at the time of additional postings you may subscribe to this blog and thus receive an email when they appear. The “Subscribe” button is at the bottom of the column to the right of this article. Your email will not be disclosed to anyone! Lee and Evel is the property of the author and other than short quotes no person is authorized to distribute, copy, or otherwise publish the content.
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 Mac’s Motor City Garage post of 4/30/2013