The Buick Goes to a Wedding


What does one do with a 76-year-old car? I drive mine to various cruises and car shows. The condition of my 1941 Buick is such that it will never win any awards but it does attract an abundance of curious people. I think they like to see something that comes from a time before they were born, a relic that represents the style and flavor of the 1940’s. If you are into film noir, this is the car to be seen in. The body of the Buick has curves and details that originated with designers who were playing to an audience that admired the art deco style. They were not building to government safety standards or fuel efficiency as is presently done.

Probably the ultimate compliment to an old car enthusiast is when one of his children requests that he use his car to chauffeur them on their wedding day. This car has been on a program of continual mechanical improvement since I acquired it in 2002. By 2006, when my eldest daughter married, it was still prone to frequent breakdowns; although, I had made some safety improvements. She wisely hired a beautiful limousine and had a great time. My second daughter took a different approach; married on an island beach she made her getaway in a dune buggy, appropriate for the location and short travel time.


My son, our youngest, and his fiancé have been part of a new trend among those who have entered professional disciplines in the last decade or so. They have a special admiration for the simpler times of their grandparents and parents. She collects antique cameras, vinyl LP’s, and vintage clothing. He is a devotee of old 8mm movie cameras, antique printing presses and ornate typescript reminiscent of the gilded age. And so I was both flattered and anxious when my son’s fiancé asked me the question during a May breakfast at The Classic Cafe in Providence’s Federal Hill. Would I be so kind as to drive them on their wedding day? I of course accepted immediately. I had about 4 months to work out any remaining bugs.

It just so happened that this summer I used the car more than ever before. I attended car club events (WPRAACA), cruises, and car shows. As a result the car developed problems that I never saw coming. First there was the perpetually leaking brake master cylinder. I had to do something about that. I was at the point where I was checking the fluid (and often adding fluid) almost every time I took the car out. With the help of friends Tom Link and Bob DeGoursery we removed the brake cylinder. I sent it off to Apple Hydraulics and had them do a full rebuild including resleeving. The next problem to crop up was the loss of first and second gears due to a linkage problem that The Transmission Shop corrected. Smitty’s in Coventry installed a new muffler to replace the one that had a hole in it. And finally my long ago rebuilt fuel pump began to leak. Off to My Classic Car Trader in NJ it went.


After I replaced the fuel pump I thought I was in the free and clear. I decided to do a test run of the bridal route with my son as navigator. The only date we could get together was about 3 weeks before the big event. Everything went off without a hitch until we arrived at the 50 mile mark, just minutes from our two final destinations. We were in heavy traffic all day and had just stopped at a light on Metacom Avenue in Bristol. The car stalled. All my attempts to restart it failed. I quit while the battery was still strong and my son and I pushed the car through the intersection and into the 3-foot wide breakdown lane. I removed the air cleaner and opened the top butterfly valve. I also removed the sight screw in the front carburetor and poked the float. It was fully up and gas leaked out. Now it was just time to wait. A police officer offered to help if we were not able to get it going and I thanked him. I confidently predicted that it would be rolling in a short while. A nice local resident also stopped by. He offered to return with some tools if we were still stranded after he finished his run to a local store. We just sat on the grass along the sidewalk and waited for the car to cool down. It looked like vapor lock. After 40 minutes I cranked the engine once more and it started! Off we went to the next location, Colt State Park. I did not turn the engine off. Finally we moved on to the last stop, Herreschoff Marine Museum, the planned site of the September wedding. I thought we were in the free and clear when while backing up in the museum parking lot I heard a great bang and shudder from below the car. I had not hit anything. It was just a huge backfire. At this point we suspended our planned lunch at a local pub. I took my son back to my daughter’s house in Cranston where his car was parked and I went home. The 110 mile round trip was over. My confidence in the car was shattered.


What to do? I consulted with the experts, Tom Link and Bob DeGoursey the Gasslight Repairs guys. They suggested I use a little heat shielding of the fuel line and then go for it. I put in the shielding using shield tape and some real nice high temp tubing that Bob gave me. I also installed a new oil-cooled ignition coil (Don Oster and John Leite suggested this) and replaced the radiator cap that was not locking properly. I was still having misgivings. At this time I also discovered that my lower control arms were shot and were the likely cause of my steering difficulties. No time to replace them! I went so far as to research if any classic cars were available for hire. Don Oster offered to help with his car; but, I knew I had to do this alone. At one point I called my son and told him that we might have to use plan B, me driving my son’s new Subaru. He was OK with that but I could tell from his voice that he was disappointed. When my son later informed me that his friend Nick, a fellow RISD graduate, would be willing to follow us in case of a breakdown I decided to take Tom’s advice and ‘just do it’.  During the weeks previous to the wedding I was a nervous wreck. I won’t go into all the details but I had firmly decided that if I ever made a successful trip to the wedding in the Buick Roadmaster I was going to celebrate with more than two Narragansett beers!

Well, the big day came and the car performed flawlessly. The only small problem was when they asked me to back it onto the cobblestone wharf for a photo shoot. It was dark by now. Recall that a 4,500 pound  ’41 Buick has no power steering. My son’s new father-in-law, Nick, volunteered to ride shotgun. I got it backed onto the wharf but the last few yards of positioning the car were rough. Those cobblestones just grabbed the tires and the normally hard steering now felt like I was trying to drag a bag of rocks through 6 inch deep mud. Nick reached over and added his strength to the wheel and together we positioned it just where the photographer Matt wanted it. Later that night I parked the Buick next to the museum and my wife drove us home in her VW Beetle (she is the designated driver). We picked up the car the next day. It was trailing spent cat food cans and covered with colored paper streamers. The windows were soaped with ‘just married’ and drawings of cats (my new daughter-in-law loves cats).

Benefit Street in Providence. Try driving a Buick Roadmaster in that neighborhood!

It was a great wedding in so many ways but my son and daughter-in-law made it extra special by trusting me to deliver them safely and stylishly in the old Buick. I am forever grateful to them and my WPRAACA buddies who provided encouragement and technical assistance. I am also much relieved that the wedding of my son Alex and his new bride Liz is the last one where I will be required to do anything more stressful than have another beer.


(Note: All photographs are courtesy of Matt Ferrara Photography; click on images for enlarged view)

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Netflix Picks, 32 of Them!


Do you ever have difficulty finding a satisfactory movie or series on Netflix? Those gems do exist. The problem is that you may have to preview five or six horrible films before finding something that doesn’t beg you to dump it after torturing you for five minutes. That’s how much time my wife and I allow most programs we find on Netflix. Some folks have the five second rule for eating food that drops on the floor. We have the five minute rule for determining if we will continue with a Netflix selection.

So, assuming that you might be in a similar situation, I have compiled this short list of items that we have recently watched all the way to the end. They are not all terrific but most of them will catch your interest. I’m sure you don’t want to spend 90 minutes watching something only to remark during the closing credits “That was an incredible waste of my time!” Trailer links to You Tube are provided for most items. The trailers will open in a separate tab/window so you can easily navigate back here to continue down the list. And after you watch a movie please post your own review here in the comments section.

Travelers (Netflix Original series)
Science fiction series with plenty of twists. Very well acted and worth your time. Hopefully additional seasons will be coming to Netflix. Trailer Link

The cast of Travelers

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Netflix Original series)
Neil Patrick Harris is the strange and mean uncle who inherits three orphan children. The series is done in a strange surreal intense color. It also has a narrator who appears in the foreground of most scenes. I’ve only watched a few episodes and the jury is still out on this one. I think it is going to be a winner, though. Trailer Link

Harry and the Hendersons (movie)
What a great film for the entire family! John Lithgow is his usual wonderful self. Let this film bring you right back for an authentic ‘80’s experience. It’s way better than the TV series was. Trailer Link

Midsomer Murders (British series)
Great British murder / mystery series. John Nettles is the star for most of the seasons. He leaves the show late in the series. His replacement is unfortunately not up to the task.
Trailer Link

The Crown (Netflix Original Series)
My wife loves this one. It you enjoy stories of royalty and the attendant intrigue, this is for you. Especially well done and accurate.  Trailer Link

King Arthur (movie)
Mostly well done adventure story that delivers on action and keeps the gore down to a reasonable level.  Trailer Link

Agatha Christie’s Poirot (British series)
David Suchet does a wonderful job of bringing Hercule Poirot to life. The series does a very good job of delivering a period piece that is true to Christie’s novels. The episodes usually proceed at a relaxed pace; but, that is exactly what you should expect. Enjoy.  Trailer Link

Burn After Reading (movie)
1h 35m, George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt. Dark Comedy.
Mostly well acted comedy that turns quite dark.  Trailer Link

Asperger’s Are Us (documentary)
31 years as a science teacher cured me of documentaries. There are exceptions of course. This is one. Follow the lives of four young men who live in the Boston area. They all have been diagnosed as having a level of autism that clearly indicates that they were born with Asperger’s. Watch the video to understand and be entertained.  Trailer Link

Always (movie 2h 2m)
A great Steven Spielberg film that features Holly Hunter, Richard Dreyfuss, and John Goodman. Adventure, romance, and ghosts all wrapped up in one.  Trailer Link

Fireplace and Melodies for the Holidays (Mood, 2h)
Watch a fireplace crackle for two hours. Put it on as a joke or to make for a romantic environment to read in. Holiday tunes included at no extra cost.  Trailer Link

Heartland (Series)
Seven seasons of a popular current Western. Good clean fun and family values are the emphasis. My wife loves this. I leave the room when it is playing. Recent episodes are currently running on live TV.  Trailer Link

Canada’s Worst Driver (Reality TV)
Friends and family nominate folks to attend a driving school for the clueless. These people are unbelievable! I only watched the first show in the series. That was enough for me; although, it did hold my interest. You may want to become a regular.  Trailer Link

Keeping Up Appearances (British Comedy Series)
Hyacinth is hilarious. She keeps poor husband Richard in tow and her neighbors in fear. Watch it while you still can. The word is that Netflix will pull it on Feb. 1, 2017.
Trailer Link

The OA (Netflix Original Series)
Science fiction, drama, and horror at its best. This is something that Stephen King wishes he wrote! Only one season. I hope they bring this one back.  Trailer Link

O.A., As scary as it gets!

Stranger Things (Netflix Original Series)
This is chilling science fiction at its best. At times a bit gory. Only one season here. It is rumored that another season in on the way. Don’t miss it. Definitely in the ‘binge watch’ category.  Trailer Link

Hugo (Family Movie)
Martin Scorsese did a great job on this one. Comedy, drama, and heat, it is all here. Wonderful photography too. It is listed as a kid’s movie but adults will enjoy it too.
Trailer Link

Hugo, Automatons and Children

The Good Neighbor (TV Movie, Drama)
Plenty of suspense in this one. It does not top my charts but I think that most folks will enjoy seeing it. Just don’t watch any copycat movies (they exist) because a new story line can get old fast.
Trailer Link

Sing Street (Movie, Irish)
1980’s kids who are beset by bullies rise above it all. Pretty good. Give it a chance.
Trailer Link

Nanny McFee (Movie, Children)
Watch this with your kids and you will all love it.  Trailer Link

The Little Prince (Netflix Original Movie)
Children (maybe 8 and up) and their parents will enjoy this. Great graphics. It’s the same story you once read in French when you took French back in the ‘60’s.  Trailer Link

Henning Mankell’s Wallander (Mystery, Detective, Foreign Series)
One of the best detective series ever. Very melancholy. The subtitles are done well and you quickly forget you are using them. There is also a BBC version of this same Swedish show and it is done equally well. When you are done with all that you can read the novels that the story is based upon.  Trailer Link

Wallander, he never stops solving crime

Department Q (Foreign Miniseries, Mystery, Detective)
The Keeper of Lost Causes, The Absent One, and A Conspiracy of Faith.
Don’t mind the captions. You will watch these quickly one night after the other. Brooding and difficult detective is demoted to the ‘lost cases’ department. To the dismay of his boss he begins to solve decades old crimes and demands a big budget. Intense!  Trailer Link

I.T. (Movie, Suspense)
Pierce Brosnan is the wealthy businessman who unknowingly unleashes a maniac on his family. Watch him overcome all odds! Not his best, but pretty good.  Trailer Link

J. Edgar (Movie, Dark, Historical)
Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of his best performances as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the F.B.I. Very well done!  Trailer Link

Fannie’s Last Supper (Documentary)
Folks in Boston prepare a supper exactly the way it might have been done in 1896. A supper for the rich. This was so historically correct that it took over a year of planning to pull it off. A rewarding film that we enjoyed. Fannie Farmer was real!  Trailer Link

Ghost Team (Movie, Comedy)
This is a sort of stupid nerd comedy that is filmed somewhat like a documentary. Well, let’s just say I got a kick out of it. I hope you will too. Give it a chance.  Trailer Link

Spectral (Movie, Adventure)
Engineer helps the military defeat an invading force of aliens. Old story. Heavily dependent on special effects (not the best); but, it was pretty good. You may like it.
Trailer Link

A Christmas Horror Story (Movie, Horror)
Get to see this one while it is still around. Ridiculous premises, nasty gore, and just plain fun. I hope you never meet a Santa like the one in this film.  Trailer Link

Bad Ass (Movie, Crime)
A fun revenge flick.  Trailer Link

Compulsion (Movie, Drama)
Wealthy kids decide to pull of the perfect murder. You will be pulled in.  Trailer Link

Snow Day (Comedy)
The kids rule when school is out due to a snow storm that closes the entire town. Chevy Chase and Chris Elliott star. Fun!  Trailer Link

Posted in Netflix Instant Movie Reviews - Over 70 Films & Series, Occasional Commentary | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The TV that Followed Me Home

My first photo of the mysterious Zenith entertainment center, top of the line stuff for 1951. All I had on hand was an iPhone camera!

My first murky photo of the mysterious Zenith entertainment center, top of the line stuff for 1951. The trash in the lower left turned out to be Photofact Folders that had suffered the abuse of resident mice. All I had on hand was an iPhone camera!

Moving can be a terrible experience. I’ve only done it twice in the last 40 years. The first time was after one year of marriage. The second time was 33 years later. Guess which move was easier.

We got to the point where many things were sold, given away, or dumped. I don’t wish the experience on anyone, especially someone who collects big old radios like I do.

Duffy, a friend of mine who is also a radio collector (accumulator), recently made the move from Rhode Island to Tennessee. He had a basement and a garage full of old radios and TV’s. He could not possibly take them all. He had no inclination to attempt to sell them, especially since they would have to go to someone who can repair them. Those kinds of collectors are fewer than you might think. Duffy told me that most were working when they went into storage. When he offered to give me a radio or two I readily accepted.

Some of the radios were cute little things. Most were massive (as in it takes at least two people to carry them down to the basement). Included in the massive group were an E. H. Scott Allwave Deluxe and an RCA Berkshire. I’ll write more about them in a future post. This story is about the one I did not want to take. It’s a Zenith model H3267R entertainment center.

The model H3267R is a huge mahogany cabinet that contains an AM/FM radio, a Cobra-Matic turntable, a 12” speaker, and a 16” porthole-style television. It was in Duffy’s garage. It apparently was home to a number of itinerant mice for a number of years. They left their calling cards everywhere. I went to look at it even though I was not very interested in taking it home. I found a massive but strangely interesting piece. The nice condition of the cabinet and the round TV screen reeled me in. Duffy and I attempted to lift one end of it. It did not budge. If I was going to get this thing home it would have to move 20 feet to the entrance of Duffy’s garage and then 3 more feet straight up to get into my truck. There was no way we were equipped for the move. I told Duffy that if I decided to take it home I would come on another day when I could bring some helpers. Well, I did return after Duffy had moved. I came back alone but this time I brought tools and a two-wheel hand truck. I removed every piece of electronics from the unit. This reduced the weight considerably. Then I tilted it onto the hand truck and wheeled over to my pickup. First I tilted one end onto the tailgate and dropped the other end on top of a big 2-foot tall plastic bucket. Then I was able to lift the bucket end and slide the cabinet into the truck bed. The power supply, record player, TV, and radio were all loaded up and off I went. I managed to reverse the procedure at home and get the console stored in my shed where it now awaits restoration. I hope to at least clean up the cabinet and get the power supply, radio, and record player working. I’ve never worked on a TV before. This should be fun. I don’t know a flyback from picture tube restorer.

The photo gallery below will give you a better idea of what this curious relic of the 1950’s looks like. In those days TV’s were in real wood cabinets that often had doors. I remember the one we had back in 1954 (I can’t recall the brand, I was not yet reading ). It had two doors that opened to reveal the TV screen. I don’t remember if it was round or rectangular. Well, now I have a round one, AKA  a porthole screen. Now where can it fit in our house? I think I’ll ask my wife. On second thought I’ll put that conversation on hold.

Note: Clicking on a photo will open a window with an enlarged view.

I believe that yellow thing dangling by some wires is a picture tube booster. It is a sure sign that this tube was failing.

I believe that yellow thing dangling by some wires is a picture tube booster. It is a sure sign that this tube was failing.

This photo does a better job of showing the entire console. I used Photoshop to remove the distracting background.

This photo does a better job of showing the entire console. I used Photoshop to remove the distracting background.

Note: Clicking on blog title will reveal comment form at end of post.

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Lee and Evel – Chapter 1 , Beginnings

Lee at Home
Memoir Disclaimer

The dialogue and events portrayed in this work are the recollections of Lee Ratliff as he related them to the author. Conversations and descriptions have been presented so as to make them interesting and understandable. They are not intended to represent word-for-word accuracy.

We have attempted to be as accurate as possible; but, as this work consists of memories and opinion rather than documented facts, there may be historical errors.


What makes a person interesting? It’s their life story, everything that they have experienced. It has been my fortune to meet many people, all of them interesting. Every individual I meet has done things I never did, been places I only heard of, and told stories that I love to listen to. Their tales span the decades and include the intrigue of a Soviet defection, emigration to a new country, surviving a suicide bombing, brushes with death, serving under General Patton, performing biological research, and searching for the Titanic. My friend Lee Ratliff has a story too and he is not at all shy about sharing it. His tale is one that has proven to interest more than just his friends. That’s because he spent three years working for another interesting person, Evel Knievel.

Lee is a soft spoken gentleman whose life began in Missouri. By the time he entered high school his family had moved to Wichita, Kansas. Lee considers Wichita his home town. High school was followed by six months in barber school and another 18 months as an apprentice. Lee didn’t have much time to practice his newly acquired trade because he was drafted in 1960 and spent two years in the army (actually a little over two years; Cold War tensions in Berlin was cause for an extension). The army is where Lee learned to type messages into a radio teletype machine at a rate of 45 words per minute and to decode and send Morse messages at 18 words per minute. Those messages went out over transmitters that easily lit up a nearby fluorescent lamp (not plugged in to anything, just acting as a tuning indicator) and could melt pencil leads left near the antennas. Years later Lee would translate this military experience into a lifetime hobby, amateur radio. His federally licensed call is K1LR.

Lee returned to Wichita after leaving the army and he continued with barbering for a while. His interest in all things mechanical led to a position with Cesna Aircraft where he began as part of a team that riveted (as in very hot pieces of metal) thin aluminum to airplane wings. In spite of managing to destroy an entire wing all by himself Lee was moved on to the tool and die department where he learned to make stamping dies and assisted the designer of a new kind of die that greatly reduced the time required to make a headliner stringer. Lee’s mechanical skills were improving all the time. Additional experience was garnered while working at North American Rockwell in Tulsa making parts for Boeing. Lee’s next move in the aerospace industry was to Kaman Aircraft in Moosup, Connecticut.

Lee eventually returned home to Wichita. That’s where he developed his love for motorcycles. If there were goings on in town that involved motorcycles, Lee was drawn to it. Back when he started out as a barber he had his own 1958 kickstart Harley Davidson CH Sportster that he built from parts. He later ordered a new ’68 model at the same time as his brother, a Harley-Davidson salesman, did. Lee’s bike was the faster of the two! So Lee was the right person at the right place when Bob Knievel, AKA Evel Knievel, came to town.

It was October of 1971 and at that time Evel was driving his own show truck. The diesel truck pulled the equivalent of two 31 foot trailers on a sliding fifth wheel. The length limit in most states was 55 feet. Lee tells me that Evel could have applied for an exception but he wasn’t the type to be bothered by such details. He would prefer to evade, elude, and confuse the law whenever the opportunity presented itself. Evel was looking for a driver and crew person when he pulled into Wichita and Lee being a person who always hung around motorcycles just happened to land the job. Lee had never driven a large truck before. Apparently Evel didn’t mind. Lee’s enthusiasm for anything relating to bikes was good enough for him. The next major stop for the show was Portland, Oregon. At one point along the way Evel invited Lee to the cockpit of the big Kenworth. Evel and Lee drove the oversize rig together, Evel in the role of teacher. When they had traveled about ten miles Evel felt so confident in Lee’s newly acquired skill that he left the cab and took off.

This is the big Kenworth rig that Lee drove. The cab and the box behind it are one unit and contain Evel's dressing room. The trailer in the back contains ramps and vehicles.

This is the big Kenworth rig that Lee drove. The cab and the box behind it are one unit and contains Evel’s dressing room. The trailer in the back contains ramps and vehicles. The massive side-opening doors were added at Lee’s suggestion. They made loading and unloading much easier. The original trailer had a canvas top and opened to the back only.

Where did he go? His wife Linda always followed the truck in the family Corvette. Evel got in the Corvette with her and off they went over the mountains to the next venue in Portland, Oregon. Lee would meet and hook up with them later when he arrived with the big truck that carried all the motorcycles and jump ramps. Lee made it to Portland and there he assisted with the setting up of ramps. Regrettably that jump at the Portland Memorial Coliseum was not the success that Evel was looking for.  According to Lee, Evel wasn’t quite as self-assured as he looked to his fans. It was essential that he display confidence in his ability to make fantastic jumps, but that does not mean that he didn’t have doubts. Lee remembers that jump. Just before making his final approach Evel remarked to Lee “That looks like a long way”. It was his way of saying “I’m not sure if I can make this one”. Lee’s response was a simple and sincere “It sure is.” Evel did not make the jump. He came down hard and skidded. His hand became caught in the clutch lever and he ended up with a broken hand. There would be no more jumping for a short bit while Evel recovered.

After the crash at Portland the decision was made that the crew would head for Butte, Montana, Evel’s home town. Evel was dropped off in Butte to spend some recovery time in a trailer house next door to his grandmother. Evel made it to Butte without incident. The same cannot be said of Lee and Jack Stroh, a crewman who worked with Lee. There was the little problem of a mountain range and snow along the route. The Lookout Pass crossing between Idaho and Montana was the route that Lee took. Lee found it rather easy climbing this section of the Bitterroot Mountain segment of the Rocky Mountains with the big double rig. He was more concerned about the descent. He had seen all the warning signs at the base of the mountain that displayed the ominous warning:


Lee ignored the signs, not by choice so much as by circumstance: he didn’t have any chains to put on the tires! Have you ever started down a snow-covered hill and begun to slide down in your vehicle towards the cluster of stuck cars pointing in all directions down below? You might hit another car or maybe even a telephone pole. Not so bad. But what if nothing but a shallow ditch stood between your truck and a drop of thousands of feet off a mountain? That slightly different scenario is exactly the one that Lee faced on his way to Butte. While descending the snow-covered mountain road, he turned a corner and headed down a steep section of the narrow highway. Unfortunately the rear trailer continued to make the turn after the cab was pointing in the right direction. He headed down with his tail end poking out over the almost nonexistent shoulder. At the base of the incline were several stuck cars. Blocking the road was his fellow worker Jack Stroh who was driving a Ranchero. One passenger car was also jutting out into the road from the ditch it was stuck in. Fortunately, by tapping the lever-controlled trailer brakes, Lee was able to slow down just enough so that Jack was able to get out of the way at the last possible second. The passenger car was not so lucky. The trailer just barely caught it as it went by. That was an interesting start to a new career.

Lee and Jack did finally make it to Butte where they stayed at the local Holiday Inn. Butte was a frequent destination for the troupe since, as mentioned above, Evel had family there. Lee’s most interesting memory about Butte dates back to August of 1972 when he visited one of the world’s deepest mines, the Kelley Mine.

This is the certificate that was given to Lee upon completing his descent into the Kelley Mine. Evel worked there at one time.

This is the certificate that was given to Lee upon completing his descent into the Kelley Mine. Evel worked there at one time.

This was a very deep mine owned by the Anaconda Company. Lee took a ride down an elevator to the bottom of the main shaft, a total depth of 3,900 feet! It wasn’t especially warm down there but it sure was windy. That was due to the numerous ventilation fans that were so strong they almost took your pants off when you stood near them. Lee still has the memento card he received that day for being the only member of the traveling show to venture into the mine. (The mine was old hat to Evel since he had once worked there.)

Lee and Jack stayed in Butte for a short time and then headed off to Twin Falls, Idaho where they would continue the preparation for the well-advertised jump over the Snake River. The event was scheduled for July 4 (it actually was delayed until September 8, 1974) and it required a lot of work to get the exhibition area ready. The men erected a chain link spectator fence around the approach to the cliff so as to contain and protect the crowd. Each fence post was cemented in the ground. Lee remembers that period as relaxing duty since Evel was not around. Evel had a way of micromanaging every project. He would also make sudden demands that his employees drop whatever they were doing and go off on another errand or project. It’s difficult to accomplish something in such an atmosphere and that explains why Lee and Jack felt just fine cementing fence posts into ground with no supervision.


Jack Stroh (left) and Evel standing in front of the Ranchero.

Jack Stroh (left) and Evel standing in front of the Ranchero.

This might be a good place to say a bit more about Jack Stroh who worked with Lee. Jack was already working for Evel when Lee joined up (Mike Draper, another driver, signed on about a year and a half later). Jack and Lee performed much of the setup work for jumps. They constructed the ramps and parked the cars or trucks that Evel was going to jump. Jack also did stunts, sometimes filling in for Evel (more about that later). One of Jack’s favorite acts involved standing in the way of an onrushing car or motorcycle. At just the right moment Jack would jump in the air with just enough height so as to clear the vehicle that passed underneath him. He was a sort of human tunnel. At one point Jack was injured and unable to perform the trick. Evel decided that he would fill in for Jack. Jack cautioned Evel that he had to jump at just the right time. If he went too soon, a natural impulse, he was likely to be hit. Evel did several practice runs with him jumping as the motorcycle passed to his side. Jack was observing from the stands and he became concerned that Evel had his timing off and was going to get hit. Jack came down from the stands and told Evel “You are jumping too late. You are going to get hit”. Evel responded with “Get back on in the grandstands. I know what I’m doing. I was the one who showed you how to do it.” Evel being Evel he failed to heed Jack’s warning. Evel jumped a split second later than he should have and was struck by the oncoming car. Lee recalls that this was typical of Evel’s temperament. He seemed to think that there was only one way to do something, his way. He listened to the advice of his crew members but rarely acted upon it.


There was plenty of long haul driving involved when working for Evel Knievel. Lee remembers the year Evel was in New York City and was invited to ride in the November, 1973 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Evel’s bike was in Los Angeles, CA. He called Lee and Mike Draper and told them to deliver that bike to New York pronto. The men put the motorcycle in the back of the 1972 Ford Ranchero and started out. Much of the trip involved driving through blinding snow at night. Lee remembers that it was so bad they had to get out of the car frequently and scrape the snow off the headlights. They made it and Evel was the star of the parade!

Of course there were many other extended drives like the time Lee made it from Chicago to Santa Cruz, CA in a 23 hour straight run. It was 1972 and the next scheduled jump was at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. The plan was that Evel would head out to California and, as he told Lee, spend some time in Santa Cruz. Lee would be driving the trailers at a much slower rate. The first stop on the trip west was Flagstaff, Arizona. According to Lee the Knievel show seemed to almost always pass through Flagstaff as a waypoint whenever traveling the West and Midwest.  After arriving in Flagstaff Lee used what he thought was a current roadmap to plot his path to Santa Cruz. He came up with what looked like a good shortcut that took State Highway 58 over the mountains and down into the flatland in the Bakersfield area.  The map, unbeknown to Lee, was long outdated. Although the journey began with mostly flatland, it quickly turned into numerous hairpin turns on mountain roads. As much as he wanted to Lee found it impossible to turn around and choose a different route. The first mountain was put behind them sometime during the day. But by nightfall the crew was climbing a second ridge line that was chock full of sharp curves that resembled a giant seesaw. The progress was very slow! The next day the Knievel caravan once again found itself on the other side of the mountain on a relatively level landscape. The road soon turned into a nightmare as the lane narrowed so much that only one vehicle would be able to pass at a time. The road was full of extremely sharp switchbacks. Lee had all he could do to hug the mountain side of the road to avoid going over. The turns were so sharp that he had to negotiate them with a jackknife-style movement to nudge the huge rig around them at a speed of only one or two miles per hour. All was going smoothly until they came upon the Salinas River Bridge. According to the posted warning sign the bridge had a ten ton limit. Lee’s load far exceeded ten tons. Turning back was not an option so it was decided that the pickup and the Ranchero would go over first. They made it over the mostly steel and cement bridge without incident. Now it was Lee’s turn to haul across with 62 feet of trailers behind. Lee eased the rig onto the bridge so as to ‘test the water’ as they say. Nothing gave so he proceeded to floor it. He went across as fast as he possibly could and that speed carried him safely to the other side. A piece of cake. The crew stopped at the next truck stop they saw on the other side and they related their recent accomplishment to the locals in the diner. Their response?

One trucker commented “No you didn’t!”, “They haven’t fixed that road since the earthquake.” When the local guys asked Lee why he would take such an obviously poor route he replied that his thinking had been that “It was on the map, so it must be good”.

The Knievel caravan finally pulled into Santa Cruz. They immediately headed to the local Holiday Inn in search of Evel. No Evel. They couldn’t find him anywhere. The next morning they called all the Holiday Inns down the road and finally located him in Santa Clara.  It seems that Evel meant to say “Meet me in Santa Clara” rather than “Santa Cruz”.  It’s a good thing they took the shortcut.

Santa Clara was just a stopping off place before the big jump at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. One of Lee’s jobs in San Francisco was to set up the jump ramps.   Every time Evel set up at a new venue all of the ramps had to be precisely positioned. If they were not perfectly straight it became a safety hazard. While Lee and the crew worked to properly place the ramps Evel would supervise. Today we would use the term micromanage. He would direct them to move a foot this way and then a few inches that way over and over to distraction. This was heavy work involving forklifts. It took quite a while to satisfy Evel’s sense of perfection. Lee finally came up with a solution when they were preparing for the jump at the Cow Palace. He went out and purchased a chalk line and used it to lay out the exact center of the ramps. The ramps were placed so precisely that if you stood at the top you could see that blue chalk line showing through the cracks between the center boards. Evel was able to see this too and as a result he no longer supervised ramp setup since he couldn’t argue with precision. Everybody was happy about that outcome. A unique feature of this jump was that ramps were also placed in a main aisle among the spectator seats in the grandstand. As crew chief Lee supervised as a long ramp was built over the stairway from the top of the stands right down to the field. This ramp (Evel called it the ski ramp) was so steep that if you stood on it in crepe-soled shoes you would slip right down. If you look closely at videos of that jump you will notice that a two foot tall curb was also constructed alongside the ramp.

Lee with the Harley. This photo was most probably taken inside the Cow Palace.

This was so as to prevent Evel from catching the bike or his foot on one of the chair arms that lined the aisle. When Lee rode a 10 speed bicycle up to the top of the construction site to inspect the ramp one of the crew said “I’ll bet $50 that you wouldn’t ride that bike down the ramp!” Lee’s impulsive response was “Give me the $50.” The man who offered the bet gave Lee a Western Union money order. Lee asked him for cash but the money order would have to do since it was all the guy had. Lee took the money order and slipped it into his shirt pocket. Lee had no choice now but to prove his boast just as Evel would if in the same situation. He immediately rode down that ramp to the bottom without incident. It was an easy, though a bit hairy, $50! (Lee later offered the money back to the gentleman but he declined the offer).


Lee and Evel will be 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.

(Note: Comments Welcome – If a comment field does not appear at the end of this story, please click on the title of this post, Lee & Evel – Beginnings, as it appears at the top of the page. Then the Comment Field will appear)

The Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kansas will be opening in June, 2017. You can take a pre-opening tour if you go to the website of Melissa Brunner who is on the staff of W1BW. You will see a search box in the upper right. Just type “EVEL” into the box and you will be presented with several videos that make up a tour of the museum.


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Lee and Evel – Chapter 2 , Early Venues


Evel’s staff consisted of a core group of people when Lee was working for him. We have already mentioned Jack Stroh, Mike Draper, and Evel’s wife, Linda. Another essential and valued employee was Butch Wilhelm . Butch was a midget. He provided much of the comic relief for the shows. He had his own mini bike with which he also jumped over lines of trucks. The difference was that the trucks he jumped were Tonka© Trucks. Butch took his job quite seriously and it was always his goal to jump those trucks successfully.

Butch with a young lady who was a groupie of the Evel Knievel Show. She posed with several of the guys.

Butch with a young lady who was a groupie of the Evel Knievel Show. She posed with several of the guys.

Failure was not an option. Unfortunately it was not very difficult to convince Butch to take a drink once in a while. That was OK so long as it wasn’t before a jump. Just before one jump a visitor appeared in Butch’s dressing room. It was a police officer who was determined to share a little Wild Turkey with Butch. At first Butch declined and explained that he had a jump coming up. But the cop was convincing and the both of them did share that drink. Unfortunately Butch shared another drink shortly after with Evel who was not aware of the dressing room sortie. It came time for Butch’s jump. He didn’t quite make it and as a result he went down hard (Lee describes it as “He went splat”). That did not deter Butch. Against the advice of all he refused medical attention and insisted on doing the jump over. He did it over and once again “went splat”. It was even more serious this time and Lee tried, without success, to force him to get in the ambulance and go to the local hospital in Cincinnati. It appears that Evel was not the only one of the troupe to be injured regularly.

If you were not an official part of the Evel Knievel Daredevil show there still were ways to be part of the action. Lee tells me that every time the group would arrive at a new city there would be a need to hire additional help. These temporary workers were extremely eager to be part of such a popular attraction. Some of the men hired would assist in the erection of ramps. Others might perform some warm-up stunts or just ‘hang out’. On occasion some of these folks would tag along from city to city hoping to land a more permanent position. In February of ’72 (we’re backing up in time a little here) Evel performed in Chicago and while there he met Roger Reiman. Roger was a motorcycle racer. He competed in something called Flat Track and was a Grand National champion. Flat Track was popular back in the 1970’s. The races would be ¼, ½, or 1 mile long, often on dirt tracks. He also participated in the 200 mile Daytona race. Roger observed carefully when Evel performed as Roger was also adept at doing difficult turns and jumps.

Evel enjoying a light moment with Flat Track ace Roger Reiman (on the bike). They are at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA.

Evel enjoying a light moment with Flat Track ace Roger Reiman (on the bike). They are at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, CA.

On one occasion Lee, who was responsible for the mechanical maintenance of Evel’s bikes, noticed that the tachometer cable on the motorcycle was broken. Lee mentioned to Roger that he needed to run out and buy a new cable immediately so the bike could be repaired. Roger remarked to Lee “Don’t bother. He doesn’t use the tach anyway!” So Lee just reinserted the cable shield to make it look good, though not functional. Evel proceeded to make some more practice runs up to the side of the ramp. As usual Evel asked Lee if the speed appeared to be fast enough to make the jump. Lee told him that he was not going fast enough. Evel’s response was “I was taching 8,000!” Lee and Roger just looked at each other with a knowing smile. Later Lee removed the tachometer altogether. It was just an unnecessary piece of equipment. Evel never commented about the missing tach.

Lee recalls that before leaving Chicago that February of ’72, he and Jack Stroh decided that it would be a good idea to sample the local cuisine. They had heard that Chicago was famous for Bar-B-Q so they took the Caddy wagon for a cruise along an area called ‘the loop’. The boys found a promising place somewhere deep in the city but unfortunately they had to continue by it because there was no available parking for their jumbo ride. They ended up parking some distance away, got out and began walking. Their sense of direction was a bit confused at this point so they stopped a local guy and inquired “How much farther to the Bar-B-Q joint?”

The helpful pedestrian, who happened to be black, answered “It’s just a little more down there.”

They found the restaurant and feasted on some of the best food Chicago had to offer. They were the only white guys in the place, this being a part of town that was primarily black. Upon returning to the auditorium the guys eagerly informed everyone of the great restaurant they had been lucky enough to find. Evel’s bodyguard was a bit surprised that they made it back in one piece. His comment was “I wouldn’t even go down there with a gun on.”

He continued “Since you asked directions that’s probably what saved you.”

Detroit, Michigan is a cold city in March and that’s where Lee found himself in 1972. It was a typical show: two performances on Friday, three on Saturday, and the final two on Sunday. The public performance is not what sticks out in Lee’s mind, though. He does have a clear impression of a very interesting man that he and Evel met that weekend. There was a knock on Evel’s door and the man on the other side of the threshold immediately offered Evel an irresistible proposition: “I have just the thing for you. A three-wheeled jet bike.” The character was E. J. Potter, otherwise known as “The Michigan Madman”.

This is probably a good place to introduce you to E. J. He was known for installing regular automotive V-8 engines on motorcycles. He found it quite impossible to fit any kind of transmission between the motor and the wheels (he tried) so he just went without it. He would put the rear wheel of the motorcycle up on a stand and then start the engine. The wheel would immediately spin at an alarming speed. Then he would mount the monster and direct an assistant to drop the stand. Off he went like a rocket. If that wasn’t crazy enough he added a little zip by running his creation on nitromethane fuel! He once got going on a strip that quickly ran out of track. No problem. He hit the kill button to stop the engine. Unfortunately the excessive speed (and lack of any cooling system) kept the engine cranking due to dieseling. Potter bailed when the bike entered a plowed field. It is believed to have reached a speed of 160 mph before impacting a tree.

Lee and Evel inspected the jet bike that was outside in a trailer. It was powered by a J-44 jet engine (as in from a jet airplane). Evel was in love with it and made the buy. Madman left Evel with a few words of advice: “When you give it the gas it veers wildly to the left. And when you shut it off it veers wildly to the right.”

Lee was justly afraid of the thing. “When it was running you could hear the turbine blades scraping inside the jet. If one of them came off the whole thing would explode and become shrapnel.” says Lee. Evel rode the jet bike as an attention getter before shows. Expect to see the jet bike appear again later in this narrative.

Evel had a reputation as a shock and awe sort of guy. He could not be satisfied with the same old daredevil jumps at each new venue. He realized that he had to add variety, uniqueness, and a level of suspense that would ensure sellout crowds. He had to be unpredictable. This was no easy task but he was the guy who could meet the challenge. Early in his career he would jump over just about anything, not just cars and busses. He had once jumped over a den of rattle snakes and two mountain lions. That went well, even when he fell in the midst of them. Why not try that again with a little twist? The promotional material for the 1972 Plymouth, California show promised that Evel would jump 200 rattle snakes and two mountain lions. Now that was a nice twist. If the snakes didn’t bite him the mountain lions would. Lee tells me that the snakes arrived in a screened box and they were stored in one of the trailers. They stunk real badly and so did the trailer after they took up residence. Now the mountain lions were another story. According to Lee, Evel knew darn well that he was not going to be able to get the lions even though he had already publicized their part in the act. That didn’t present much of a problem. Evel just got on the telephone and called the local Humane Society. He disguised his voice just in case someone there had seen his show before and he proceeded to lodge his complaint. “That guy Evel is going to jump a pair of mountain lions. You can’t let this happen!” he told the person who answered the phone. He was assured that the matter would be looked into. Shortly thereafter the Humane Society made Evel a visit. They insisted that the lions (remember, there were no lions) not be included in the show. Evel reluctantly agreed. When the first night of the show arrived he made an announcement to the crowd: “I need to let you all know that I will not be jumping those mountain lions, although I was very much looking forward to it. Unfortunately someone complained to the Humane Society and they threatened to close us down if we included the lions. But, we still have the rattlesnakes!” That’s how you keep the fans happy. He manipulated the media, Humane Society, and all those paying customers.

There was a lot of preparation that went into that Plymouth jump, as there was for all jumps. As mentioned earlier, Evel would often hire extra crew members at each city to help with the construction of ramps and other chores. The Plymouth jump was no different. Gene Sullivan (AKA Sully) was a temporary worker and jumper who Evel had hired to work under Lee’s direction. Gene followed the show for a few cities in the hope of landing a permanent position. Lee’s concise evaluation of Gene was “He wasn’t good help”. Gene was more interested in promoting Gene than doing actual work. When they arrived in Plymouth Evel was still nursing a broken collar bone from the previous stay in Detroit. The plan was that if Evel didn’t feel up to the jump he would let Sully do it.  Well, Evel did make the jump as described above. There was still work to do though when the shows were over. All the ramps and equipment had to be packed back in the trailers. Lee had a crew of five, including Sully, whose job it was to load the trailers. While the heavy lifting was going on Sully spent the time doing wheelies in the dirt with his motorcycle. Some of the other guys stopped what they were doing and just watched Sully who refused to do any hard labor. Lee complained to Evel and Evel promised that he would speak to Sully. He did not want to can him. After talking with Sully Evel came over to Lee and told him “I spoke with Sully and he is going to do better.” “Alright, but I don’t think so” was Lee’s response. “He will” said Evel.

It took a lot of work to get the trailer loaded with vehicles and ramps. Everyone lent a hand, at least everyone was supposed to.

It took a lot of work to get the trailer loaded with vehicles and ramps. Everyone lent a hand, at least everyone was supposed to.

Lee and John Lancaster, Evel’s pilot, continued to load the trailers. Lee told John “When this stuff is in we are off.” The other workers continued to watch Sully cavort with his Triumph which as it happened was not street legal (among other things it had no lights).  Lee and John finally closed the trailer. This left Sully with no means to get his bike back to town without being arrested for driving an unregistered vehicle. A couple of sympathetic sign painters tried to get the bike into their pickup but the cap prevented it from sliding in far enough. The painters asked Lee to open the rig up so Sully could get the bike in. They said that Sully was “over there crying.” There was no way Lee wanted to do over what he had just completed. He only relented after the painters offered to load the Triumph onto the rig themselves. Once again Lee had to complain to Evel about Sully. Evel fired Sully and he was never seen again. Poor workers or people that somehow made offense (real or imagined) to Evel were rarely give a second chance as Sully was. Lee remembers one guy who was riding in the truck with Evel when he made some kind of criticism of Evel. Evel immediately braked to a stop, threw out the man and his bags and said “You’re fired!” It was that quick. People knew that if they were going to remain part of the show they should never talk back to Evel. Most of the workers were afraid of him. Even some close family members were intimidated by him.

The crew frequently went out to eat and drink together. Pictured here from left to right: Butch Wilhelm, Evel, Lee and Mike Draper.

The crew frequently went out to eat and drink together. Pictured here from left to right: Butch Wilhelm, Evel, Lee and Mike Draper.

By June of ’72 Evel’s Daredevil show was becoming increasingly popular and the demands on his staff were also increasing. One day Evel called Lee over and told him “You need a helper, someone who can also drive the big rig.” It just so happened that Lee’s brother was a Harley-Davidson salesman in Wichita and he knew a guy who could drive a truck. He also used to work in the parts department for the dealership. His name was Mike Draper and he was still living in Wichita. Lee gave Mike a call and offered him the job. Mike quickly jumped on board with the Evel caravan. Lee arranged to meet him in Wichita and from there they drove on to Atlanta, the next venue on the program. Lee recalls an event that he thinks may have taken place during that ride to Atlanta. Mike was driving and it was at nighttime. As described earlier the rig consisted of a cab with flatbed (32 feet long) hauling a trailer that was another 30 feet in length. This obviously exceeded the 55 foot limit that was in effect in most states. On this particular run they were detained at a toll booth. The attendant who stopped them said “You look too long!” and he ordered Lee to help him measure the truck with a tape measure.  Before getting out of the vehicle Lee and Mike had already allowed the 5th wheel to slide forward and thus shave off a few feet. Lee held the tape at the front of the truck and the attendant walked in the darkness to the back with the other end of the measure. While the man was walking to the back end of the trailer Lee began to walk towards the back also, the hand holding the tape stretched out in front of him.  Lee managed to shave just a bit over 5 feet off the total. When the toll operator got to the end and yelled out his measurement Lee immediately released the tape and started to walk towards the back, thereby increasing the chance that his subterfuge would go undetected. It worked! They measured under the limit. The attendant’s response? “It sure looks a lot longer than that” he said. “Yeah it does, doesn’t it” Lee agreed. With a final “On your way” from the toll man the Evel Knievel daredevils narrowly avoided the law, this time.

The Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta was to be a mixed blessing. While in Atlanta Lee picked up a new motorcycle for Evel. It was still a Harley-Davidson XR-750 but with one radical innovation. The fully cast iron engine was replaced with a new unit that had an aluminum alloy head. Lee was glad to see the heavier XR-750 leave the scene. His poignant testament to the older model: “It was a turd.” Immediately after taking possession of it Lee took off with the new bike and put it through its paces. The bike had no tachometer so he had to estimate the best points to make shifts. The usual technique was that Lee would sense when the bike had reached the peak of its power curve and then at that point shift into second. Unfortunately this bike peaked sooner and at a much higher rev than Lee was used to with the old cast iron head Harley. Just as Lee was about to upshift the front wheel lifted and took off. That was an unexpected scare. Now it was Evel’s turn. He was doing a practice run during the show when he approached the ramp at high speed. He had been forewarned by Lee about the idiosyncrasies of the new XR-750. The key to a successful jump is to hit your maximum speed at the base of the ramp if you want to remain in control. The curve peaked too soon for the man used to the clunky old cast iron bike. The old bike had a smooth and even transition to maximum power. The new one was sudden. Evel became airborne as he shifted just a bit too late and the bike “spit him out”. The result was a disastrous fall that among other things broke his back. The ever-ready ambulance was put into service and whisked him off to the hospital. Lee and his crew remained at the scene of the mishap, Lakewood Speedway, where they needed to secure the equipment and prepare for a show that had to go on the following day. Fortunately Evel had hired a backup, Bob “Wicked” Ward, a local Alabama man. The city cops who Lee and Mike were friendly with didn’t have much confidence in Wicked Ward. They predicted that he would crash as he always did. Evel gave instructions to Lee: “I want you to help him. Just don’t let him use my bike.” Ward made the jump successfully but he did almost crash. His hands left the handlebar upon impact with the landing ramp but he somehow got them back on the bike and landed OK.

Now it so happens that across from the hotel in Atlanta where Lee and other crew members were staying there was a hamburger joint that was frequented by a number of local motorcycle cops, the same ones mentioned above. They had let Lee know that they would love to have a private meeting with Evel. Lee had previously promised them that he would arrange a meeting after a performance. As a result of the accident the meeting had been abruptly put on indefinite hold. On the day following the accident Lee got a phone call from Evel who was still in the hospital. He asked Lee to bring over some of his clothes. Lee agreed, rounded up the clothes and put them in the Cadillac limousine that the local Caddy dealer had loaned them. Then he and Mike put in motion a bit of fun. Mike got in the driver’s seat and Lee sat in the back. They drove across the street to the hamburger place and approached the cops. Lee made them a proposition when he said “You guys never got to meet Evel. If you all give us an escort to the hospital I’ll get you in”.  That did it. Two cops trailed behind the Caddy, their lights flashing, and one led in the front in his city-issue Moto Guzzi. It was quite a parade and you can bet that bystanders were truly curious about whom that obviously important person in the back seat of the Cadillac was. Lee and Mike loved every minute of it!  After parking the limo in a no-parking zone, Lee and Mike went to Evel’s room with their police entourage. They found Evel in the middle of telling a joke to his visiting golf buddies. Lee did the introductions and there was a lot of hand shaking going around. You could tell how thrilled the cops were by the big grins on their faces. Oh, and about the illegally parked limousine, it seems it was never ticketed. The Atlanta police knew how to treat guests to their city.

It seems that the police escort to the hospital inspired Lee and Mike to have more fun with the limousine as long as they still had the use of it. Once again Mike drove while Lee sat in the back. They pulled up outside an Atlanta restaurant and parked directly in front of the street-facing windows. Mike got out and opened the door for Lee and escorted him inside to his table. All the while the curious restaurant patrons were paying close attention to the unfolding drama. Lee could hear them whispering to each other “Who can that be?”, “That guy must be really important” and other similar comments. Mike left the place and moved the car to a nearby legal parking spot (you can press your luck only so far) and then walked back to have lunch with Lee. They departed in the same manner, Mike first retrieving the limo and then opening the door for Lee. The more the diners craned their necks the more fun Evel’s two drivers had.

So what was everybody jumping over on that eventful day in Atlanta? Would you believe 13 brand new Cadillacs? They were provided by the local Caddy dealer who had a front row seat at all times. He was there on setup day when the cars had to be parked in a row as close together as possible. Lee started lining up the vehicles so close that he was able, through a touchy jockeying maneuver, to actually make the wheel wells of adjacent cars overlap slightly. Mike commented that Lee was bound to scratch the cars if he continued with his reckless precision exercise. Lee’s retort was a brash “I haven’t scratched any paint yet”. The car dealer watched while making no comment at all … we can only guess what he was thinking. No cars were scratched and Lee was the only one who willing to un-park them after the show. That was a risk they thought belonged to Lee alone. Not a single car was harmed!

The Atlanta jump was over 13 Cadillacs. The next town, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma saw Evel jump a mere 3 cars on his first jump and 5 cars and 2 vans on the last. Regardless of how many vehicles Evel jumped on a first night, he would almost always increase the number by at least one with each successive jump. That may explain why most crashes took place on Sundays, the last night of a 3-day weekend stay. These particular jumps were performed a mere week after he landed in the hospital in Atlanta with injured hands and a compression fracture of the back. It’s amazing that he jumped anything at all. The event was at the Oklahoma City Fairgrounds which is now gone. Evel wasn’t the only attraction. Flat track racing was also going on. Lee remembers that although he and Mike usually got along well there had been a little difficulty with Mike that weekend. After the show they were loading up the trucks and Mike wasn’t putting his all into the task so the normally even tempered Lee told him to “… get your thumb out of your butt and load the truck.” Mike reported the incident to Evel. Evel approached Lee and told him “Mike said you hollered at him.” Lee said “I did” and Evel told Lee “Don’t holler at him anymore.” Lee mentions this because he has always had little tolerance for someone who was not pulling their weight. Likewise it bothers him when someone unnecessarily ‘tells the boss’ about minor issues that are already settled. Recall the similar incident with Sully. I find it interesting that Evel had such a contradictory nature at times. He was known to fire on the spot anyone who disagreed with him or refused to do something they were told to do while at other times he would go to bat for an employee who was disrespecting someone else. I suspect it may have been about always having the last word, regardless of the situation.

On a lighter note Lee remembers that during their stay in Oklahoma City he had a little fun with Robbie, one of Evel’s two sons. Lee had shown Robbie a card trick and he ended up teaching it to Robbie who then spent much of his time demonstrating it to fellow hotel guests. It was the old ‘pick a card, any card’ trick. Robbie would bet the guests a dollar that he could name their card every time. Robbie earned a bit of spending money on that trick!


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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Lee and Evel – Chapter 3, Dangerous Flying


This is Evel's Beechcraft Duke. Evel loved to fly. He almost always went up with an 'instructor' because he did not have a license of his own.

This is Evel’s Beechcraft Duke. Evel loved to fly. He almost always went up with an ‘instructor’ because he did not have a license of his own.

East Saint Louis, Illinois (June 24-25, 1972) wasn’t the most memorable stop for Lee but it did illustrate the wisdom of travelling the country with multiple motorcycles rather than just one. During Lee’s employment Evel always hauled at least three motorcycles (all Harleys) from show to show. One bike was dedicated to wheelies only and Lee maintained the unit accordingly. Two other Harley 750’s that were specially geared were reserved for jumps. In the days before the jump in Saint Louis Evel practiced as he usually did. Unfortunately a piston broke in one of the jump bikes. The required repair was not something Lee could accomplish with his mobile repair and maintenance equipment so he brought the bike to a local Harley Davidson shop. They were able to make the repair but it would not be completed until after the show dates were history. Luckily they had the spare jump bike and the performance went on without a hitch. By this time Evel was up to 10-car jumps since he was feeling better with each passing week. The best part about Saint Louis, according to Lee, was Six Flags Amusement Park. Lee’s mom made a visit to the Evel Knievel camp and she and Linda took Lee and Evel’s children to Six Flags.


Besides being prepared for jumps by carting around backup equipment Evel usually made sure there was time for practice runs. He did not like to make a jump cold. Practice is just what he was up to on July 16 in 1972. The show was camped out in Coon Rapids, Minnesota on the Minnesota Dragways.  All the ramps were erected and ready for the session to begin. The big rig that carried the gear and served as Evel’s office and dressing room was parked along the track at the dragstrip starting line, its rear end facing down track. Evel was standing in the door to his dressing room when he noticed his pilot coming in to make a landing on the strip. It was not an easy approach since the pilot, John Lancaster, first had to clear some power lines that were at the end of the straight portion of the dragstrip. This gave him a severely shortened approach to put down Evel’s favorite airplane, the Beechcraft Duke. Evel could see that there was a problem and he yelled to everyone to get out of the way because a crash was imminent. John landed short and braked hard, blowing out his brake lines and spinning the airplane just enough to make his left engine hit the door on the right side of the trailer. Luckily Evel had vacated that position just in time. John got out of the Beechcraft unhurt and Evel immediately barked at him “Shut off all the electrical on the plane!”

John responded that they were off but Evel fired back “They are not! The beacons are flashing like a lighthouse.”

The damage report, besides a badly messed up aircraft engine, was a destroyed door and a can of oil which, when hit by the protruding airplane engine, spurt oil all over the interior of the trailer. A padlock that was hanging on the door was propelled off its perch so soundly that it was never found.

Evel walked around the wrecked Beechcraft and surveyed the damage.

“Lee, get the motorcycles started” he said, “There is no use standing around crying about a million dollars worth of junk.”

Unfortunately the incident was not saved on film. There was a camera crew from the local TV station that was present during the accident; but, the cameraman dropped the camera before the Beechcraft Duke hit the truck. Sometimes it is wise to just run away as fast as possible.

Another example of unexpected maintenance needs arose a few shows later in Castle Rock, Colorado. Castle Rock has an elevation of 6,184 feet. At over a mile high the oxygen is rather lean and that would produce an unacceptably rich air/fuel mixture in a carburetor.  Lee had never experienced this situation before. The very rich fuel mixture did not produce sufficient power for smooth running, never mind jumps. Lee immediately called the local Harley dealer and ordered sets of smaller jets to go in the two one-barrel carburetors on each bike. Unfortunately, Evel began his practice session before the new jets had arrived. After experiencing the poor performance he asked Lee “What’s the matter with this bike?” Lee explained and then Evel asked Lee “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have called Reiman.” Roger Reiman had a shop in Kewanee, Illinois and Evel regularly got his supplies from him. Lee explained that he had to act fast and get the parts right away so he didn’t bother consulting with Evel. The parts arrived in time and Lee got the bikes set up properly for the show. Lee says that “Evel was happy.” Results spoke loudly for Evel.

Evel always had a tendency to do things his way, often ignoring the advice of others. It’s not that he didn’t seek the opinions of those around him. He did. It’s just that if he had a choice between an expert’s opinion and his own gut feeling, he sometimes went with his gut. He also liked to give the impression that he was in charge of every aspect of a jump including the mechanics of the motorcycle. Although Evel was a great stunt jumper he had very little knowledge of how motorcycles worked. Often before making a jump Evel would pull on the chain and poke at the carburetor. George Hamilton did the same when he accurately portrayed Evel in the 1971 movie Evel Knievel. This was all for show. He would also make several full speed passes past the ramp before making the jump.

The kids at Six Flags (left to right): Kelly Knievel, Linda (Evel’s wife), Tracy Knievel, Robbie Knievel, Nancy Ratliff.

He would then drive over to Lee and ask him how he was doing. Lee could tell from long experience whether or not Evel was developing sufficient speed to clear the vehicles and land on the touchdown ramp. Lee would advise him on how to modify his speed if he thought it was necessary. Usually Evel would act on Lee’s advice. Sometimes it was just impossible for him to attain the necessary speed in which case he would go through with the jump anyways, sometimes with disastrous results. The most effective technique that Lee used to insure a successful jump was to adjust the motorcycle before the jump. The main sprocket that comes off the engine is the countershaft sprocket. It attaches to a larger sprocket on the rear wheel. If Lee wanted to give Evel more speed he would replace the front sprocket gear which might have 15 teeth with one that had 18 teeth. This usually worked fine so long as Evel did not choose to override Lee and insist that he gear the bike differently.

The September, 1972 Monroe, Washington venue probably best illustrates Evel’s stubborn persistence in doing everything, with or without an audience, his own way.

Evel loved to fly his own airplane. He almost always did so with a pilot on board since it was the only way he could legally operate an airplane without a license. The pilot was his ‘trainer’ and Evel was the student. Evel was a mostly competent pilot but he had absolutely no ground school training. That would have required that he stayed in one place long enough to attend classes and take exams. According to Lee “The only flying lessons Evel took were in the air.” Lee tells me that most pilots did not last long in Evel’s employ. The pilot-student relationship usually came to a turning point when Evel would demand that the pilot do something that was clearly illegal and/or unsafe. If the pilot refused to meet Evel’s demands he was fired.

In the time leading up to the Monroe, Washington show Evel decided that he wanted to buy a new airplane. The logical place to make his purchase was in Lee’s home town, Wichita, Kansas. At the time it was the home of Beechcraft, Cessna, and Stearman Aircraft. Evel, Lee, and Mike went shopping at the Beechcraft plant. The people there treated Evel well. One of their pilots took the daredevil trio up for a test ride in a Beechcraft King Air twin-engine turboprop that belonged to the company CEO, Olive Ann Beech. With Evel at the wheel they headed for Butte, Montana. Upon their return to Wichita Evel promptly purchased his very own King Air. The man who ferried them to Butte and back was a temporary pilot and Evel sent him on his way. Evel’s previous pilot had been recently fired. This left Evel with a new airplane that he could not legally fly unless he found a pilot. Unfortunately he was not able to hire anyone. Evel was itching to fly the plane back to Butte so he could have his name and show advertising painted on it. He trusted the painters in his hometown. While still at the airport Evel explained his predicament to Lee: “Heck, I can fly this thing! I just don’t know how to get there.” He did have in his possession air maps, though. Evel continued “I don’t know the tower frequencies and such.” He was beginning to understand the value of ground school. At this point Lee noticed a highway patrolman who was sitting at the airport while waiting for the ground school to open. Lee suggested to Evel that he talk to the cop. The idea sounded good to Evel so he walked over to the officer with a notebook in hand and asked for a little assistance. Evel drew circles connected by lines in his notebook. The circles were the airports and the lines represented the path he had to take. He asked the patrolman to write in the proper tower radio frequencies in each circle and to indicate compass headings along the route. The officer was happy to comply with Evel’s requests. After thanking the man Evel and Lee walked over to the new King Air and Evel commented “If that cop knew what kind of airplane I was getting into he would shit.” Evel was obviously a novice but his airplane was not what you would expect a newbie to be piloting.

Evel took off for Butte, Montana in the brand new King Air all alone. He made it all the way to the Butte airport. That is when his troubles began. When he arrived there was a strong crosswind. Evel had never landed in a crosswind before and so he was reluctant about putting down. He radioed the tower and asked them to call all nearby airports to determine if there was another field that was not experiencing crosswinds. If there was he would head their way. Unfortunately all of the terminals within range were experiencing the same conditions. Evel circled the runway as long as he could while hoping that conditions would change. When his fuel was almost exhausted he decided to land the airplane. The landing was successful but he nearly crashed. Nobody at the airport bothered him about the small detail of his not having a pilot’s license; everyone there knew him. Evel got the fuselage lettering down by his favorite sign painters and then got back aboard the Beechcraft for the return flight to Monroe, Washington.

You would think that Evel had experienced enough flying difficulties by now but you would be wrong if you thought all his troubles were behind him. He told Lee “I looked down at those mountains and they didn’t look like the Rocky Mountains.” His premonition was confirmed when heard someone hailing him on the radio. It was air traffic control in Canada and they had an urgent message for Evel. They informed him that he was in “restricted airspace” and he needed to turn around immediately! This is one time Evel did exactly as someone told him to. Lee doesn’t know whether or not Evel requested new headings for Seattle from the Canadians but in any event he did make it back to the USA. Lee believes that he landed in Seattle.

All this happened before Evel put on the show at the Evergreen State Fair near Monroe. It was a big event that featured some great fireworks. Lee got real close to the people who set them off and he was amazed by the precision they displayed. An old man moved rapidly from launch tube to launch tube while dropping huge charges in each. Following inches behind him was a young boy who lit each fuse with a torch. Lee remembers them as “the prettiest fireworks I ever saw”.

But it wasn’t all fun and games. Lee had work to do. He had to get Evel’s bike ready for the jump. Lee began to change out the bike’s countershaft sprocket to one that he believed would provide Evel with the speed necessary to clear the lengthy obstacle of 22 cars. Lee had an 18 -tooth sprocket in his hand when Evel walked over and intervened. “Put this sprocket on there. Use the 16-tooth.” Lee thought to himself “that’s not going to make it” but he complied with Evel’s wishes. He knew that once Evel made his mind up on something there was no sense in arguing. Evel then surveyed the jump and commented to Lee “That’s a long way, isn’t it?” Lee responded with his usual brevity “Yes, it is”.

“Well,” said Evel, “If we don’t make it we’ll just come back and try again next year.”

When it came time for the jump Evel made a few passes while Lee and the crowd watched.

Evel pulled up next to Lee as he always did just before the final approach.

“Evel, you’re not going fast enough” Lee told him. “You’re going to be short but don’t worry about it. I have enough safety ramp to catch you.”

And then Lee added wryly “We can just come back again next year and try again.”

Evel chuckled.

It was time to jump. Evel never made any changes to the bike after he completed his practice approaches. He had no choice other than to give it his best. He cleared 21 of those 22 cars and his bike came down on the safety ramp that covered car number 22. He bounced off the safety ramp and brought the bike down without losing control on the landing ramp. Of course there was just one other little hitch. Evel had promised his sponsor, Olympia Beer, that when he landed he would deploy a parachute that had Olympia Beer advertising printed all over it. Now there really wasn’t any need for a chute. It was just a prop that added drama to the jump. It worked well if you hit the landing ramp at full speed. That night was different. Because Evel first came down on the safety ramp he had to attempt to regain control during the impending impact with the landing ramp. And so he put the brakes on. That helped him control the bike. It also slowed the bike. Evel released the chute at the last possible moment (he had no choice in the matter, a promise is a promise). Since the bike was now going rather slow after two bumps and nearly locked brakes the chute flew back into the bike and became entangled in the rear wheel. It was a mess. It took Lee quite a while to get that parachute out of the bike.

Evel at one of his favorite places (other than a golf course), the Butte, MT airport.

Evel at one of his favorite places (other than a golf course), the Butte, MT airport.

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.

(Note: Comments Welcome – If a comment field does not appear at the end of this story, please click on the title of this post , Lee and Evel – Chapter 3 , Dangerous Flying . Then the Comment Field should appear)


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Lee and Evel – Chapter 4, Fun On The Road


Lee relaxing in his hotel room in Las Vegas, Nevada. Life on the road was tough!

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[1]. 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.

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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[1] Mac’s Motor City Garage post of 4/30/2013

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Lee and Evel – Chapter 5 – Celebrities and Road Rage


Atlanta was supposed to be a welcome relief from the chaos of New York. It did present a bit of a logistical problem with the trucks though. Lee needed to get the big double trailer rig inside the Exhibit Hall of the Lakewood Fairgrounds.  Unfortunately the only possible entrance was closely surrounded on the sides by iron hand rails. The street was narrow and populated with large buildings that were spaced right next to one another. It was impossible to get the rig inside with a direct approach. Lee noticed that a similar building directly across from the Exhibit Hall entrance did not have the hand railing along its drive. Lee asked the fair officials if they would open up the entrance to the other building. They agreed. Lee drove directly into the opposite facing building and then went straight backwards across the street and finally into the restrictive Exhibit Hall entrance, narrowly avoiding the railings. When it was time to leave Atlanta the whole truck movement had to take place in reverse. Lee, always the consummate ball buster, challenged Mike by saying to him “I got it in. Now you get it out.”

Mike was always up for a good challenge and was not the kind of person to back down easily. He took Lee up on his offer and attempted to get the trailers out of the hall. After several unsuccessful tries he handed the wheel back over to Lee who handily extricated the rig. Lee relished the role of the ‘old man’ busting on the ‘young kid’ and good natured Mike handled it well.

Lee doesn’t recall much about the five successful jumps that Evel made in Atlanta. But he does recollect the drama that surrounded Butch.

Butch always made his jump before Evel’s. This time his lineup of Tonka© Trucks included a road grader in the last position. Butch took to the air and cleared all but the grader at the end. It broke right in half.

“Well, Butch, you hit the last truck” said the announcer over the P.A.

“Yeah, and that was my favorite one” responded Butch in his most serious tone.

Redd Foxx early in his career. Photo in public domain per Wikipedia.

Redd Foxx early in his career. Photo in public domain per Wikipedia.

The crew usually went out to party after the last jump and Atlanta was no exception. Evel took everyone out to a Redd Foxx show. Redd Foxx was a popular comedian best known for his popular TV series, the Redd Foxx Show. That night he was doing his stand up routine in Atlanta and he somehow got on the topic of midgets.

“I can’t stand those midgets” he began. “They always got their nose in your business. Have you ever been on an elevator with a midget? They got their nose in everybody’s business.”

Evel, ever the trouble causer, goaded Butch, “Are you going to take that? Get on up there!”

Butch did just that. He went right up on the stage to confront Redd Foxx.

The stagehand looked at Foxx and inquired “Is he with you?”

Foxx replied “Hell no! I don’t know who he is.”

Butch now got into the conversation by addressing Redd “I know what you mean about putting your business in my nose. Just keep your business out of my nose!”

He had deftly turned the insult around with his own brand of humor without for a moment losing his cool. The small man had risen to the occasion and given no offense. Butch had class.

The Evel Knievel troupe was always meeting interesting people. The Redd Foxx incident described above is just one of many such fun occasions. Lee says that an even earlier brush with stardom that he recalls occurred back in January of 1972 when they were appearing at the Speedway in Tucson, Arizona. They had some time to kill after the show because Evel finally decided to allow his broken hand (he broke it the previous October in Portland) to heal properly. Lee and Evel were visiting a local Harley shop. One of the workers there asked “Have you boys met Charo?”

He meant Charo, the famous comedian who was married to Xavier Cugat. So, they were introduced to this vivacious lady and she promptly invited them to attend her show.

Lee and Evel had front row seats right next to the stage so they didn’t miss a second of the performance.

During the performance Charo recalled a visit her husband Xavier (many years her senior) made to his doctor before going through with their wedding.

Regarding his upcoming wedding the doctor advised him that “This could be fatal.”

Cugat responded “If she dies, she dies”.

Evel and his staff were of the old school sort when it came to the right way to party and the wrong way. A bit of carousing on the town and partaking of quality alcoholic beverages at local establishments was an accepted way of life. Unusually Evel had just one drink and all that followed were ginger ale. The boys pretty much stayed out of trouble and avoided unnecessary confrontations. They drew the line, though, when it came to using drugs. They didn’t use them and they didn’t want to associate with those who did. This point of contention was neatly driven home during their Chicago performance in March of 1973. Evel’s jumps were to be made at the Chicago International Amphitheater. This rather old (erected in 1934) exhibition venue was right next to the Stockyards Hotel which is where Lee and the crew stayed. Lee remembers that the hotel displayed a huge wood carving with a clock built into it. It was a classy place. The activity inside the amphitheater was not as classy. It was made up of several performance / exhibition areas that flowed right into one another. There was very little separation between two adjacent shows. It so happens that when the Evel Knievel show arrived they ended up sharing floor space with neighbors called Sly and the Family Stone. While Evel’s crew was getting the equipment ready for a show Sly was playing to a crowd next door. This particular crowd was very much into smoking pot. It was obvious by the cloud that hung over the stands. In short order everyone on the Knievel side of the floor could smell the pungent odor that had snaked its way towards and then infiltrated the Knievel dominion. Roger Reiman and Lee decided that they needed to respond in kind.

<B>Roger Reiman on the bike with Mert Lowell to his immediate left.</B>

Roger Reiman on the bike with Mert Lowell to his immediate left.

It was normal procedure for the guys to warm up all the motorcycles before the show. This time they lined up all the bikes (straight pipes on each) right on the border between their floor space and the area allotted to Sly. All of the bikes were oriented with their exhausts pointing towards the stoned Stone crowd and the engines were revved at full blast. What a racket! What a stench! They totally drowned out the next door concert to the point that the MC finally announced “We will start up again as soon as those bike freaks get through over there!” The bikes didn’t move and that was the end of the musical performance. The next day the hall management intervened and forced Lee to park all the bikes at the end of the floor that was far removed from their Sly neighbors. That was OK. The boys had already had their fun.

Evel made five jumps in Chicago, all of them successful. Each successive jump was longer than the previous one, a staple technique that Evel used to keep up the momentum from one performance to the next. Lee generally knew when Evel had jumped as far as he possibly could under a particular set of circumstances. He was able to judge this by watching the streamers that they had hung from the lower beams of the ceiling. If the bike was hitting the streamers during the jump there was no way that a speed increase would propel Evel over any additional cars. Caution prevailed in Chicago and there were no mishaps.

By March of 1973 the show was in Detroit again. Evel and his crew worked a demanding schedule. They gave five shows on each weekend. There was one Friday night, two on Saturday (noon and night) and two on Sunday. They were still in Detroit when April rolled around. April first was a Saturday, showtime. It seemed like a good time to mix things up a little bit so Lee made a suggestion. “This is April Fools’ Day. You should pull a joke on the crowd” he told Evel. “That’s a good idea!” was Evel’s response. Evel took to the field and made a number of wheelies on one of his standard bikes. Finally he mounted the Harley-Davidson XR-750 jump bike and made several passes up the ramp, pausing each time at the top without jumping the lineup of some 13 cars. Finally he drove over to Lee and gave him the bike. Then he took the microphone and walked to the top of the landing ramp. At this point the crowd had no idea what was happening. Evel, the consummate showman, had them all in his pocket. He began his speech: “You know, I always knew there would come a day when I wouldn’t want to do what I said I was going to do.” Evel paused and savored the attention directed his way by the expectant fans. Finally he continued with “but this is not the day”. The stands erupted with roars and applause. The jump went smoothly and everybody went home happy, including Evel.

Evel could sometimes be impulsive and unreasonable. The events leading up to the St. Paul, Minnesota show in April of ’73 illustrates this beautifully.

 Evel doing a little bit of wheelie practice. Preparation time was important to him.

Evel doing a little bit of wheelie practice. Preparation time was important to him.

Lee drove alone (he is not sure where Mike was) to St. Paul where Evel was scheduled to appear at the Civic Center.  Lee made the customary reservations at the local Holiday Inn and got ready to settle in for a relaxing work week without Evel’s somewhat overbearing supervision. Evel wasn’t due in town for a while since he was enjoying some well deserved vacation time on the golf courses of Atlanta. Then the phone rang. It was Evel and he needed Lee to spring to action.

“Lee, I need you to go to the airport immediately. Take a taxi and book a first class flight for to Los Angeles.”

Evel continued “I want you to pick up my Maserati convertible and drive it to Atlanta. You need to be here by Sunday. I’ve already got the car sold.”

This was on a Friday. Lee had a little more than two days to fly from Minnesota to California, pick up a car, and then deliver it to Evel in Atlanta, Georgia.

Lee boarded the next available flight and arrived in LA at 2:00 AM on Saturday morning. He collected the car and headed out for Georgia.

Lee filled both tanks of the Maserati, being careful to fill them equally so he would have a balanced load. His average speed on major highways was about 100 mph. He soon found out, at the insistence of a flashing dash light, that the tanks emptied one at a time and when one did run out the other one did not automatically kick in. You have to flip a little switch to activate a pump from the second tank. So much for drawing equally from each tank!

The gas mileage was poor and the car shook a bit at high speeds. Lee was most wary of underpasses, favorite hiding spots for traffic cops. He would have to hold the rearview mirror to stop it from shaking when he needed to look back to see if he was being chased by the highway patrol.

Lee finally arrived at a hotel in Atlanta by 2:00 AM on Monday morning. He missed the Sunday deadline by a mere two hours. He credits his tardy performance to one motel stop he made along the way. It was just not possible to stay awake straight through from Los Angeles to Atlanta!

Lee spent a week in Atlanta while Evel completed his collector car transaction. Evel already had a Ferrari coupe and that was his daily driver. After selling the Maserati that Lee had delivered Evel was able to purchase a second Ferrari. This one was a convertible. Why had Evel decided to ditch the Maserati? Lee thinks it may have had something to do with Evel’s dad’s opinion of the Maserati. He had once remarked to Evel “Why do you have that Maserati? The Ferrari is a much better car!” Evel may have just been acting on his father’s advice.

Lee has a different opinion of the merits of the two makes: “The Maserati had much better seats and was way more comfortable. It had an automatic transmission too. It was just a more relaxing car to drive.”

The day arrived when it was time for Lee and Evel to head out for St. Paul. The vacation was over and it was time to work. The two men took to the highway, Lee driving the hardtop coupe Ferrari and Evel driving the convertible Ferrari. Somewhere around Indiana Evel decided that he wanted to see which car was the faster of the two. Evel was out in front and he signaled for Lee to come abreast of him. The two cars zoomed along, side by side while doing between 90-100 mph. Through a series of hand signals Evel let Lee know that it was time for a race. Off they went. Lee remembers looking at his speedometer and noting that it was registering 165 mph and he was still pulling away from Evel. The Ferrari had an impressive V-12 engine. Finally Evel motioned to Lee to slow down. Lee reluctantly complied; he knew he could get more speed out of the car because it was still accelerating.

Lee fell back a ways and was once again following at some distance behind Evel. They passed through an area of road construction and as a result Lee fell back a bit more with two cars between him and Evel.  Eventually Evel motioned for Lee to pull over into the gravel parking lot of a roadside burger joint. Evel got out of his car and inspected the front end of his vehicle. Lee did not see him do this and only learned of it much later. Unknown to Lee, Evel had skinned the nose of the Ferrari on the back end of a car he was following rather closely. It seems that Evel spent a lot of time turning around trying to locate Lee. This became increasingly difficult since the separation between them had increased greatly. One time Evel turned around for just a little longer than he should have and the result was the unfortunate bruise to has newly acquired Ferrari convertible. Evel was in a bad mood.

“Damn it, Lee, don’t fall so far behind!” were the first words Evel spit out at Lee. He continued “Stay up with me. Drive this damn thing!”

Sometimes Lee can take offense rather easily. This time was one of them. When they left that lot Lee’s front bumper was within ten inches of Evel’s rear. For a number of miles thereafter Lee continued to stick tightly to Evel, always staying no farther than one car length behind him even though they were averaging 90 mph. Lee “was fuming” with anger since he had no idea why Evel was angry with him. I suspect he would have gladly given Evel a bit more slack if he had known what happened. Nobody is happy after scratching up their new car.

Eventually the boys pulled over at a restaurant to have something to eat. By this time Evel had calmed down a bit and he casually remarked to Lee “You know, you don’t have to follow me so close.” All was well.

Nighttime found the pair doing 100 mph in the fog on a two lane highway. Lee remembers that he “thought that if a poor old farmer pulls out I’m going to cream him.” The pair finally arrived in Wisconsin by daylight. They were again on a major four lane highway and plowing along at over 100 mph. So far they had luckily evaded any criminal penalty for their reckless driving. Their luck was about to run out.

Evel was up front and there were two trucks in front of him. He passed the two trucks. Now it was Lee’s turn. Before Lee could make his move the second truck began to pass the first and Lee had to drop back. That’s when Lee noticed the red and blue cop car bubble coming up from behind. Evel was out of sight, hidden by the two trucks. Lee was exposed and caught. He had to pull over. The local cop wrote him up for doing 95 on a highway that had a posted maximum of 70 mph.

“Now follow me up to the courthouse” the policeman told Lee. “And by the way, why were you going so fast?”

“I’m with Evel Knievel. This car belongs to him and we are late to a press conference.” Lee figured he could talk this town cop out of a ticket. The ‘press conference’ bit was a total fabrication.

The cop was having none of it. In an effort to make things move along as quickly as possible Lee made a request, “Can we go to a bank first? I don’t think your court will accept a check to cover the fine.”

“Just follow me to the courthouse” was his answer.

While this unfortunate situation was playing out Evel, having realized that something was going on took an exit and doubled back to where he remembered last seeing Lee. Looking down from an overpass Evel saw Lee being escorted away. That was his signal to cut his losses and take off for the hotel which was only a few miles away.

The policeman was good to his word. When he and Lee appeared before the judge he explained that Lee had offered to pay the fine with a personal check. He reassured the judge “He won’t bail out on us. He’s with the Evel Knievel show.”

The judge took the check and Lee was allowed to continue on his way. Evel later reimbursed him with cash.

(Note: Comments Welcome – If a comment field does not appear at the end of this story, please click on the title of this post, Lee & Evel – Beginnings, as it appears at the top of the page. Then the Comment Field will appear)



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Lee and Evel – Chapter 6 – The Final Act


Evel in his office

Evel in his travelling office, busy as usual. (from one of many original Polaroids taken by Lee Ratliff)

When asked to recall some details of Evel’s appearance at the Great Lakes Dragaway in the town of Parish, Wisconsin Lee right away said that it had to be outside. That was because the event took place in the summer, June 22-24 of 1973. Lee recalls that indoor venues were generally limited to the colder months. The Great lakes Dragaway near Union Grove, Wisconsin was no different. Evel’s truck and the equipment it carried almost didn’t make it to Dragaway. Everyone has seen those signs on the freeways that say “Weigh Station, Right Lane; All Trucks Must Enter”. They usually have another sign tacked on to them that says “CLOSED”. Lee wasn’t so lucky this time when he entered Wisconsin. They were just closing in on their motel exit when the weigh station sign appeared with a big “OPEN” sign attached. There was no choice other than to pull in with the obviously overlength 62 foot rig. It was daytime and this time Lee was not able to trick the state troopers who were doing the inspection. Lee was ordered to unhook his trailer because the total length was too long. That left him with just the cab and the permanently attached front flatbed that served as Evel’s dressing room. All the ramps and other equipment would have to be left behind if Lee continued to the motel. He wasn’t prepared to do that so he approached another trucker who had a cab only with no trailer. Lee offered to pay him to tow the Evel Knievel trailer as far as the motel. The trucker was awe-struck that someone was asking him to tow Evel Knievel’s rig. He agreed to help out but he refused to accept any payment. All he wanted was for Lee to take a photograph of him towing Evel’s trailer. How else would his friends be expected to believe the story he was going to tell them? Lee was happy to take the photo and the trailer was promptly delivered to the motel where it was reunited with the Kenworth.

It was party time and Evel took the guys out to a Mexican restaurant. He bought everyone sombreros. From left to right: Jack Stroh, a painter (possibly also called Jack), and Lee.

It was party time and Evel took the guys out to a Mexican restaurant. He bought everyone sombreros. From left to right: Jack Stroh, a painter (possibly also called Jack), and Lee.

There was some pre-jump partying in Wisconsin. Lee distinctly remembers visiting the home of the promoter; although, he does not recall his name. Lee was impressed upon entering what looked like a very long house, possibly a sort of ranch. The promoter invited Evel and his men to his trophy room. Everywhere you looked there were heads on the walls. Every big game animal imaginable was represented. Lee had never seen anything like it before. It had the air of a museum but it was in someone’s home. It was a lot to take in for a young man from Kansas. Work, otherwise known as jump time, did eventually come around. Evel was not successful with that first jump over 13 cars. He came down at too steep an angle which caused him to slip off the back end of the bike. Evel “landed on his tail and slid on his butt”. The motorcycle flipped and landed on its handlebars upside down. Evel later explained that the grip pulled out thus causing him to slide backward and then off the bike. Lee examined the grip after the event and he found that it was broken just as one would expect if the handlebars had slammed into the ramp when the bike upturned. That would indicate that the grips never did loosen and pull off as Evel had explained. It is Lee’s opinion that Evel just lost his grip and did not want to admit it; so, he came up with an excuse.  It is interesting to note that in present day such a situation is very unlikely to occur. Riders, knowing that the front wheel must hit first, have a special technique for lifting and slowing the rear wheel. They squeeze the clutch which stops the rear wheel from spinning. At the same time they apply the brakes while still midair and this causes the front wheel to descend for a controlled landing. Evel and other jump artists of his era were not aware of this technique. The modern rider has greater knowledge of the physics of jumping and they have much lighter motorcycles. This is why many of Evel’s record jumps have been bested in recent years.

Knew What We Were Doing

Evel’s inscription to Lee is reflected in the faces of both Lee and Evel. A ‘sure thing’ is not part of a daredevil’s daily life. There was a fair amount of guess work and lots of guts.

Providence, Rhode Island was one of the last shows that Lee worked. Eventually Lee would end up living in the Providence area.  It was the end of July in 1973. At that time of year it is usually extremely humid on the East Coast. It’s beer drinking time. That’s just fine for most of us but some folks take it a bit too far and I suspect that’s what happened to some of the people who crowded the stands at Lincoln Downs Race Track that day in July.

Evel was making his pre-jump approaches down on the field that usually hosted horse races. The dirt on the track was loose and so Evel was driving on a plywood runway that Lee had erected. Lee was crouched alongside the ramp and watching closely as Evel made his practice runs. Suddenly Lee was aware of a commotion behind him. A fight had broken out among some patrons in the stands. Fortunately there was a chain link fence separating the stands from the track and this prevented the commotion from overflowing onto the performance area. Lee stayed focused on Evel and mostly ignored what was going on with the fans.

Apparently one biker noticed another biker who had a chain draped over his shoulder. This somehow offended him so he pulled it off and began whipping its owner with his own chain. If that wasn’t enough of a sideshow a female spectator promptly joined the fight and just as quickly lost her blouse. Unfortunately for her, though maybe not the crowd, she was not wearing a bra (a common apparel decision in the 1970’s). This only served to heighten the excitement of the crowd. The young lady seemingly enjoyed here sudden fame so she trotted on up to the highest level of the grandstands where she put on her own show. (I’m not sure if anyone other than Lee was watching Evel at this point). The security officers were obliged to give her a personal escort off the field.

The Lincoln Downs show was actually a great venue. There was Evel Knievel, the girl in the stands and the fight between bikers. The company next moved on to Stafford Springs, Connecticut. George Chitwood was there with his Joie Chitwood Thrill Show. Chitwood was an accomplished stunt person who often worked in various Hollywood movies. 1973 was the year that he did stunt work and acting in the James Bond thriller Live and Let Die. Lee knew it was going to be a good show so he made a point of inviting Gary Selby, an old friend and coworker, to attend the performance. Lee used to work with Gary at Kaman Aircraft in Connecticut. Gary was now living in Rhode Island so Lee connected up with him and gave him enough tickets to accommodate his entire family. Gary brought along his mom, wife, and two daughters. He did not bring his sister, Joyce. Why is that important? Joyce eventually became Lee’s wife; but, that’s another story.

After the show Lee took Gary and his family to meet Evel. Gary’s mom was a huge fan of Evel. She was very quick to remove her two white gloves (remember when women wore those?) and ask Evel to sign them. Of course Evel was happy to sign the gloves and today Lee has one of them since it was left to his wife, Joyce. So how big a fan was Gary’s mom? She loved the guy but she liked Lee even better and always referred to Lee as her “adopted son”. Evel left soon after the show but the Selby family stayed for the grand tour. Mike kindly drove Gary’s car while Lee packed the whole family into the big rig and drove it to the motel where they were staying. It’s not everyone who gets a ride in Evel Knievel’s travelling dressing room!

So where did Evel go after the Connecticut show? He immediately flew down to Georgia to play golf. Lee naturally assumed that things would be calm for a while since the boss was off relaxing and not constantly looking over his shoulder. That assumption was soon proven wrong when Lee received a telephone call from Georgia.

“Lee, get my nine iron and put it on a plane for Georgia” was Evel’s directive.

Why in the world would Evel suddenly need a nine iron? It seems he had destroyed his regular club while raising a bit of a commotion on the links.

Evel was enjoying a round with a foursome. Only one of the guys was a friend who knew Evel well. The other two were just happy to be playing golf with the world’s greatest motorcycle daredevil. As Evel walked along he sported the cane that Lee had given him. You may recall that this special cane had a hollow area that concealed several vials. Evel usually filled the first vial with whiskey. The others would contain just colored water. Evel was drinking from the vials throughout the game. As they moved from hole to hole Evel got “drunker and drunker”; at least that is how he acted.

The pivotal moment arrived when Evel was making a nine iron chip to the green. He stubbed the chip shot and then slammed his nine iron on the ground, thus bending it.

One of the golfers, Evel’s partner, laughed at the bad shot that Evel made.

Evel promptly pulled out a .38 Special handgun and shot the guy who had dared to laugh.

He then turned to one of the invited players and while pointing the gun at him said “You laughed too!”

At this point the laughing man ran off as fast as he possibly could.

Of course Evel was shooting blanks and his buddy (the dead guy) was in on the prank.

Evel just loved practical jokes. I’m not sure all of his victims did.

It wasn’t always easy for Evel to get the bookings he wanted. He once sent Lee to the Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Seven Springs, PA. Lee’s mission was to interest the management in an Evel Knievel Daredevil show to be held on their spacious ski resort grounds. Lee stayed for a week and tried to sell the enterprise on the idea. It was a no go. The only interesting, and unfortunate, event was when Lee went for a ride with one of the employees. They ended up hitting a deer. Chalk that one off.

That wasn’t the only accident associated with the trip to Pennsylvania. Lee left the resort and attempted to get on the freeway. Unfortunately he ran over a curb near a toll booth. This was enough to cause the booth operator to single Lee out for an inspection. The operator was suspicious about the length of the rig (a familiar story to Lee). Lee was ordered to pull up to the white stop line on the ground. He knew that if he did as requested the rear end of the truck would shoot some five feet beyond legal length as marked by a second stop line at the other end of the truck.

Lee was already pulled up beyond the front stop line so he proceeded to back up and as he came to a halt he released the 5th wheel so that the rear trailer would override it and push forward against the back of the first trailer. He then pulled forward slowly and overshot the front line once more. At this point the booth operators became frustrated with Lee and one of them questioned “What is that guy doing?” They waved him through just to get rid of him.

One item that Lee has to remember Evel by is this ring. If you look closely you will be able to make out the motorcycle design. Evel gave these diamond-encrusted rings to close friends.

One item that Lee has to remember Evel by is this ring. If you look closely you will be able to make out the motorcycle design. Evel gave these diamond-encrusted rings to close friends.

The next prospective show site suggested by Evel was the Indianapolis Speedway. Lee parked the rig in front of the Speedway as negotiations were going on. Evel was not able to make the deal but he and his crew stuck around to watch the races.

Lee hooked up with his brother Jim, a Harley employee, who was running flat track at that time. They waited for two days for the rain-delayed race to start. Eventually his brother had to leave. The races began the next day! Evel spent most of the time hobnobbing with the likes of A. J. Foyt and J. C. Agajanian. Lee, meanwhile, was able to chase down A. J. Foyt and get a book signed by him. He also went to a local gas station bought a case of Indy promotional glasses (he still has some of them to this day). Even when things didn’t work out as planned Lee and Evel knew how to have a good time.

The final act of Lee’s employment by Evel and the good times associated with their venture arrived in December of 1973. Evel and Lee would frequently have disagreements on things such as how to assemble ramps, the gearing of his motorcycles, and impulsive requests for late night meetings. Lee was fired on several occasions when he refused to back down in the face of ridiculous demands by Evel. Evel, on the other hand, recognized that his rash decisions were often just plain wrong and he had no problem recanting what was obviously a poor decision and he would immediately rehire Lee. The confrontation of December of 1973 was a bit more serious.  Evel was having a house built near the 16th fairway of a golf course in Butte, Montana. Lee and Mike had just finished a whole day of building a fence around the property. They were beat and it was time for dinner.  Lee and Mike got cleaned up and were getting ready to go out to a restaurant. Just as they were about to go out Evel called from the mobile home he was staying in and instructed the boys to meet him at his new house where they would begin to clean up the inside. This irritated Lee and showed in his attitude when he got to the house.

Evel confronted Lee when he arrived and asked “Well are you going to work?”

Lee said “I guess.”

Evel said “You guess? Linda make Lee a reservation to fly to Wichita. “Evel continued with “I just brought you guys up here to give you a little extra money for Christmas.”

Now it was Mike’s turn and he responded with “I really don’t need the money that bad. “

Evel yelled “Linda, make that two reservations.”

Lee and Mike flew back to Wichita with Lee making a detour to pick up his toolbox and tools.

After the holidays Evel called Lee and said “I would like for you to go back to work for me.  I am going to cut your wages to $200 a week, but when we start making the movie you will be playing your own part and you will be getting actors’ fees and have your own car.  You will have it made!”

Lee said “I think I’ll pass.”

Evel ended the conversation on a friendly note with “Well if you are ever where I am, look me up and if I am where you are I’ll look you up.”

Lee looks back on the years he worked for Evel Knievel as a great experience that he was privileged to enjoy. He is proud of his role in assisting Evel by providing expert motorcycle maintenance and modifications, precision jump setups, safe and timely transportation, and logistical support. Fellow workers, performers, and famous personalities that he met all contributed to an exciting three years that Lee will never forget. Above all, Lee will always remember his friend and fellow adventurer, Evel Knievel.

 "To my pal, Lee" pretty much sums up how Lee and Evel felt about each other. From left to right: Fagundo-Campoy, Jack Lancaster, Evel, and Lee

“To my pal, Lee” pretty much sums up how Lee and Evel felt about each other.
From left to right: Fagundo Campoy, Jack Lancaster, Evel, and Lee

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Workshop Comfort

I’ve always had a little shop in the house. It’s the spot where I can repair whatever needs repairing. My shop, more formally my workshop, has always been within reaching distance of the oil burner. That means that there is a little extra warmth in the winter. It also means that it is often difficult to hear a radio when the burner fires up.

The workshop at our first home had a door, storage racks, an oil tank, a window, and two walls that I covered with 1 x 3 furring. After finishing the walls I put in electric outlets and an overhead light.  I even built a set of bookcases and of course my workbench. I made that from a set of plans circulated by Stanley Bostitch. That basement workshop was also my ham radio shack. The basement is a great place for a short ground wire.

We have been at our new home for six years. About the only thing that I brought from my old shop was the workbench. The ham radio station is on the second floor now. It is not very good for a short ground wire but great for quiet operating. My new shop is of course in the basement, once again a short distance from the oil burner. It has about twice as much room as my last shop but the only window is one of those little deals that sit in a semicircular well next to the foundation. I am completely underground now!

I promptly erected storage shelves and they covered up the window. It wasn’t of much value anyways. Only a skinny 10-year old could crawl through it. Little or no light entered that way either since it opens up underneath the outside deck.

The new shop had no electricity. I had to run a long extension from the adjacent ‘finished’ portion of the basement to get the power I needed. That is not a very tidy situation. Things had to change.

I finally got around to making the changes this spring. I now have a workplace that makes me feel comfortable and at home. I’m not sure if I will have any greater luck at fixing old radios but at least I will have plenty of power and light. There are still a few things to do. I need to hang a couple of cabinets and some decorative stuff. I also have to make room for the bookcase I moved out during the construction. All should be shipshape just in time for winter. For now I intend to spend the summer outside with the lawn, the old Buick, and maybe that cranky old tractor.

(Note: Clicking on any image will display the large version)

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