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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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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.