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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