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.
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.
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.
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.
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