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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One Response to Lee and Evel – Chapter 6 – The Final Act

  1. Steve Starr says:

    What a major contrast, how beloved Evel was by his fans and how absolutely s****y he treated the people closest to him. As I’ve said, the bravest Knievel in that entire family wasn’t named Robert, she was named Linda.

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