(More Than) A Touch of Evel

Travis Pastrana's Nitro Circus reimagines risk for a new audience

Motorcycles fire into the night sky like it’s the Fourth of July. Boom, boom, boom. But they don’t go straight up and float back down. They twirl, twist, flip and are whipped flat, and I hold my breath until rubber hits the landing ramp. A rider thrusts legs overtop the handlebar, looking, for an instant, like he’s being doubled home from elementary school on a bicycle without anyone to pedal it. I gasp a sharp intake of air as a rider slides off the rear of his saddle and hangs midair, separated from his machine for a beat until he grabs the rear fender and tugs the bike back beneath him. I’m purple from holding my breath. This has been going on for an hour.

 

I’m in a football stadium watching Nitro Circus, a touring minstrel show of acrobats who fling just about anything with wheels (in addition to motorcycles they leap bicycles, skateboards, a child’s scooter and a recliner on casters) off steep ramps. When the helmets come off, the performers have the SoCal millennial's uniform—shaggy hair, sun burnished skin, and the cocky smiles of kids who’ve dodged the banal jobs that’ve kept their peers in their parents’ basements.

 

In founding Nitro Circus, former motocrosser Travis Pastrana eliminated the boring bits of motocross racing (most notably strung out fields that make it tricky to tell who’s first and who’s last) from the cool stuff—namely, acrobatics. With the tyranny of the timekeeper’s clock eliminated, riders became free to experiment. Pastrana’s decision to make motorcycle jumping an end in itself has nudged Nitro Circus closer to the mainstream than anyone since Evel Knievel.

Knievel was a phenomenon dipped in a fifth of whisky, and a cringe-inducing embarrassment to serious motorcyclists. But non-motorcyclists loved the hard-living, hardscrabble raconteur from Butte, Montana, who became a hero to every kid who fashioned a ramp out of scrap lumber and launched his bicycle up and over the curb to land (invariably) on his face. Just like the legend himself.

 

The draw to Knievel was primitive and pitiless. He was risking his life, and we wanted to witness his fall. Broken bones became the tally of his worth as a performer. It was a point of pride to Knievel that if a jump was planned, a jump would proceed. Even if rain was falling and winds were howling and the ramp was illogically designed and poorly constructed. He took the risks of a punch-drunk heavyweight fighter, whose slurred speech and cauliflower ears won’t stop him from climbing back into the ring for a final time. And every time is the final time. 

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In London, on the evening of May 25, 1975, 37-year-old Knievel spent a night on the town. Drinking whisky out of his flask-cum-walking stick and hitting pubs late into the night. The next day Knievel nursed his hangover to Wembley Stadium, where he would attempt a jump over 13 buses parked side-to-side. Even today, the 45-minute broadcast of the event is riveting. Knievel is a compelling mix of unpolished roughneck and consummate showman. Without the former, the latter would be too much to take—too hokey, too practiced.

 

Before the jump, Knievel strode to the tip of the ramp, was handed a microphone, and launched into a bizarre diatribe on the dangers of consuming narcotics. And then Knievel, in darkly foreshadowing words, said, “Hang onto your seat, I’ll hang onto the handlebar, and I’ll get this over with.” But he didn’t get it over with. Knievel took an excruciating long time (brilliantly so) working up to the jump. The first XR-750 he rode had short gearing, the better for wheelies to work the crowd into a lather. And then Knievel hopped on the main bike and did a number of low-speed runs up the ramp. The stadium announcer, who repeatedly referred to Knievel’s motorcycle as a “bicycle,” had the grave tone of a man doing the play-by-play of a surgeon rooting about inside a man’s ribcage. It was, and remains, fantastic theatre.  

In the '70s, Evel was everywhere. Sorry, fans of Valentino, but Knievel remains the most popular (and polarizing) figure in the history of motorcycling.

Knievel would suffer a broken hand, a fractured pelvis, and a compressed fracture of the fourth and fifth vertebrae. Before the jump he seemed to know what awaited him. (The night before he confessed his trepidation to a reporter.) His movements weren’t the confident bravado of a showman, but the nervous fidgeting of a man in a situation he couldn’t wiggle out of. Wembley Stadium was his cage. And the only path to freedom was overtop 13 buses. It’s impossible not to feel for him. And thrilling to contemplate his demise.  

 

The jump infrastructure is appalling. A four-feet-wide by 380-feet-long ramp starts up in the cheap seats and plunges to an elevated platform five feet above the stadium floor. The sharp kick-up just before the bike becomes airborne threatens to compress the suspension and compromise control. (I know these things. I had the same problem the time I attempted to jump my bicycle across the birdbath I’d plunked in the middle of the driveway. A misadventure that came within a whisker of converting me to a castrato.)

 

Knievel landed after 120 feet airborne. He needed 140. The motorcycle, aggrieved, bucked Knievel into the air then landed on him, hammering him into the turf. The fall was ugly. The crowd loved it. His prone body was swarmed by spectators. Attendants scooped him onto a stretcher. And then the magic happened.

 

Knievel insisted on getting to his feet. He was lifted up. He wanted to go to the top of the ramp. Handlers tried to talk him out of it, but Knievel insisted. The crowd was cheering. And the crowd was booing. Wembley Stadium was as emotionally fraught as a hospital waiting room. “Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country,” said Knievel into a microphone, “you are the last people who will ever see me jump. I’m through.” And then Knievel was dragged upright out of the stadium.

 

Retirement lasted four days. Knievel, from his hospital room, threatened to sue US television rights holder ABC if they included, in its upcoming weekend broadcast, his retirement speech. ABC ignored Knievel. Five months later Knievel jumped again.   

Knievel, in his stars-and-stripes leathers and XR-750, bears little superficial resemblance to riders in pajama-like MX gear on modern motocrossers. It’s also hard to imagine a 2019 audience filing into a stadium to watch one jump. Pastrana’s posse present a hyper-kinetic version of Knievel’s sideshow. Instead of a protracted buildup leading to a single event, Nitro Circus sends dozens of bodies airborne in an evening. It’s too much, and much too fast, to count. And despite the tiresome banter of men-with-microphones, and the dizzying number of bodies in your field of vision, a Nitro Circus show can become, at moments, surprisingly moving. Beautiful, even.

 

The way in which an airborne motorcycle can rotate to where the rear wheel is ahead of the front—only to be, at the last second, whipped back ’round for landing, seems an impossibility. And the evening’s finale, where everybody on anything with wheels is tossed into the night sky, is cathartic in its release. And something else is different, too.

Pastrana has instilled in his troops the compulsion to do increasingly extreme stunts. There seems to be no limit to what can be achieved.   

The bloodthirsty crowd of Knievel’s era has been supplanted by a family on an outing. The question looming at Knievel’s Wembley jump was will he make it? At Nitro Circus it’s how can they do that? A Nitro Circus crowd wants everyone to walk away. No-one wants the dancer to faceplant into the orchestra pit or the figure skater to hit the ice head first. Nitro Circus is a fantasy of jubilant and frenetic motion.

 

In 1967 Knievel attempted to jump the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and failed spectacularly—he spent 30 days in a coma. In the summer of 2018 Pastrana, replete in stars-and-stripes leathers, paid homage to Knievel and jumped an Indian Scout FTR750 flat track racer over Caesar’s fountain. (The Indian equaled, in spirit, the machine most associated with Knievel—the XR750—though Knievel’s Caesar’s fountain jump was on a Triumph twin, as it predated his long association with Harley-Davidson.)

 

Pastrana’s desire to jump at Caesar’s is understandable. Knievel was his hero. And it’s easy to understand how television executives at the History network gobbled-up Pastrana’s pitch. But the jump was missing something. That something was Knievel’s trademark—the ever-present threat that it could go horribly wrong. Pastrana is too good, too prepared, and too unwilling to take foolish risks. In 1967, Knievel’s landing ramp was narrow, steep, and short. Pastrana’s landing ramp was wide, gently sloped, and long. It looked as though a small plane could have touched down on it with ease.

 

A motorcycle doing a straight jump—no up-and-over backwards, no razzle-dazzle—doesn’t hold our interest like it once did. And who’s to blame? Nitro Circus, of course. To watch Pastrana in Las Vegas, in perfect unwavering form as he jumped over the Caesar’s Palace fountain, was to witness a man being eclipsed by his very own shadow.