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Channeling Evel: Can Travis Pastrana successfully soar over the Caesars Palace fountains?

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Travis Pastrana
Photo: Chris Tedesco/Courtesy

Maybe you heard about motorcycle daredevil Travis Pastrana’s upcoming attempt to jump the Caesars Palace fountains and thought, haven’t other people already succeeded where Evel Knievel failed? Well, yes, they have. But not like this. Not nearly to this extreme.

Pastrana, in honor of Knievel, will not only try to fly over the fountains, but will also replicate two of the stunt icon’s other jumps. In one night. On a throwback bike that, compared to the springy and light motocross machines that have been used in successful jumps over the fountains, is about as airworthy as an armored car.

The three-hour July 8 Evel Live spectacle is on the edge even by Pastrana’s standards, and he has skydived without a parachute and performed a double backflip on a bike, among other stunts.

“I thought this would be just a really fun tribute to Evel Knievel,” says Pastrana, an X Games champion, an elite-level motorcycle and automobile racer and the star of onetime MTV series Nitro Circus. “And it’s turned into one of the biggest challenges of my career.”

Evel Knievel, shortly before jumping 12 cars at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on March 2, 1972.

Evel Knievel, shortly before jumping 12 cars at the Cow Palace in San Francisco on March 2, 1972.

In addition to the Caesars attempt, Pastrana will try to clear 52 crushed cars in one jump and 16 Greyhound buses in another, both behind Planet Hollywood and Bally’s. But the fountains, which will be the finale if all goes well, will be by far the most challenging.

Can he make it? Or is he in for the same fate as Knievel, whose December 31, 1967, attempt ended in a grisly crash that made him famous but put him in the hospital for weeks?

Pastrana has a wife and two daughters, so he wouldn’t be making the jump if he didn’t think he would land it. He’s also got the full benefit of technological evolution in the sport, including computer modeling and ramps that are far sturdier and more effective than the plywood planks Knievel used.

Pastrana is an elite-level racer who practices—unlike Knievel, a showman whose preparation didn’t go much beyond taking a belt of Wild Turkey whiskey on his way to his bike.

Plus, although the fountain jump was once considered sort of a gearhead Mount Everest, it has been conquered, including with a backflip. The distance, about 140 feet, was once considered from here to Honolulu for a motorcycle jump but is less than half the span of today’s world record.

But Pastrana says he felt it was important for him to demonstrate his respect for Knievel, who has inspired generations of motorcycle stunt riders and is a spiritual father of extreme sports.

“If I did all these jumps on a regular dirt bike, it’s not really a tribute, because you’re not really pushing the human spirit,” Pastrana says. “You’re not really challenging yourself.”

So Pastrana instead chose an Indian Scout FTR750, similar to the Harley-Davidsons that Knievel used for many of his jumps. (That doesn’t include the fountain jump, which Knievel attempted on a Triumph.)

The Indian is a sleek, contemporary bike, but it’s built for flat-track racing, not jumping. At 400 pounds, it’s twice as heavy as Pastrana’s regular bikes. And while its suspension components are modern, they’re not as heavy-duty as the ones on dirt bikes, which are designed to allow them to land feather-softly after getting huge air.

To make things even more challenging, Pastrana will have a very short space to get his very heavy bike up to speed. Going from the south to north, he’ll need to reach 75 mph in less than 200 feet or 63 yards—give or take, a long NFL field goal. “So I basically have to start in second gear with the tire spinning and shift to third right at the takeoff,” he says.

Then there’s his riding gear. Pastrana will be wearing a version of Knievel’s star-spangled white leathers, complete with a cape and a pair of heeled dress boots, and not his usual padded motocross gear. Note to Knievel geeks: His outfit will not include Evel’s walking stick, which was hollowed out to hold whiskey. “We couldn’t afford it,” Pastrana says. “The guy who owns it wanted like a million dollars to rent it.”

So … can he? Or will he end up like Knievel in the famous slo-mo film footage from ’67, spilling over the handlebars, hitting the asphalt like a corpse in a white leather body bag and tumbling while his bike skips around and over him?

For Pastrana, the question isn’t one of can. He’s confident. The question is one of why.

Pastrana grew up in a motorcycle family that revered Knievel, and he met the legend after winning a race in Daytona when he was 16. Knievel had retired from jumping by then—he was in Dayton to judge a bikini contest—but his influence helped lead Pastrana into a lifetime of extreme competition and stunting.

“Why I think it’s so important is that younger people don’t know much about Evel,” he says. “Even guys who are into action sports and heard of Evel growing up don’t know where the sport comes from. They don’t have a lot of history, honestly, from the days when men were men and bikes were crap. They don’t know how big Evel was and how excited people were to see him on Wide World of Sports.

“And it’s also to show my dad’s generation that Evel’s spirit is not gone.”

>Evel Live July 8, 5 p.m., open and free to the public, viewing areas available at Caesars Palace and behind Bally’s/Paris. Airs live on History.

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