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Robbie Knievel: Aiming at a popsicle stick

Robbie Kneivel
Editor's note: Saturday night, July 31, daredevil motorcycle jumper Robbie Knievel will attempt a spectacular jump over an array of military aircraft on the deck of the USS Intrepid, a former aircraft carrier now docked in New York Harbor as the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum.

The event will be televised live on TNT beginning at 8 p.m.

Knievel, son of legendary motorcyclist Evel Knievel, provided a rare perspective of his perspective, fears and mindset as he prepares for every death-defying stunt in this exclusive article he penned for Bankrate late last year.

You're encased in red, white and blue racing leathers and a Captain America full-face Stars and Stripes helmet. The world is blasting at you at nearly 100 miles an hour as you aim your front wheel at a skinny, 48-inch ramp that slopes upwards at a 16-degree angle.

Hit it right, and your speed and the angle of the ramp will hurl you and 223 pounds of thundering steel into empty air. There's no off-ramp, no escape, no chance to stop or turn back.

And that's the easy part.

What seems like insanity to most of us is a daily occurrence for Robbie Knievel, son of Evel Knievel. Surpassing even the jumping success of his legendary father, Robbie has leaped his 500cc motorcycle over oncoming trucks and trains, over lines of trucks, cars and buses, over huge fountains, and even across a section of the Grand Canyon. And he's not finished yet -- plans are now being made for an attempt to launch himself across the Snake River, a jump that Evel failed to complete.

Exclusively for Bankrate readers, Knievel -- known by close friends and family as "Kaptain" -- provides a unique view from inside the helmet of America's best jumpmeister.

From 40 feet up, at 95 miles an hour, the landing ramp looks like a popsicle stick, but that isn't what I'm concerned about -- just yet.

First, I have to concentrate on keeping the bike horizontal, or it will be another trip to the hospital.

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I make my living jumping motorcycles, and now I'm 41 and a grandfather, I'm thinking about getting some more protection for my body.

Maybe a Kevlar suit, with maybe some steel knee braces. I've had some serious operations on my knees. I've even started using a speedometer and a radar box in the past couple of years.

I've jumped all kinds of things. The most famous, I suppose, was the fountains-jump outside Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, a jump that my dad missed. He was in a coma for a month.

Caesar's fountains make a pretty technical stunt, with difficult turns, hard trajectory, cement pillars, pylons, a tough place to land and a good chance to decapitate yourself. They say they're not going to let anyone else do it again.

I did it, and God was watching over me. He always is. I say the same prayer before every jump: "Hey, God, look at this!" I think He does, because I'm still here, and I'm no Superman.

What I do best is prepare for my jumps. I'm not going to tell all my secrets, I'm a professional stuntman.

In the 10 days before a big jump, there's a lot of work to be done at Kamp Knievel, a collection of dozen RVs on site in some fairground or riverside or park where the jump will take place.

There's all the preparation and promo, interviews, souvenirs to sign. The pyro guys wire up the fireworks, the mechanics get the bikes ready -- we tune them to run best in weather around temperatures of 75 degrees. Some fans get rides on the back of the bike; others pose with me for snapshots.

There are trial runs and measurements, checks of the ramps for nails, splinters, and weak spots. Sometimes we paint and sand the ramps. We put out safety bales and pad the tree trunks. I've been doing it so long the jumps are about the mental approach, not the physical.

My dad did all his jumps by feel, by the seat of his pants, and had 14 big crashes that left him with 433 broken bones.

Robbie Knievel
Click image for larger view

I've had some crashes, and a few broken bones, but I have lighter, faster bikes and better technology on my side, too.

The key is to understand the ballistics of hurling 400 pounds of motorcycle, flesh and blood through the air for nearly the length of a football field.

I start with a 60-foot long, 10-foot high smooth plywood ramp that's four feet wide. I've been looking down these ramps since I was 8 years old, and I had the best teacher in the world -- my dad.

With my crew, I measure the differences between the takeoff and landing heights. We have to consider the takeoff area -- what is the surface, is there a straight run-up -- often there isn't -- and at what speed can I reach the foot of the ramp.

If the room's too tight, we build a starter platform, a three-story ski ramp to give me extra acceleration.

In practice runs, I get the feel of the gears, see what the wind direction and speed is doing and work out what my velocity should be as I arrive at the ramp.

On the day of the jump, I go hungry. I don't eat before jumps, in case they have to cut me open. The master of ceremonies and I talk to the crowd from the ramp, my 16-year-old daughter, Krysten, sings the National Anthem and gives me a good-luck kiss.

I do a few 90-degree wheelies until I'm sure everything's working the way it should, and then, when my gut tells me, I launch at the takeoff.

I don't have time to look at my speedometer before I get to the ramp; I have to be aware of what's around me. The helmet I wear isn't as tight and tunnel-vision focused as the ones race car drivers wear because I like to be able to see that there's no spectator or animal or anything coming from the sides.

A radar box at the foot of the takeoff ramp flashes a digital reading so I know that I'm doing a certain speed, say 72 mph, as I hit the ramp.

I want to be in fifth gear and accelerating as I first touch those boards, so that 60 feet later I'm doing 90 to 95 mph as I leave them.

For the next three or four seconds I'm in the air, and it's a busy time.

I have to keep the cycle level. It means using my brakes in midair, hitting them two or three times and releasing. All the power of the rear wheel racing around can bring the spinning front wheel down.

I pop the back brake to avoid flipping over, head first.

If I hit too much back brake, the bike can rear up so you're vertical, so I have to hit the front brake.

If I just kill the motor to stop the spin, I'll come down two or three times as hard, and that's not desirable.

By now, my three seconds are about up, and it's time to take a look at where I'm landing. If it's a place with crosswinds, we try to make the landing ramp a bit wider -- eight feet, maybe -- so there is a margin for drift.

I also have to see what there is to land on. When I jumped an oncoming locomotive in Palestine, Texas, I cleared the smokestack and then had to look for my landing ramp, lock up the wheels as I raced down the plywood and skid into dirt and sand.

When I did my Grand Canyon world record jump of 228 feet, the Hualapai Indians sprinkled powder to keep me safe, and asked me not to bang into the rocks or bushes because they are sacred.

I crossed the gorge about 2,500 feet above the canyon floor, and got onto the landing ramp just fine, but I was doing almost 100 mph. I got off the ramp and went into the rocks, cactus and finally hay bales but I hung onto the bike until I crashed.

I was wearing leathers with pads at the shoulders, knees, hips and elbow, but I was still banged up. I re-broke three cracked ribs, wrenched my ankle and got a pretty good beating.

On that Grand Canyon jump, which is still the longest ever, I didn't wear a parachute because it would have weighed me down and could have unbalanced the bike. It's always a balancing act with ballistics, and every situation is a new set of problems to be solved.

I have some stunts in mind, for the future: Helicopter to helicopter, maybe another skyscraper to skyscraper jump, where I'd have to land on a dime and stop from 100 mph to zero in a matter of feet.

It's that, or slide off the landing area, and take a long drop. I thought that was one tough stunt, but I have a bigger, more dramatic jump in mind.

My dad Evel tried to jump the Snake River in 1974. His parachute opened before he was all the way across, and he drifted down into the canyon. I've wanted to do that jump ever since.

I'm working on a nitrous-oxide rocket bike, a drag racer that will take me over 200 mph and fly me a half mile across that canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho.

I calculate the trajectory will arc up to about 700 feet above the river at its apex, but it will be the air speed -- not the huge height -- that will make it impossible for me to attempt a ground landing.

If you hit the ground at 200 mph, your brains will come out of your ears. I don't plan for that.

I'll have parachutes on both the bike and myself so that when I'm across I can steer myself to a softer landing.

I'm taking sky diving lessons, but as a precaution, the chute will deploy automatically at a certain point so that if I am unconscious or unable to pull the ripcord, I'll still have a chance of surviving.

I'm not afraid. I'm a pro, I plan my jumps meticulously, and I have God on my side. He watches over me.

I know that when I say: "Hey God, look at this," and fire up that rocket fuel, He'll smile and sigh and carry me safely across the Snake River canyon.

I don't expect to be relaxed, I expect it will be like every other jump: I leave the launch ramp knowing, absolutely for certain, that I'm going to crash, and spend the next handful of seconds as stiff as a brick waiting for the impact.

I'll rocket across that river gorge, thump down and climb to my feet again, pumped at doing it, and grateful to be around.

I'll hug my family, get my injuries fixed, and then get ready to try something else. My dad will either die of envy or he'll fall on my neck and kiss me!

-- Updated: July 30, 2004

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