BRIDGEPORT — In 1973, Big Ed Beckley made his first motorcycle jump, soaring over five cars in the small town of Dighton, Kan.Then 23, Beckley earned $350 for the feat during the heyday of famed motorcycle jumper Evel Knievel.Beckley was hooked. “The coolest thing was I got paid more in that one night than I did in a week at the truck stop,” said Beckley, who lived in Scott City, Kan., at the time. “I was like, ‘Whoa, no wonder Evel is doing this.’ His lifestyle looked really cool, and that’s what I wanted to do.”The next year, Beckley watched with fascination as Knievel tried to fly over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. That attempt, which drew worldwide attention, failed when the parachute opened prematurely, sending Knievel down into the canyon, where he landed near the river’s edge. He had only minor injuries.Beckley never forgot the stunt.With the 40th anniversary arriving next September, Beckley, now 63, plans to star in the sequel to Knievel’s jump.On Sept. 27, he bid a whopping $943,000 in an Idaho state auction to lease the landing site on one side of the canyon.“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Beckley said with a laugh. “I’ve got a lot to learn how to fly this thing so I don’t smash into the north rim of that canyon wall.”The first order of business for Beckley — who calls himself the “world’s largest motorcycle jumper” — is to lose weight. He’s already dropped about 100 pounds, down from a peak of 389.Then, riding a rocket-assisted motorcycle that has yet to be built, he plans to soar across the canyon on Sept. 7, 2014, the day before the 40th anniversary of Knievel’s jump.Beckley insists that he will have a better outcome than Knievel.“He got himself a big bottle rocket,” Beckley said. “He actually made it to the north rim, but the parachute opened early and blew back into the canyon. My deal is completely different.”Money to be madeWeight loss isn’t the only challenge facing Beckley.He will have to reach speeds above 300 mph, then fly his rocket-powered motorcycle 1,600 feet across the canyon, then slow down enough to land safely on the other side with the help of parachutes. While he has made numerous jumps, his longest has been 156 feet, a fraction of the canyon’s span. “The only problem is you’ve got to be doing over 300-something mph through the top of this deal and about 400-something feet in the air,” Beckley said. “This canyon is not some other motorcycle jump. This canyon is 460 feet deep and about 1,600 feet across.”While he plans, Beckley has one more event scheduled locally. On Oct. 19, he will jump over 10 cars at a festival in Boyd. But the Snake River jump is taking up most of his time.At his office behind his home in Bridgeport, which is filled with photographs and posters of previous jumps, as well as several motorcycles, Beckley has been swamped with calls from around the country since he won the auction.A promoter best known for his monster truck and motocross shows, he relishes the possible financial windfall from jumping the canyon.With two other main investors, Beckley believes he can sell the television rights for a multimillion-dollar sum.“There’s only three principal investors, including Ed Beckley,” he said. “And I’m the one that stands to reap the most benefits.”If this one succeeds, Beckley — in true Evel Knievel fashion — boasts that he will do jumps across the Mississippi River in St. Louis and the Nile River in Egypt.‘Having a lot more fun’Beckley moved to Texas in 1974 and regularly did motorcycle jumps at a track in Odessa. He was badly injured that year when the handlebar of his motorcycle impaled his leg in a crash.He wouldn’t jump for four years as he recovered.When he returned in 1978, motorcycle jumps were at the height of their popularity, and he crisscrossed the country appearing at drag strips and raceways.At one point, he came up with the idea of trying to jump from one World Trade Center tower to another. In his office, Beckley has a framed photo of himself standing in front of the towers. He says the stunt was called off when New York Mayor Ed Koch was voted out of office and replaced by David Dinkins.During the 1980s, Beckley jumped at places like Reunion Arena, Madison Square Garden and the Silverdome outside Detroit. In the Madison Square Garden jump, he said, he propped his bike up against a security guard’s toilet so he would have enough takeoff distance.In 1994, he stopped jumping and became more focused on his son’s motorcycle racing career.He would start jumping again in 2012 but was injured in a test jump at an event in Salt Lake City. He spent days in intensive care, then recovered from his injuries and jumped 10 cars in Billings, Mont., in June 2012.His website, bigedbeckley.net, details his recent jumps and the plans for his Snake River adventure.“I just kind of got off into his life, and now I’m getting back into mine and I’m having a lot more fun,” Beckley said.‘Cautious optimism’Even though Beckley has committed nearly $1 million to the Snake River jump, it isn’t guaranteed to take place. He still must win over a number of officials in the Twin Falls area.“We’ll certainly be looking forward to the opportunity to capitalize on the anniversary of the Evel Knievel jump,” said Shawn Barigar, president and chief executive officer of the Twin Falls Chamber of Commerce. “But I’ll be honest: There are a lot of unknowns right now.”Other state and local agencies must also sign off, Barigar said.“The process that happened with the state only dealt with the landing side of this jump,” said Barigar, who also serves on the Twin Falls City Council. “There will still be an application and permitting process for our side of the canyon.”The hesitancy stems not only from ensuring the safety of the jump but also from making sure that Twin Falls doesn’t take a financial hit.During the Evel Knievel jump, some vendors were left with unpaid bills. “Some of it is fact and some of it is folklore,” Barigar said. “It’s hard to know what happened 40 years later.”But Barigar said there is support for the jump if it is done correctly. Forty years later, the jump site is still a tourist attraction.“I think there is cautious optimism,” Barigar said. “… People back then didn’t understand the scope and impact, but this time people are certainly thinking about the possibilities.”Beckley began wooing Twin Falls officials more than a year ago. He understands the doubts, but he believes he can address those concerns and bring a lot of attention to the city.“I want to be elected mayor, not burned at the stake when I’m done,” Beckley said.
Bill Hanna, 817-390-7698 Twitter: @fwhanna