Mack helps revive Evel Knievel’s spirit

by Sonia Straface

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. – Evel Knievel embodied everything the trucking industry doesn’t want to be associated with today. He was dangerous. He was a risk-taker. And he definitely didn’t take safety into account when he used his motorcycle to jump over lined-up cars and trucks and leaped through the air to widen the eyes of onlookers who watched him attempt a jump over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.

So why was trucking media at the Hollywood premiere of Being Evel, a documentary of his life earlier this week?

Well, that’s simple: Mack Trucks.

Big Red on display at the premiere
The fully restored Mack FS – Evel Knievel’s show truck – was on display at the “Being Evel” premiere. The truck is also known as “Big Red.”

Mack Trucks and Knievel go way back to the 1970s when Knievel was given a 1974 Mack FS786LST – known affectionately as “Big Red” – to use as his show truck when he gained popularity around the globe and travelled from city to city thrilling audiences with his daredevil motorcycle jumps. Big Red went everywhere Evel went, and when it came rolling into town, excitement ensued. Eventually, Mack sponsored him, and so did Harley-Davidson. Besides using the Mack FS as his show truck, Knievel also had ties with the trucking company after he jumped 13 Mack trucks lined up side-by-side during the 1974 Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, Ontario.

Mack Trucks invited trucking media to the documentary’s Hollywood premiere on Wednesday, August 19, 2015 at the ArcLight theatre, where a fully restored Big Red was sitting for Knievel fans to tour and enjoy.

The restoration itself was thanks to a joint effort from Lathan McKay of Evel Knievel Enterprises who is an ex-pro skateboarder, and avid collector of Knievel memorabilia and Historic Harley-Davidson, a dealership in Topeka, Kansas.

“Three years ago I wondered where his memorabilia was and I did some research and I found out it was all over the world in pieces…a lot of it was hidden, gifted, given away, stolen, and auctioned,” McKay said.

Through his research, McKay knew where Big Red was – rotting away in Clearwater, Florida – and eventually purchased it along with thousands of other Knievel items.

“I found a guy with three sets of leathers and eventually acquired them,” he said, claiming that all skateboarders have an interest in Knievel because of the dangerous nature of the sport. “Then I got a helmet next and it just snowballed from there.”

After acquiring Big Red, McKay called Historic Harley-Davidson in Topeka for advice on who could restore the truck, since he knew the facility had done motorcycle restorations.

“I was a big Evel fan but this wasn’t anything on the radar for us,” said Mike Patterson, owner of Historic Harley-Davidson. “They called us for advice to see if I knew anyone who could restore the Mack Truck because we had restored the motorcycles, so he thought we might know something about who does restorations. But just in a moment, I blurted out that we restore Mack Trucks and they believed me. So now I find out we actually do – because we did it.”

The refurb took a year and half and $300,000 to complete. According to McKay and Patterson, it was a “bolt-by-bolt” restoration and everything inside and outside of the truck is exactly the way it was back in the ‘70s when Knievel himself travelled in it. A total of 96 people worked on the restoration from start to finish, claimed Patterson.

“The engine and transmission are all original,” Patterson said. “We took it all apart – it was a complete restoration. The odometer only had 90,000 miles on it…so it just went to shows. But it needed rebuilding.”

Big Red’s trailer on display before the documentary’s premiere in Hollywood

The truck is currently travelling around the country commemorating the daredevil and showing off his possessions that McKay has collected over the years and Mack Trucks is helping the efforts. Announced earlier last month, Mack Trucks provided two Pinnacle models and trailers to haul the tour around from city to city.

McKay said his favourite items he’s collected so far are the leathers and the helmets, and admitted to wearing them on a few occasions. The curtains in Big Red were the hardest to acquire he said, and were only found four months ago – right before the collection and Big Red was debuted in Knievel’s hometown Butte, Montana last month. Big Red also made its way to Sturgis, South Dakota, ­the home of the largest motorcycle rally in the US.

Both McKay and Patterson said the reaction to Big Red so far has been emotional – especially for the Knievel family, who has been working closely with McKay to help find missing items from the collection.

“The first thing Bobby (Knievel’s son) said was ‘It smells exactly the same’,” said Patterson recalling when Evel’s family first stepped into the restored rig.

McKay, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, added that he worked from old photographs to ensure every item that went inside the truck was exact.

“My goal from the beginning was to recreate the entire experience,” McKay said. “Crucial to that is Harley-Davidson and Mack Trucks…and to get his original sponsors back on board, it’s only right and it’s the way it should be. This is really huge for us.”

Big Red will be travelling across the United States for the rest of 2015 as a rolling museum until it parks itself back in Topeka, where Patterson claims the official – and permanent – Evel Knievel museum will reside. There are still a few missing items from the collection, McKay claims – like a few leathers he’s like to get his hands on – but he is working diligently to get them.

“Lathan and I have partnered up (to open the museum),” said Patterson. “He’s got so much stuff. The original idea was to take it all on tour, but there’s so much stuff, too much to take on tour. So we’re touring for a year and then getting a museum opened up (in 2016).”

John Walsh, vice-president of marketing for Mack, said right after the company met McKay and Patterson and saw the passion they had for the Knievel rolling museum, “in our eyes it just had to be a Mack Truck that followed this show around. It just made sense for us.”

Walsh added that the company had no reservations in associating itself with a daredevil, but rather with Evel himself.

“Frankly, when we were considering this, we did a deep dive into his past…and there’s no question like any human being, the guy had flaws and he made mistakes. And he made some pretty big mistakes, but what caught our eye is the commitment to getting the job done. When he committed to doing the jump, he did it,” he said. “Evel was a superhero and we’re proud to be part of this.”

Mack Trucks had Big Red and the Pinnacle parked right outside the documentary’s premiere on Wednesday. Interested patrons were invited to take a quick tour inside the completely restored Mack FS.

Before the premiere, Mack Trucks also invited trucking media to speak with Johnny Knoxville, actor and professional Jackass stuntman, who co-directed the documentary.

Johnny Knoxville at a press roundtable in Hollywood

“In the ‘70s, for me he was it,” Knoxville said adding that Knievel was his childhood idol. “There was Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley, and I loved those guys, but…(Knievel) really got into my bones. I don’t think there would be a Jackass without him. People would show up to see if he would crash, and we just thought…what if we just crash? All our stunts are designed to fail, so I appreciate Evel doing all that lead work for us ahead of time.”

Knoxville said he learned a lot by co-producing the flick, including a lot of things Knievel did before he even started jumping – like how he was a record-setting insurance salesman and how he started a semi-pro hockey team when he was just 19 years old.

“We wanted to celebrate all the things he did and everyone he inspired,” Knoxville said of the documentary’s purpose. “Some of it is great, some of it is hilarious and some of it is disappointing. You peel back the curtain on anyone’s life and that’s probably what you’re going to get.”

Knievel wasn’t just a name – he wasn’t a very good family man, and often cheated openly on his wife, not to mention his accusations of theft.

“That’s part of the disappointing part,” Knoxville said. “That kind of sucked. It was tough to reconcile…and to learn the other side of him. I wish he hadn’t done some of the stuff he did, but I’m glad for the other things he did do.”

Though most people see Knoxville and his Jackass buddies as carrying on Knievel’s tradition by doing crazy but cool stunts for all to see, he denies carrying the torch or being an inspiration to people.

“I just want to entertain people,” he said. “I’m not looking to inspire people to do stunts. We’ve actually asked the opposite of people…There’s warnings all over our show and our movies. I don’t like seeing people get hurt.”

Knoxville added he never met the daredevil, though he had the chance to once. Unfortunately for Knoxville his Jackass castmates ruined his chance and tarnished his name.

“Mat Hoffman who was a producer (of Jackass) was getting an award at ESPN and the (Jackass) guys and I were going to present it to him, and Evel was going to be there,” he recalled.  “So we were all very excited…maybe a little too excited…and we walked up to the stage and someone kicked Wee Man across the stage…(Chris) Pontius was wearing nothing but a little thin belt, doing the helicopter with his penis. So yeah, we were asked to leave right after. Evel was upset at the way we acted…He talked to (Hoffman) about it once and apparently he thinks that I did every one of those things..that I kicked Wee Man and that I did the helicopter.”

Being Evel hits select theatres today, while Big Red is moving on to dazzle onlookers at the Great American Truck Show next week.

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