Leap of Fate

Big Ed's big plan to jump the Snake


We had to ask.

Boise Weekly was quizzing "Big" Ed Beckley about how engineers were designing special jet engines to propel his motorcycle across Idaho's Snake River Canyon; we asked about his inspiration--Evel Knievel--and how Beckley, in 1971, saw Knievel jump some trucks at the Kansas State Fair, propelling Beckley to become a daredevil himself; and we asked him how he scraped up $1 million for the right to jump over the Snake.

And then we finally just had to ask:

Are you crazy?

"Ya' think?" Beckley, 63, said with a Texas-sized laugh. "Yeah, I'm a little off to the left field. Ya' know what? I'm way past left field."

And for all of the silliness surrounding Beckley's bid to fly over the Snake on Sept. 8, 2014--the 40th anniversary of an ill-fated attempt by Knievel--there's a serious side to Beckley's madness.

"Oh yeah, this is serious money," Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told BW. "Big Ed wired $943,000 to the state of Idaho on Oct. 4 and that was on top of the $25,000 he'll pay each year in a two-year lease. And then, Idaho will get its percentage of his revenues on a number of things."

The $968,000, already sitting in an Idaho Department of Lands bank account, has been earmarked for Idaho K-12 public schools. Beckley is also required to fork over 3 percent of gross revenues from television and sponsorship rights and another 5 percent of gross revenue from all other income streams connected with the jump.

The Idaho Department of Lands manages 2.4 million acres of state endowment land, and that includes a 1,100-acre block of endowment trust land on the north side of the Snake River Canyon where Beckley, if he's successful, would land.

Evel Knievel never made it to the north side. In his 1974 attempt over the Snake, a parachute deployed even before Knievel's so-called "skycycle" had left his launching ramp on the south side. Knievel and his malfunctioning machine drifted to the bottom of the canyon.

"Knievel paid Idaho $5,000 for his permit back in 1974," said Ysursa. "Nobody else even bid for it back then."

Ysursa should know. Just a few months before Knievel's 1974 jump, Ysursa was hired to be a legal officer in the Secretary of State's office, where he would spend the next 39 years, becoming the man in charge in 2002.

"Let me think now; I really need to refresh my memory. I do remember Knievel and his people coming around, telling us that they wanted to jump the canyon," said Ysursa.

Perhaps the biggest change between Knievel's attempt and Beckley's plan to jump the canyon can be tied to a ruling from the Idaho Supreme Court in 2012. That's when Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden sued the Idaho Land Board, saying it wasn't generating sufficient income from state endowment lands. The high court agreed.

"And because of that decision, the Department of Lands doesn't just accept any new application to use state land, we open it up to the market," said Emily Callihan, public information officer for the department. "And this year, we had applications from five groups saying they were interested in a lease for the state land in order to jump the canyon."

IDOL required $25,000 a year for a two-year lease to use the north side of the canyon. But that was just for starters. It was up to the five competitors to up the ante through so-called "bonus bids."

"I have to tell you, conventional wisdom was that the winning bonus bid would go for something like $150,000, maybe $200,000. But..." Ysursa took a deep breath. "My Lord."

On Sept. 27, all five competitors came to the IDOL headquarters to participate in a bonus bid auction, with a starting bid of $10,000.

"It took about an hour. Things began inching up, most of it in $1,000 increments," said Callihan.

Ysursa made a point of witnessing the unique auction.

"I'm a Land Board commissioner and I was absolutely amazed. The bidding slowed down a little bit, and then we said, 'This is for the school children.' And then Big Ed just smiled that smile," said Ysursa. "The auctions I go to are usually some Lincoln Day thing where we get $25 for a basket of cookies. But this was unbelievable."

Which prompts the question: Where did Beckley get the $943,000 that was wired to the state of Idaho seven days after the auction?

"I'm connected with some oil people," Beckley told BW. "They're investors, really good friends who want to see this happen."

Beckley said he and his investors' main source of revenue will come through television rights to broadcast the jump (he said he was still negotiating with ABC and the Discovery Network). But when BW asked him how much those broadcast rights might go for, he was a bit coy--at least until we guessed $10 million.

"Boy, you hit it right on the number. That's the minimum we're looking for," he said.

Meanwhile, there's the little matter of hauling his butt over the canyon. And Beckley is hoping that his butt is a few sizes smaller come next September.

"In my prime, back in 1984, I was 380 pounds; I outweighed the motorcycle by 100 pounds. I even used to weigh 480 pounds at one point," said Big Ed. "Currently, I'm 280 pounds, but I'm going to try to get down to 250."

Ysursa, who is himself a bit--let's say--on the portly side, joked that he and Beckley "go to the same tailor."

"They're going to need a Saturn rocket to get him across the canyon," he joked.

But Ysursa's joke was more physics than fiction.

"I'll hit that takeoff ramp next October and boom! It will be a rocket engine that will get me to maybe 240 mph and it will kick my bike out of gear," said Beckley. "It will burn for 3.4 seconds and then at an apex of the arc over the canyon, I'll run out of [rocket] fuel. Then we'll deploy a chute, just like a parasail, and I'll click the bike back into gear and when I touch down, I'll ride away."

When BW described the we'll-believe-it-when-we-see-it scenario to Ysursa, he laughed again.

"He's a real character," he said. "I hope he's extremely successful and nobody gets hurt."