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Stuntman's canyon rocket jump starts where Evel Knievel left off

Hollywood stunt pro Eddie Braun on why he plans to ride a steam-powered rocket over an Idaho canyon Saturday, more than 42 years after his famous daredevil hero failed in his own attempt.

Eddie Braun

At the height of his epic daredevil career 42 years ago, Evel Knievel attempted to launch himself across Idaho's Snake River Canyon on a steam-powered rocket, but a parachute deployed too early and he drifted to the canyon's bottom.

This Saturday, veteran Hollywood stuntman Eddie Braun hopes to finally reach the other side of that canyon on a nearly identical rocket as an homage to the late Knievel, the hero Braun says inspired him to make a career out of crashing cars and taking epic falls.

I spoke to Braun via phone this week as he prepared to make the trip to Idaho from his home in Southern California. As a child, he said, he pushed his way through the crowd at one of Knievel's famous motorcycle jumps over more than 15 cars to meet the famous daredevil and get his autograph.

"I felt like I touched Superman's cape that day," Braun said.

He would never speak to Knievel again, but says that meeting is "the only reason I became a stuntman."

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Braun and "Evel Spirit."

Eddie Braun

Braun's career has spanned decades and included work for the big and small screens on everything from "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Magnum, P.I." to "The Avengers" and the newly released biopic "Sully" co-produced by Clint Eastwood and starring Tom Hanks. Now in his fifties, Braun's pondering retirement and looking to walk off into the sunset (hopefully without bumps or bruises) after performing his greatest stunt yet.

"I thought, what a better way to end a career than to pay homage to the man that inspired me to get started, kind of like a farewell and good night and a thank you all in one."

The preparations have been years in the making. What's more, Braun's spent most of his life savings from his stunt career -- to the tune of more than $1.6 million -- on this single attempt to become the first person to successfully "jump" the Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls.

Braun has already burned through much of his fortune securing the use of take-off and landing spots on private property on each side of the canyon, the official endorsement of the Knievel family and permission to name his rocket the "Evel Spirit" in Knievel's honor, as well as the construction of a replica of Knievel's own SkyCycle X-2 used in his 1974 attempt to fly over the canyon.

Braun has teamed with Scott Truax, whose dad, Bob, built Evel Knievel's original Sky Cycle.

"Scott had some spare parts and blueprints from the original rocket, so the DNA of this rocket is pretty much fit, form and finish, Evel's rocket," Braun said.

The Evel Spirit looks, appropriately, like something out of an old movie. The rocket has a small cockpit in front where Braun will sit and press an ignition switch that will launch him up a steep-angled ramp and into the sky with the help of a 10,000-horsepower boost.

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Scott Truax, whose father built Knievel's SkyCycle, used the same blueprints to build the "Evel Spirit."

Eddie Braun

"I'm doing this in the same way (Knievel) did it," Braun said. "I am strapping into a steam tin can that in 3.9 seconds is going to get me over 400 miles per hour and hopefully across a very big canyon.

"Listen, this thing is no technological feat. Especially in this modern age, I could build a carbon fiber rocket and remote-control it over there with no problem, but if you step back in time and do it exactly as he did, it becomes a different animal."

While it's important to Braun to perform the jump in the same way his hero originally aspired to, he doesn't like the notion that he's setting out to accomplish something Knievel never could.

"I'm just finishing out what he started," he said. "There's only one Evel Knievel and I'm certainly not him. This is more personal than it is spectacle."

Braun, who has spent most of his career behind the scenes, says he's not interested in making a name for himself, though that might be hard for some to believe given the ambitious nature of his planned stunt. In fact, the majority of our conversation focused on Braun's children and how he hoped to send them a clear message with his biggest stunt yet.

'Just a regular schmuck'

"I'm just a regular schmuck. If I fulfill the dream of my hero and do it through hard work, doing something that's nearly impossible, (then) it's going to be really hard for my kids...to say they can't do something if their dad can pull this off."

Pulling it off is Braun's focus this week.

The early deployment of a parachute doomed Knievel's 1974 attempt because even though his SkyCycle flew far enough to clear the canyon, winds caught the parachute and blew the rocket back over the rim of the canyon toward the side it had launched from. Knievel eventually landed on the floor of the canyon, on the same side of the Snake River he had launched from. He sustained only minor injuries.

Braun and Truax have conducted static tests of the new rocket and have made some colorful adjustments to ensure Braun pulls the three parachutes that should guide him to a safe landing in the correct order. The handles for each parachute are painted red, white and blue like the American flag to indicate the order each chute must be deployed in.

"Red, white and blue... that's something I can remember even under duress," Braun said. "Pull them in that order and I should survive."

The launch is tentatively set for Saturday afternoon with plans for a live television broadcast via a network that has yet to be disclosed. Braun and his team originally launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project, offering the ability to live-stream the jump online or watch in person as incentives. They scrapped the campaign when a television network stepped up and offered a broadcast deal and it became clear live spectators at the site would not be permitted.

While Braun is shooting for a Saturday launch, he stresses that unforeseen mechanical and weather conditions could lead to a delay.

Whenever it finally happens, he hopes it will draw a wide audience by providing a dramatic distraction to what many see as troubled times.

"For that moment I would hope that everyone can agree that it's bitchin' whether you're black, white, Republican, Democrat, whatever," he said. "Can't there just be something that's cool for cool's sake?"

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Snake River Canyon, with the launch pad for "Evel Spirit" visible on the right.

Eddie Braun