Jay Agajanian Jr. grew up at his father’s raceway, Ascot Park, in Gardena, California. As a boy growing up in the 1960s, he moved up from working the parking lot to selling programs, then running the ticket office. Eventually he became the trackside announcer. During this time, his father, racing promoter J.C. Agajanian, helped teach a young man from Butte, Montana, named Robert Craig Knievel the finer points of self-marketing. When “Evel” Knievel, as the motorcycle daredevil called himself, became world famous, the junior Jay Agajanian was assigned to accompany him to interviews and appearances.
“He liked having someone to open doors for him, to announce his presence,” recalls Agajanian, one of several of the late stuntman’s associates who appear in ‘Pure Evel,’ a new Discovery Channel documentary on the legendary daredevil premiering Monday, October 14 at 10 pm ET. “He had that black cane with vials of Wild Turkey inside. That’s how he rolled.”
From barrel-jumpers at Niagara Falls and Chuck Yeager breaking the speed of sound to Grand Canyon tightrope walker Nik Wallenda and X Games superstar Travis Pastrana, America has produced no shortage of risk-taking mavericks. But the low-def flashbacks throughout ‘Pure Evel’ – including old ads for the ubiquitous stunt-bike toys that made him a millionaire – are a welcome reminder that none have captured the public’s imagination as completely as did Evel Knievel, in his signature red, white, and blue Elvis-style jumpsuit, from his emergence through the 1970s. He was a routine fixture on ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sports,’ staging outlandish motorcycle jumps over rows of trucks and other obstacles, such as the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. His claim to have broken 433 bones over his lifetime earned him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, and his failed attempt to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a rocket-fueled “jet cycle” in 1974 ensured him everlasting notoriety.
This new documentary, which covers much of the same ground as other accounts of Evel Knievel’s life – History’s 2005 ‘Absolute Evel’ special and Leigh Montville’s 2011 biography, ‘Evel,’ among others – nevertheless features some aptly entertaining commentary. Knievel’s contemporary, Skip Van Leeuwen, for instance, recalls that the stuntman had “an ego that would take two dump trucks to haul around.”
Skeptical crowds often came to see the daredevil crash, says Agajanian, though Knievel usually won them over. “He’d grab the microphone and say, ‘I’ll risk my life for you guys. I’m going to try and give you a great show.’ And every single person would be rooting him on, wishing him across that void. It was amazing what he could do with a crowd.”
Agajanian, who has been around the business of extreme sports his entire life, says no one had the total package of a stuntman’s gifts like Knievel. “He had a plan,” Agajanian tells ‘Men’s Journal.’ “He was highly intelligent and good-looking, and he knew how to attract a crowd. There’s never been anyone like him, and there will never be another one close.”