Quest to Jump 200 Feet: The Tragic Years of 1973 and 1974


Unless someone does a YouTube, Google News search or orders a rare, expensive DVD or book, not much is known about the other motorcycle jumpers during the 1970s. It’s all about Evel Knievel. That fact created a lot of animosity back then and there was an immense level of competition to set and break jumping records by all of these guys. We have all heard of Evel Knievel, for he was and is the most famous showman and motorcycle jumper of all time. But, today we are going to take a look at two other men who were just as good on a bike, had wrecked less than Evel, but whose lives were forever changed, one ending in death, the other in paralysis. Coincidentally, they were both named Bob and were both in competition with each other, with Evel and the rest.

For years, 200 feet was seen as the distance limit for jumping a speeding motorcycle from a ramp. Contrary to popular belief, Evel did not always hold all of the records or make the most number of successful jumps. His counterparts did. And they, who are often called “copycats”, are hardly known at all. Two are worth remembering here on this blog today, for this blog is about strange and bizarre history.

Let’s get into it, shall we?

1973

Bob Pleso was a wiry, yet handsome, 22 year old kid that hailed from Ohio. He now performed his motorcycle feats across the southeast but his new home base was in Ocala, Florida. Being a non-smoker and non-drinker, Bob often criticized the drinking Knievel, saying that the elder jumper was a bad influence on kids. That said, Bob wore a look-alike Evel Knievel leather riding outfit and helmet and had 66 successful jumps to his name, mostly at county fairs, drag strips and car shows along the eastern United States.

Some cool photos of Bob Pleso via this video slideshow. Music by Stan Meissner. Credit to cyclejumpers.com and Bob’s brother, Bill.

Pleso was cocky, had a quiet confident charm but when he said something, he meant it. By 1973, he had nurtured a real criticism and disrespect for Evel Knievel, whom he referred to as the “greatest con man in America”. This seemed to be his feeling for the upcoming Snake River Canyon rocket car jump, which he thought of as a sham and easy money for Knievel.

Pleso’s longest jump up to this time was 161′ over 15 cars. That’s well over half a football field and equal to what Evel was achieving at the time. Unofficially, Pleso had once jumped 212′, but it was not counted as a world record. This fact would make him even more obsessed with the 200 foot mark. It was eating at him. Thus, the world record in 1973 was held by Bob Gill who had jumped 171′ over 22 cars. We will talk about the amazing Bob Gill later on in this article.

On Sunday, August 4, 1973, relying on physics and his expert training, the young Bob Pleso planned to leave a jumping record that would sit him alone at the top of the jumping world for quite some time. He would at least die trying. With Evel Knievel making successful jumps around the country as a warm-up to his Snake River jump, Pleso was not going to just sit around and miss all of the limelight. Spectators who were there that day at rural Phenix City Dragway are still leaving comments on YouTube and message boards. It was a terrible thing to see. Indeed, Bob did try to jump 200′ over 30 cars. He was going 95 mph, but the wind kicked up on takeoff and Bob just barely clipped the 29th car which prevented his triumphant landing. There would be no record broken that day. Bob would leave behind a young wife, and be survived by his parents and younger brother. Only his brother was at the jump that fateful day in Phenix City, Alabama.

Bob warming up the crowd on the last day of his life.

The video of Bob’s crash has long been on the internet, and is most often mislabeled or tagged as some other rider like Evel, or Robin Winter-Smith. But, here it is… Bob’s wreck and final moments. Warning: Bob died a few hours later from massive internal injuries and fractures. Viewer discretion.

Bob’s motorcycle crash is the first stunt in this video. The US flags were always on his take off ramps:

Newspaper clipping after the jump:

Rock Hill Herald. Aug 5, 1974 “Pleso dies in cycle jump”

Today:  The entrance to rural Phenix City Race Park in Alabama

Phenix City Drag Strip in 1965

Another view from 1965. Bob Pleso would crash here 8 years later.

1974

If Pleso was seen as the handsome antagonist to Evel Knievel, then Bob Gill aka “the Florida Flyer” was seen as businesslike and a modest showman. He avoided the limelight, was soft spoken, quite shy and even wore a rather nondescript jumping outfit. Gill was however friends with Evel, as there is footage of the two men hanging out together. In his career, Bob Gill made over 100 successful jumps and he was the world record holder for a few years. He even appeared in a Super Bowl commercial in 1973 for Ryder Trucks, where he jumped over some of their rentals:

Bob Jumping Ryder Trucks for Super Bowl Commercial, 1973

Bob always added a twist to his performances. In 1972, he jumped over something called “Cajun Canyon” outside of New Orleans, LA. Check this out:

That’s pretty kick ass for 1972!

However, Bob’s legacy would be jumping over Appalachian Lake in West Virginia in August, 1974. It would be a year after Bob Pleso’s death and again be over 200′. Gill would jump over a body of water onto a flat landing surface with no room for error. Rain delays would postpone the jump for a week, with Bob almost being mobbed by drunk bikers and angry ticket holders when the event was delayed. It would be a bad omen of things to come.

I’m sold! Where do I buy a ticket?

Appalachian Lake, West Virginia. This is the jump site as it looks today. Back in 1974 it was a dirt racing track that could accommodate a large group of people. Bob stood to make $30,000 off this 200 foot jump.

I am not sure which side he was jumping from

Aerial view, 1970s. You can see the dirt racing tracks in the general area.

To make a long story short, Bob missed the landing by mere feet, and crashed into the opposite bank. He would be paralyzed from the waist down and spend a lifetime supporting this cause and research for spinal recovery victims. Bob is still alive and when not promoting his causes, he resides in sunny Florida.

You can see footage of the Appalachian Lake jump in this awesome documentary video:

Second Chance: A Miracle at Full Throttle

The record of jumping 200′ successfully would not be broken for another 5 years, but as always with cycle jumping, that is up for debate and endless argument.

Sources

Bob Gill’s web site. http://www.bobgilldaredevillegend.com/

Lakeland Ledger. “Faith in Isaac Newton Not Enough For Pleso”. Aug 18, 1973.

YouTube

CycleJumpers.com

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