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Blast from the past: Motorcyclist Travis Pastrana jumps over Caesars Palace fountains, outdoing Evel Knievel

Blast from the past: Motorcyclist Travis Pastrana jumps over Caesars Palace fountains, outdoing Evel Knievel
Travis Pastrana jumps the fountain at Caesars Palace on a motorcycle July 8 in Las Vegas. (John Locher / Associated Press)

Travis Pastrana didn’t jump the Caesars Palace fountains with a motorcycle Sunday. It was a time machine — hitting the ramp precisely at 56 mph and sending some in the crowd all the way back to 1967.

Clifford Branan saw Pastrana. But the 57-year-old was also remembering how, as a young boy, he watched Evel Knievel on TV’s “Wide World of Sports” wipe out trying to make the same jump more than five decades ago.

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“It made me nostalgic,” he said. “At that time, it was unbelievable.”

Branan was visiting Las Vegas with his son, Ford, from Oklahoma. The 22-year-old said he hadn’t seen Knievel’s iconic jump until Sunday. On YouTube.

Ford Branan said seeing Knievel’s body slide down the landing ramp like a limp doll was disconcerting. But his generation has seen a lot of wild stunts online — growing up in an era of X Games and the television show “Jackass.”

Pastrana’s stunts — which also included jumping 52 crushed cars and then 16 Greyhound buses before clearing the fountains — drew thousands on the Las Vegas Strip. There was a hashtag, of course. It was broadcast live on the History Channel and streamed online by Caesars Palace. And it was a success.

Knievel’s jump was seen widely when “Wide World of Sports” obtained the video after the abrupt ending and aired it on ABC.

Michael Green, associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said a lot has changed in the 51 years since Knievel tried to make the leap. Except this: Las Vegas has always loved a spectacle and, in that era of the late 1960s and 1970s, Caesars Palace was a focal point as a luxurious themed hotel.

Caesars Palace had four people previously try to jump the fountains, including Knievel. In 1980, Gary Wells gave it a try and failed. Robbie Knievel, Evel’s son, successfully made the jump in 1989. And in 2006, Mike Metzger did it.

But Green said the casino has also been gradually overshadowed with the construction of larger casino resorts in recent decades. During Pastrana’s jump, it was noted the stunt rider had a lot less ramp to accelerate and land on because of the growth on the Strip.

“It stands out less,” Green said. “Partly because there is so much more around it.”

Pastrana’s stunt was aimed at honoring Knievel. Pastrana, the founder of Nitro Circus — which features a variety of stunt-driven entertainment — said that even though he was born in the 1980s, he was well aware of Knievel from his parents. He even owns Knievel toys — some of which now sell on EBay for more than $200.

In a statement, Pastrana said the stunts were “an opportunity to pay tribute to the man who inspired a generation to live for the moment and not be afraid to take chances.”

But Gary Gray, a 48-year-old from Minnesota who was in the stands awaiting Pastrana’s attempt to jump the fountains, said the whole event was about nostalgia.

He said he remembered seeing the Knievel wreck on the fountain landing, which left the stuntman with multiple broken bones. He had the Knievel toys. He got into motorcycles and ultimately landed a job with Indian Motorcycle, the maker of Knievel’s bike.

Gray said that Knievel was inspirational and that one of his most treasured possessions is a framed letter he got from the daredevil decades ago with a business pitch.

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“I’ve told people that if I ever move my office, they can break anything in there — except that letter,” he said.

Fans in the stands watching Pastrana’s jump wore Knievel tribute shirts and Caesars had a wax figure in the hotel registration area where a line of people waited to pose for a picture with it. A man rode a bicycle on the sidewalk on the Strip wearing an Evel Knievel outfit. A pizza joint in downtown Las Vegas called Evel Pie hosted a watch party for the event.

Pastrana wore a replica of Knieval’s leather jumpsuit for his three stunts as well — despite temperatures in excess of 104 degrees. And his ride from a lot behind Planet Hollywood Hotel & Casino where the bus and car jumps took place to Caesars Palace on the Strip almost brought traffic to a halt.

From the stands above the heads of the thick crowd, all that could be seen heading down Las Vegas Boulevard was a Knievel-like helmet and a fluttering cape.

If it weren’t for the ubiquitous pose of people holding cellphones taking pictures, the full-size wall promo for Donny and Marie Osmond on the Flamingo hotel and the sounds of Rage Against the Machine blasting from speakers, one could’ve imagined it was Knievel himself heading to the ramp.

Pastrana weaved his way through the crowd on his bike and headed to the starting point. He revved the engine several times and accelerated quickly. The crowd was on its feet. The motorcycle — a virtual replica of what Knievel jumped on — sailed through the air.

Clifford Branan watched it all live. And, for the briefest of moments, the past was present again.

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