Evel Comes to Cooperville

The car dealer who brought America’s showstopper to his small town.
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Jun 8, 2014 | By Matthew Ankeny

One weekend in June of 1972, Evel Knievel came to Cooperville on a red, white and blue Harley Davidson XR 750. Jack Cooper, the owner of Cooperville Car Dealership, had met Evel a few weeks earlier at the Las Vegas Hilton. Jack remembered Evel saying, in passing, “I may just come to Oklahoma and jump your cars.”

Then nothing happened. A few weeks passed. Nothing. Then, Jack got a phone call. A switchboard operator had a guy on the line who wanted to ask him about tickets to watch “Evel Knievel jumping over Jack’s Oldsmobiles.” Jack was befuddled. Evel was on his way.

Jack had organized a race at the Fairgrounds, and Knievel and crew were joining the weekend. Now remember, this was the 70s, and Evel was still in the prime of his showmanship. He’d jumped into the Snake River Canyon with a rocket on his back. He’d flown over cars by the dozen. He’d set a record for bones broken in one human body.

A crowd poured into the grandstands at the Oklahoma State Fairground. Evel was dressed in white leather. The red, white and blue Harley purred.

The day was covered—most likely, the memory is a bit spotty—by Patty Roloff. She ran a creative agency in the area, and they were wrapped up in the weekend’s activities. She doesn’t quite remember pressing the shutter on the pictures that document the event, but she remembers the weekend. And, one way or another, a box of pictures arrived in the Jack Cooper’s attic, with a clear label: “Evel Knievel slides & film, 1972.”

Cooper’s grandson, Garrett Colton, unearthed the slides and dusted off the photographs. He asked his grandfather about the event. Jack replied in stride, “Oh yeah, we did a couple things with Evel. He was a buddy of mine.”

Colton pressed the issue, digging up facts and dates on the grand coming of the great Evel Knievel to the dusty plains of Oklahoma. He collected his findings in an excellent essay titled, “Color Me Lucky”—the mantra Evel wrote on every helmet. That introduces his recently published, compact, limited-run book of photographs from the weekend, Evel Comes to Cooperville.

The photos—a short selection shared here—give a slice of rural Americana, a show-stopping, heart-racing weekend when Harley’s roared, Evel Knievel had entire crowds holding their breath, and an unsuspecting car dealer, Jack Cooper, was the king of showbiz, for one, shining moment.

You can see all the photos, and read Garrett Colton’s introductory essay, in Evel Comes to Cooperville.

Images ©: Done to Death Projects.