Richard Hyatt: Daredevils let egos get in the way

June 25, 2013 

Santiago Rivera pays no attention to the latest daredevil seeking his moment of glory. He remembers Bob Pleso, whose moment in the sky over a Phenix City drag strip ended his life.

Pleso was 22, a cocky little guy who wanted to set records and make money.

On a Sunday afternoon in 1974, the motorcyclist intended to jump 200 feet and 30 Chevrolet Vegas, breaking the world record of 171 feet and 23 cars.

"I'm going to jump so far, it's hard to figure how I'm going to land," he said, a choice of words that is haunting.

Rivera was -- and is -- a cameraman at Channel 38.

He planted his tripod and pointed his bulky camera at the line of Chevy Vegas.

When he heard Pleso's engine, he peered through the lens and waited.

This was an era of carnival daredevils who defied gravity and death. Karl Wallenda walked a tight rope across Tallulah Gorge and another stretched across Atlanta Stadium.

In a few weeks, Evel Knievel would fly across the Snake River -- an event Pleso ragged on.

"Ramp to ramp jumpers are a dime a dozen," Pleso said. "But none of the riches I expect to make would be possible if Evel hadn't broken the ground."

Pleso was going 100 miles an hour when he roared up a five-foot ramp.

There were 30 automobiles and he made it over 27.

He hit No. 28 and cartwheeled 40 feet through the air before landing on the steamy asphalt and skidding another 20 feet.

Above the cars Pleso went one way and his bike went the other.

"I took my eye off the camera and saw his body," Rivera said. "It was like a doll when he hit the ground. Then I saw the motorcycle. I tried to move, and when I did, I moved into its path. It hit me and never hit my camera."

His body in shambles, Rivera waited as medics rushed to Pleso whose body was folded up on the pavement.

"We were together in the same ambulance," Rivera said.

"They tried to save him, but his whole body was busted up. He died at the hospital. It was such a waste. He just a young man who wanted his moment of glory."

Doctors put Rivera back together.

His leg was shattered into 18 pieces and the muscle was destroyed. A metal rod was attached and he was hospitalized more than three months. Thirty-nine years later he still walks with a limp.

I met Pleso that week and accepted his invitation to watch him jump. When we visited, I thought he was backing out.

Conditions weren't right. It was raining and there was a problem with his bike. But ego must have gotten into the way of common sense.

And he never broke a single record.

Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at www.twitter.com/hyattrichard.

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