Tommy Pearson will attempt to jump a canyon with no backup safety plan.
|[Photo courtesy of Allan Mason]
Tommy Pearson has his wife's support, but one of his five children wonders whether he will be there for her eighth birthday party in July.
By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 2, 2001
Tommy Pearson gazes at the grandeur, the layers of rocks and earth, the auburns and rusts and tans millions of years in the making. He steps to the edge of the sheer drop and glances down to the dry stream bed and rubble 400 feet beneath his feet.
He steps back and turns to a friend.
"I'm freakin' crazy," he says. "This is insane."
This is what passes through the mind of a 40-year-old daredevil trying to Evel Knievel himself into American folklore -- without tumbling into oblivion.
Sunday, Pearson says, he will climb behind the steering wheel of a 1989 T-bird, floor it, hit a 69-foot-long ramp at 100 mph and soar 263 feet or more across that chasm called Jackass Canyon in central Arizona.
Two hundred and sixty-three feet. Any decent major-league outfielder can throw a ball that far on the fly. With luck, even someone who has never swung a golf club can hit a ball that far. And if it falls a bit short, so the ball bounces once.
Two hundred and sixty-two feet and, if one believes the hype, Pearson will slam into the canyon wall and plunge to his death. Then again, if one believes the hype, he's jumping the Grand Canyon. He's not. Jackass Canyon in the Navajo Nation, about 35 miles south of Page, Ariz., is a dry wash about 2 miles east of the Grand Canyon.
Nonetheless, Pearson says he has no escape route, no backup plan, no parachute to deploy and allow him to drift to earth the way Knievel did 27 years ago in his failed attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a rocket-powered motorcycle.
"Either way," Pearson says, "I guarantee I'm going to crash into something, the canyon wall or the catch cars," the shells of 90 cars stacked on the opposite side to cushion his landing.
Pearson was born and raised in Birmingham, Ala., and grew up around racing. Neil Bonnett, Bobby Allison and the rest of the Alabama Gang were friends and neighbors. David Pearson, three-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion, is a third cousin. Tommy's father, a cabinetmaker, occasionally ran with Red Farmer at Birmingham International Raceway.
Tommy started on bicycles. At 13, he tried to jump a 40-yard concrete-walled lake behind his house. He overjumped the landing and crashed. "I ended up busting my ribs and going to the hospital and getting chewed out by my mom and going out and doing it again," successfully, he says. "I didn't want to let it beat me."
Soon he was going through walls of fire on his bike and, at age 15, jumping over five cars and through flames at the Alabama State Fair. At 17 he graduated to driving motorcycles through flaming walls. In his signature stunt these days, six cars are lined up 15 feet apart, propped up on their rear bumpers and set afire and Pearson slams his car into each one, flipping it and, he hopes, passing underneath each before it comes down. He calls it Flaming Dominoes.
Risking life and limb is what he does for a living. "I went down on a stunt once and said, "Okay, fine. That's it,' and went out and got a job in security. I didn't like it. I didn't like punching the clock. I didn't like getting chewed out, so I came back to this."
He says he's jumping Jackass Canyon for what could be a windfall if enough people watch him on pay-per-view television. He hasn't been able to pick up any sponsors for it since he dreamed it up two years ago.
"They say they don't want to get involved because of the risk and bad publicity that could come out of it. They all say I'm crazy. ... Hey, I know this is nuts, but I've already signed the contract. This is something I've got to to, a door I've got to enter."
Pearson says he has broken most of his ribs at least once, fractured his collarbone, his shoulder and various other bones. He has been hospitalized, he says, eight weeks at a stretch. "Never thought I was dying, that I had to get out of this business," he says, "but I do say I've got 10 years left in it. ...
"Maria (his wife) likes it because I enjoy doing it. It is breathtaking. It's cool, but the risk involved, the dangers involved, mainly when they have to cut me out of a car or pull me out of the flames, things like that, she doesn't like that. When I'm laying on the ground unconscious and she doesn't know, "Is this it or not?' that's the part she doesn't like."
"I always go with him, and then to the hospital," Maria says. "He's been busted up pretty good. Sometimes I wish he didn't want to be (a daredevil), that he didn't have to go through with this (canyon jump). But he's bored with the 9-to-5. That's what I've got. I'm the boring one."
Then there's the matter of their five children.
"I'm honest with them, tell them the truth," he says. "I've told them this is the career I'm in and, yeah, maybe sometime I won't ever come home and that if it happens it's God's will."
Adam, 16, wants nothing to do with stunt driving. Joshua, 15, wants to jump motorcycles. Jonathan, 14, wants to jump cars. Carolyn, 13, is ambivalent. And Summer turns 8 on July 31. "My little daughter asked me, "You going to be here for my birthday?' I told her, "Yeah, I'll be here. Don't you worry about it.' "
Maria Pearson says she has never tried to steer the children away from careers as daredevils -- "Whatever they choose when they grow up, it's up to them and I'll support them" -- or to persuade Tommy to find another line of work or dissuade him from trying this stunt for the sake of the children. "I know it would break his heart if I stopped supporting him," she says. "I just told him, "Try and make sure you're able to do it. You concentrate on the jump; I'll deal with the kids.' "
Tommy Pearson says he is no more crazy than a police officer or firefighter or astronaut. That is how he justifies this stunt. That's what he told the former Maria Acosta when he persuaded her to marry him 16 years ago.
"Someone puts on a badge and patrols the streets, he's putting his life on the line," Pearson says, pretty much repeating his argument of proposal to her. "Someone busts into a building engulfed in flames, same thing. Someone sits on top of a rocket, same thing. I go out and entertain people. I put my life on the line, but I enjoy it."
Did she buy it?
"No," Maria Pearson says, laughing. "Oh, I knew he was doing stunts and stuff. I told him, "You go and do what you want to do.' But I never thought it would turn into this."
Maria works for an insurance company near the family's Las Vegas home. Yes, she says, there's a pretty big policy on Tommy's life. Yes, the payments are pretty big, too. "And, no," she adds without being asked, "I never want to collect on it."
* * *
WHO: Tommy Pearson.
WHAT: Jackass Canyon Jump.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Sunday.
TV: Pay-per-view, $19.95.
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