Looking back on a life of risk-taking and death-defying stunts, land speed record holder Kitty O’Neil declared, “I’m not afraid of anything. Just do it. It feels good when you finish. You made it.” Her words speak not only to her own love of speed but also offer encouragement to anyone contemplating a new challenge.
Our newest exhibition, Daredevils, looks at those who have attempted death-defying feats such as jumping a canyon or going faster than anyone thought imaginable. For daredevils and risk-takers, the High Desert’s playas and canyons have long provided a setting to test the limits of what’s possible. This original exhibition considers the cultural significance of daredevils against the backdrop of the challenges of the 1970s, including the Vietnam War, an economic recession and an unfinished civil rights movement. It was a time with some similarities to our own, as we navigate the uncertainty of a global pandemic and confront the nation’s racist past and present.
The exhibition highlights some of the best-known daredevils, such as Evel Knievel and Kitty O’Neil, considering how they became larger-than-life symbols of hope, freedom and independence.
It includes objects from High Desert stunts, such as the 1966 Triumph motorcycle that Denny Edwards, known as “The Flying Irishman,” jumped when he came out of retirement for a final jump just a few years ago. It showcases a helmet and jumpsuit worn by Kitty O’Neil, who set a land speed record in Oregon’s Alvord Desert in 1976.
O’Neil averaged 512.71 miles per hour, reaching a maximum speed of 618 mph, and held the women’s record for over 40 years. It features the leathers worn by Oregon native Debbie Lawler when she broke Evel Knievel’s record for the longest motorcycle jump, traveling 101 feet and clearing 16 Chevy pickups in 1974. Knievel later regained the record in Portland, Oregon, but Lawler still holds the record for the longest jump by a woman.
Through a playful and engaging exhibition for all ages, Daredevils explores the meaning risk-taking plays in our lives and why these individuals capture our imaginations.