Flight Risk

Posted August 13, 2009 in Feature Story

The Teletubbies may be to blame. Ontario’s Michael Hughes may soon be a dead man, and it may turn out to be because of a weird dream fueled by Oompa-Loompa-style puppets. 


The 53-year-old known as “Mad Mike,” who once made a name for himself in sheet-metal NASCAR circles and is now known for his outlandish aerial tricks, is on a mission to attempt his biggest whopper of a stunt yet. 


Hughes plans to recreate Evel Knievel’s X2 Skycycle jump over Snake River Canyon from 35 years ago. And it all came to him after falling asleep in front of the TV. During his slumber the programming changed to the Teletubbies and once the REM kicked in for Hughes, he started dreaming about jumping his limousine across a canyon.


Now, if all goes as Hughes plans—and that’s a big if—he will jump his X-2 Sky Limo Steam Rocket 3,500 feet across Lake Havasu at 350 mph and land on an Indian reservation across the California border. It’s not really a limo, Hughes admits, but then Evel Knievel’s Skycycle wasn’t really a motorcycle either.


White Man Can Jump

Hughes, who started racing mini-bikes at 12, motorcycles at 14 and was a pro flat-track league contender by 17, is his own design team. He has consulted Waldo “Dr. Landspeed” Stakes for help, who designs land speed cars in Apple Valley based on NASA propulsion systems. “I can build a car from scratch,” Hughes says, explaining where his own talents lie. “I understand the physics and engineering.” 


“We want people to be talking about this jump 30 years from now,” Hughes says. “People over 30 still remember that Evel Knievel jump.”


Yes, it does sound like a scene from Hot Rod, Andy Samberg’s 2007 comedy about a self-deluded Knievel wannabe. But it’s totally real. We swear. And it’s been going on long before Lorne Michaels heard a lick of a pitch on the stunt dummy flick.


Hughes may sound batshit crazy. But we’re sort of rooting for him, and are also up for watching him decimate in a ball of fire. We’re like that. It’s really a win-win situation for us. He’s our new underdog, and this underdog needs $50K and a hell of a lot of permits signed off to pull this off. Problem is, no one seems to want to pay up. And there is no need for permits until he has the money.


If you look at Hughes’ website (www.michaelhughes1.com), you would think that he was going to be jumping said Sky Limo Steam Rocket—which is 14.5 feet long and weighs about 1,200 pounds when it takes off—across the canyon on Sept. 7. “Television negotiations are underway,” it proclaims.


But in person you don’t get this same sort of belligerent confidence. He’s really shooting for Thanksgiving weekend if the money comes through.


Instead, on Sept. 6, one day shy of when Hughes hoped to launch his rocket across Lake Havasu, he will instead be in sweltering Lucerne Valley where he will have a test run of a 4-foot, to-scale replica of his rocket limo that he and a friend will launch off the first 10-foot portion of the ramp he plans to use in the big jump. 


NASCAR’s naysays

Hughes has been on the front page of the Los Angeles Times (Inland Empire edition), was featured in The Press-Enterprise in July (also held court as the subject of yours truly’s July 2007 cover story), warmed the sofa on Jimmy Kimmel Live, holds a Guinness World Record Distance entry for jumping 103 feet in a three-ton limo at the Perris Auto Speedway in 2002—and has pissed off just about everyone involved in NASCAR by writing his autobiographical, shit talkin‘ tell-all, What Does a Limo Driver Know About NASCAR?


But then Hughes is no stranger to pissing people off. 


“I’m not too impressed with Robbie Knievel,” Hughes says leaning back in his chair on a sunny day at an Ontario Starbucks. He says Robbie—who most recently caused a stir when he jumped 200 feet next to a mock volcano instead of over it at the Mirage in Las Vegas on New Year’s Eve—has been talking about recreating his father’s infamously unsuccessful jump for about 15 years.


“People talk about doing things, but it’s a whole ’nother thing to do it.”


In a July article, Press-Enterprise’s Mirjam Swanson wrote that Robbie had nothing but disdain for Hughes.


As Hughes explains the intricacies of jumping a sky rocket over a canyon, he disses Robbie further. “I don’t think he has the balls to get in this thing,” he says.


Not surprisingly, Hughes is mostly on his own.


Broken but not shattered

This is the part anyone who has seen Hot Rod or any number of other sports shtick comedies is waiting for. “He was never a driver,” Hughes says describing his father who built racecars and drove in one NASCAR race in 1960. But Hughes’ memories about his father focus more on the fairgrounds the family frequented on the racing circuit. 


“I would wake up to the smell of burning rear-end grease when we would get close to the racetrack,” he says. “That meant the excitement was about to start. It was the only thing that ever meant anything to him—racing.” 


After a bit of reflection, the guy known as the Rocket Man paraphrases something he says he heard that other rocket man, Elton John, say once: “I’m still trying to impress my dad and he’s been dead 10 years.” It’s a sanguine moment, one that seems littered with regret and hope. He should have taken up baseball or golf, Hughes says. That’s where his real talent was. 


So why did some man who lives his life to the tune of a Dr. Seuss quote choose the road less traveled?


“Be who you are, say what you feel, those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind,” he says with a grin.  


In so many ways, this sums up Hughes’ plight in life. “There are people who, no matter what I do, won’t be impressed,” Hughes says.




In his quest for cycle success, Hughes has broken 18 bones, his back twice, his right foot, right ankle, all of his fingers, an elbow, has dislocated his thumb and a shoulder, bruised his ribs and lungs and has had two concussions. 


None of this stops him. So, why?


“Honestly, desperation,” Hughes says. “Like this stunt. In my mind, I don’t think there is anything that can top this.” The broken bones do, however, make it hard to get up in the morning, he admits. But we know what drives him. 




Desperate times . . .

Hughes hopes to one day open his own daredevil-themed museum and restaurant, or at the least, buy a house. He is absolutely upfront about the fact that he is doing this because he wants to get rich, and he wants to do it in a very reckless way. Reckless is all he knows. 


The daredevil stunt is also a little about the adrenaline rush. “Once you do something this exciting, it’s hard to do anything else,” Hughes says. “It’s just sort of bland.”


Then there’s his day job. “Once you get to be the ‘World’s Most Famous Limo Driver,’ you become overqualified for anything else. It intimidates people. I need to be self-employed.”


Here’s the plan of the man who has never sent a text, who calls Twitter tweeter: Internet pay-per-view. And it’s not because that’s where all the money is. It’s because no one at any of the TV networks is interested in what Hughes truly believes in the deepest crevice of his beating heart is going to be the most awesome stunt ever performed whether he lives to tell about it or not. And there is a good chance he won’t.

Bob Arum—the owner of Top Rank Productions who put Evel Knievel’s Snake River Canyon jump on closed-circuit TV and in movie theaters when ABC Sports wanted nothing to do with it—isn’t interested. “He’s a cranky old man,” Hughes says. “Evel Knievel burned out a lot of people.” 


Hughes has sought out alternative ways of sponsoring the event. He’s contacted a toy company, the same candy company that sponsored Evel Knievel, the guy who bought Barry Bonds’ home run bat, European investors—but again and again, the answer has been a firm “No.” Right now, a solar energy company based in Redlands is showing interest if the water used to propel the rocket is heated with solar energy.


Still, Hughes is dumbfounded by the lack of enthusiasm by companies that could make an easy buck off his high-flyin‘ hijinx.


“One guy with a dream”

“They don’t believe it can be successful,” he says. “It made money back then. It made media around the world. Evel Knievel was on the cover of Rolling Stone! And it hasn’t been done, only attempted.” 


He is equally miffed that the same networks turning him down are the very same ones clamoring to put three different shows on the air about tattooing, not nearly as exciting in Hughes’ mind. And Spike Channel’s new sweetheart Jesse James? Don’t even get him started on that daredevil darling. His only offer so far is to buy an hour of airtime for $18,000 from Versus network, which airs Indy car races, hockey, college football and old Rocky movies.


So why aren’t the TV networks banging down his rocket car doors to claim the rights to this gem of an idea? Why isn’t AIG returning his calls for what Hughes says is going to be bigger than the Michael Jackson tour would have been. “Man, I have no idea,” Hughes says. “Maybe they don’t think I can do it.”


He’s done everything he can think of to make this jump happen, he says. But what he hasn’t thought of is throwing in the stuntman-sweat drenched towel and being OK with just being the World’s Most Famous Limo Driver. 


“No,” he says. “I never think of giving up.”


You know who else never gave up? Singer-songwriter Richard Marx of “Right Here Waiting” fame. We swear, Hughes said this. “And he went on to be huge,” Hughes says with a straight face.


“I’m just one guy with a dream,” he continues. And that dream is one some others believe in, too. Hughes truly believes he can be America’s Greatest Hero. And in some ways, he is a hero. Hughes relentlessly follows his American dream. He is superbadass in that regard. 


“I’m not afraid to say what I think,” Hughes says. “I always tell people the raw truth. And I will tell someone to hit the road in a heartbeat.”  


Admittedly though, Hughes is feeling a bit beat down. But if he actually pulls this off, Hughes has one more way he would like to blow some of his cash. “If I get through this and make money, I will go back to NASCAR to prove something,” Hughes says. “I may need a lawyer and a bodyguard, but I would.” 


We just hope Hughes reminds people of another Elton John song besides “Rocket Man” by the end of all this: “I’m Still Standing.”


“I’m a bulldog,” Hughes says. “This thing is going to happen.”


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