A few years ago, Topeka attorney Jim Caplinger purchased a sizable warehouse with heating, cooling, humidity control and good ventilation. So when he heard Historic Harley-Davidson needed a space like that for painters coming in to help with the restoration of Big Red, Evel Knievel’s Mack semi-truck and trailer, he handed over the warehouse key to the team before leaving town for a while.
“I said, ‘Use this as long as you want.’ When I came back to town, I came down and I hung out … and you start hearing the stories,” Caplinger said, adding he talked with George Sedlak, the exclusive painter for Knievel’s helmets and bikes in the 1970s, among others. “So then, it’s more in my blood.”
He spoke further with Mike Patterson, owner of Historic Harley-Davidson, and Lathan McKay, actor-film producer and owner of Big Red, about their plans to establish an Evel Knievel museum, where Big Red would be displayed. Caplinger helped them in making business decisions regarding real estate and establishing the museum as a 501(3)c nonprofit organization.
And when Patterson and McKay started talking about some key artifacts that were still needed for the museum and how its budget was tapped out, Caplinger opened his wallet.
“That’s where I stepped in and negotiated and bought a lot of Evel Knievel memorabilia,” he said. “Most of it was the high-end stuff — the Caesars (Palace) helmet, the gold jewelry, this (Skycycle) rocket and many, many things that are in (the museum).”
Caplinger said he believed the artifacts would soar in price and become unavailable once the museum opened.
Acquiring some of the artifacts and getting them to Topeka took quite a bit of effort. The X-2 Skycycle, for example, was found in Canada, stored on the second floor of a building by a man who purchased it with the intention of starting an Evel Knievel museum.
“To retrieve this, you had to have a crane and take part of the roof off,” he said.
As McKay and others retrieved the Skycycle and prepared it for shipment back to the United States, Caplinger remained in Topeka to oversee the paperwork needed to bring the artifact across the border, including documentation to prove the Skycycle was constructed in the United States in order to avoid paying import duty. Among Caplinger’s Knievel acquisitions were checks signed by Robert Truax, the rocket engineer who built the Skycycle, which proved when and where the skyrocket was built.
Additional items collected by Caplinger include Knievel’s passport, driver’s license and death certificate, which lists “daredevil” as his occupation.
Contact niche editor Jan Biles at (785) 295-1292.
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