The extraordinary life of The Flying Irishman, Denny Edwards.
For a guy known as The Flying Irishman, Denny Edwards is pretty humble about his past. “I got my start by reading a magazine article on Evel Knievel. The article listed the dimensions of his ramps, so I decided I’d build a set of my own. I got so caught up in making the ramps that I just had to do a jump.” And just like that, Edwards arranged to jump six cars — at an annual festival in front of most of the population of his small Oregon hometown.
“I was 27 with a pregnant wife and a 2-year-old daughter. What a perfect time to start something like this; it was one of my more mature decisions,” he jokes, adding, “I’d never done a jump until the day before the festival. It was total guesswork. That was 1972.”
Building the ramps turned into a many-month undertaking. That’s not surprising considering their massive size: the launch ramp was 7.5 feet tall by 36 feet long, and the landing ramp was 56 feet long. Edwards explains the need for such big ramps: “The bikes had no suspension, so you had to go faster and flatter to do the same thing they’re doing now with shorter, steeper ramps. Going faster and flatter added to the show. It was like going down the freeway, opening the door and bailing out.”
Edwards finished his ramps just the day before the festival. To try a few practice jumps, he used his mom’s bike, “a ’41 Triumph Tiger 100 motor in a ’56 frame,” he says. The first launch was harrowing. “I had no idea how much of a running start to get. I just set the ramps up in the gravel lot of my dad’s logging shop right off the highway. Then I came winging down the highway to gain speed and, at the last second, veered onto the ramp,” he remembers. He managed to land that first practice jump, and a few more.
The next morning, he set up the ramps at the festival grounds and parked six cars between them, as promised. Soon his ramps were surrounded by a sea of people. “It was solid elbows up either side of the ramps. The high school football announcer was there with his bullhorn, so I recruited him to help me get people off the ramps,” he remembers. The jump itself went off without a hitch, but what Edwards really remembers was the money. “I made $470 in donations, which was more than I was making in a month driving a truck. I was hooked,” he says.
Edwards dropped everything and spent the rest of the year travelling to county fairs performing jumps for donations. He did most of his jumps on a 1963 Triumph 650, reserving his mom’s Tiger 100 for other daredevil feats like crashing through a flaming wall of lumber. Along the way, he made a name for himself in the papers. “He flies into the air on a prayer,” read one headline. But even more than the sensational danger, the real source of Edwards’ success seemed to be his spirit. As one article put it, “If Evel can make it, why not him? After all, he’s got the experience, the dedication.” By the end of the year he picked up a sponsor who paid for a set of custom Langlitz Leathers, designed by Ross Langlitz himself.
And then came the crowning touch: the name. “I knew I needed some kind of comic book name to tie it all in,” Edwards says. “I had Irish in me somewhere, and I liked shamrocks for good luck.” So in 1973 he became “The Flying Irishman,” as the sign on his new green and white motor home proudly proclaimed.
The 1973 season looked promising, but the Irishman’s luck ran out fast. “My first bad crash was in May of 1973 — it was Mother’s Day,” he remembers in grim detail. “I was attempting a 10-car jump. It had rained the night before and I still had old tires on the bike from flat track racing. I just couldn’t get enough traction to get my speed up. I did a few practice passes and I knew I didn’t have the speed. But, I looked at all those people in the grandstand,” he pauses, shaking his head solemnly, “and I knew I just had to go.
“As soon as I hit the launch ramp, I knew I was going too slowly. I’ve always been fully conscious with every crash. On that one I remember being in the air and seeing tops of cars, and I didn’t want to see that. By the time I started seeing the ramp coming, I knew I was going to have to get away from that bike, so I stood up and let go of the bars … ” He trails off.
The bike slammed into the face of the landing ramp and ricocheted off the roof of the last car below, a brand-new Ford. Had Edwards not bailed from the bike, he believes he’d be dead. As it was, he emerged with a lengthy list of broken bones, the worst being his left arm — broken in 32 places. But he was not beaten. “I’ve always been a positive thinker. If I’ve got a pile of s***, I grow roses with it,” he says. The crash seemed to make his determination even deeper than ever. “I was in a body cast in the hospital and I immediately booked another jump.” While still in the body cast, he repaired his Triumph 650.
Rigid mental discipline was the key from then on. “Before that first wreck my jumps were always a blur, I’d hit the ramps and — boom — it’d be over. After the wreck, I realized ‘I’ve got to start thinking.’ Once I did, it slowed the whole thing down,” he says. He sits forward in his chair. His usual light-hearted manner vanishes, and he describes the ritual: “I would make my practice passes, and that started to get my head settled down. When I was ready, I would go to my start point and sit on the bike,” he says. “I would put my head down and think to myself — ‘You need to go 65mph in third gear. All you gotta do is do your part and in a few seconds from now it’s gonna be OK.’ By then, I was totally calm.”
Edwards has an uncanny ability to connect with people. Speaking to the crowd was critically important to him. “I always made myself give a speech, in part because I dreaded that more than the jump — it gave me something to take my mind off the jump. But, more than that, talking to the audience humanizes you. They feel a little connected to you. They don’t want to see anything happen to you. At the end of the day we all have the same wants, needs, desires. We want to be liked, to be loved. Today the gadgetry is different … but human beings are the same,” he says.
In late 1973 Edwards finally got out of the body cast and got back to jumping. For several years it was a decent living, travelling from jump to jump pulling the ramps behind the motor home. “I had a crew — well, my buddy Lloyd, the high school football announcer. He and his family would come along when I could afford it. I had windbreakers and T-shirts made up. We’d give them out to locals who’d volunteer to help us set up the ramps. It was always easy finding people who wanted to help,” he recalls.
His full-time jumping came to an end in 1976 following a bad divorce; his ex-wife sold his Triumph 650 jump bike in a garage sale for $75. But Edwards missed the life of a showman: Jumping had gotten in his blood. “It was probably the only thing that I ever really sunk my teeth into, as far as career stuff. It was the only thing that I really had a passion for,” he says. So he set up a 1973 Yamaha TX650 for jumping and in 1983 he did a few more jumps. But soon afterwards, he officially announced his retirement.
Yet he couldn’t stay away. In 1985, at age 41, he signed up for what would be his final jump, clearing the length of a logging truck at the Crook County Fair in Prineville, Oregon. “I let things crawl into my head that day, instead of paying attention,” he says. After his warm-up passes he rode back to his start point and sat on the bike. “I stayed back there a long time that day, longer than I ever had,” he recalls. Despite the mental clutter, he managed to ace the jump, touching down in textbook form. But his ramps betrayed him. Years of outdoor storage had taken their toll, and on impact he broke through the landing ramp and crashed.
Somehow, he was back on his feet before the ambulance arrived, having suffered “only” a couple broken ribs and some toenails ripped loose. His Yamaha TX650 lost the clutch lever and left footpeg and gained a hole in the crankcase cover. Incredibly, Edwards gathered himself and mounted his battered bike to complete his customary after-jump stunt — crashing through a gasoline-engulfed, flaming wall of lumber at 40mph.
To carry on like that says a lot about Denny Edwards. Describing his more successful jumps, he sums it up: “There were times, when you did everything right, it was the most fantastic feeling. Just as soon as I’d touch down on a good one, I’d just throw my arms up. ‘WOW that felt good!’ You have all this build up all week, and it’s just a tremendous relief. You’ve put on a show, the crowd is happy.”
Edwards’ Tiger 100 and TX650 bikes will be on display at the new World of Speed museum in Wilsonville, Oregon (worldofspeed.org), near Portland. Edwards is also building another bike, a Triumph 750, in hopes of staging a comeback jump late this summer. It will be his first jump in 30 years. He is 70 and, if he makes it, he’ll enter the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest motorcycle jumper ever. You can find videos of Edwards’ jumps from the 1970-1980s, including the final jump where he broke through the ramp, on his Facebook page. MC