If Alex Harvill's hometown of Ephrata, Washington, doesn't exactly sound like the action sports capital of the world, consider this: Evel Knievel made the first of his many signature jumps at nearby Moses Lake in 1965, launching 40 feet over a mountain lion on a leash and (almost) clearing a crate of rattlesnakes.
Harvill, now 22, went more than 10 times as far, sans mountain lion and rattlesnakes, when he pushed the ramp-to-dirt distance record to 425 feet in 2012 (at Toes Motocross Park in Royal City, Washington), but he says Knievel has been his inspiration from the beginning.
"I can't even remember when or where exactly I first heard about Evel, because around here, and especially in my family, it seems like he was always just part of the fabric of everything," says Harvill. "I grew up around all these old dirt bikers and every one of them had a story to tell about traveling with Evel, or going to see one of his jumps, or how Evel did 'em wrong at some point. There was always this daredevil legacy growing up around here."
Knievel -- the old-timers around Ephrata still call him Bob, Harvill says -- owned a motorcycle dealership in Moses Lake and made his first jumps there to promote it. He also raced at the track in Ephrata and made, or almost made, many of his subsequent jumps nearby and around the state.
It was in Washington that Knievel cleared 13 Dodge cars in 1967, got his first serious concussion a few weeks later after not quite clearing 16 Volkswagens, and broke his spine in another attempt a few months after that, according to his official website. In 1970, he cleared 18 cars at Seattle International Raceway, setting a new distance record, then pushed it to 19 a few months later.
By September 1972, Knievel was jumping 22 cars at Evergreen Speedway. Harvill wouldn't be born for a couple more decades, but 1972 was also the year that the first Evel Knievel action figures debuted. Harvill says playing with his dad's old motorcycle toys predates any other memories he has.
"My dad's been riding dirt bikes his whole life and he used to take me out trail riding on the front of his bike when I was like 2. He says I used to fall asleep while we were riding," Harvill says. "I got my first little motorcycle when I was 4, but what I really remember most is playing with those Evel Knievel toys and imagining my own jumps."
Like most motocross daredevils these days, Harvill made his own first leaps on a BMX bike at his local track, building bigger and bigger jumps and eating a lot of dirt along the learning curve.
"I'd build them as big as I could, until they were too big, and then I'd figure out how to jump them anyway," he said.
It wasn't long after Harvill started landing his first big jumps on a motorcycle that word got around to action sports cinematographer Jay Schweitzer, who has been working on a documentary about the history of daredevil distance jumping on and off for more than a decade. Harvill has spent his life dreaming of being as famous as Knievel someday, and jumped at the chance to make his first big impression. He soared out of obscurity and into the history books in front of Schweitzer's camera on May 12, 2012.
Harvil launched a ridiculous 425 feet on his motorcycle. He soared 33 feet past the previous mark, and for now there doesn't appear to be any competition for the record: His mark stands more than two years later and likely will until he decides to push it farther. Who else would dare? Ditto for the 297-foot dirt-to-dirt record he set in 2013 (at Horn Rapids Motocross Complex in Richland, Washington).
Harvill thinks he can go well past 500 feet on the right setup, but is content to let the record stand for a while. These days he's busy trying to kick-start a pro motocross racing ambition that's almost as old as his daredevil dreams.
"I want people to know I'm an all-around rider and not just a guy who can jump real far," says Harvill, who released a new video edit with Schweitzer on Friday to prove the point. The edit includes his record-setting jumps, but also shows him freeriding in the hills, throwing massive whips, and showing off his racing chops. "I grew up being inspired by great videos, so to have something like this of my own to share with the world is an incredible feeling," he says.
On Aug. 23, Harvill will race at the Utah National, the 12th stop of the 2014 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship. It's his third attempt at qualifying for a main event on the pro circuit, but he's found that his world records don't mean much in the racing world and haven't bought him any favors.
"I'm not trying to kid myself: Breaking into pro motocross is one of the hardest things in the world of sports," he says. "The best riders have factory bike sponsorships and the best mechanics and the best teams behind them. I'm basically doing everything myself with a little help from my dad and the help of just a couple of sponsors, so I'm coming in with the deck stacked against me. But that's what I like about it, too: I see it as a challenge to prove to everyone that I can do it without that support."
"But don't worry," he adds. "I don't plan on stopping distance jumping, even if there's no competition for those records. When Evel was jumping he was only competing against himself a lot of the time, and I owe it to Evel and everyone who has done it before me to keep pushing it as far as I can go."