In 1972, George Sedlak was a self-described smart-aleck kid from Moline, Illinois, with little more than youthful charisma hiding behind long hair and a Fu Manchu moustache. While helping a buddy drywall his garage, he stumbled upon a 1948 Harley-Davidson Hummer and agreed to help finish the remodeling in exchange for the motorcycle.
The diminutive 125cc Hummer –which later would be known as “Little Richard” – inevitably needed parts, which led Sedlak to Reiman’s Harley-Davidson in nearby Kewanee, Illinois.
Proprietor Roger Reiman was the 1964 AMA Grand National Champion and a three-time Daytona 200 winner before he settled down to run his family’s Harley dealership. The son of an AMA champion hillclimber, Reiman had ridden motorcycles from the age of nine and competed in his first AMA Grand National at the age of 20. Over the years, he rode in a total of 16 Daytona 200 races.
Reiman had little patience for Sedlak’s group of wannabe-biker friends hanging around the dealership, but he saw a glimmer of hope in young George and invited him into the back of the shop to see a trio of Harley-Davidson XR750 competition bikes that he was preparing for a stunt rider from out west. Some guy named Knievel.
Sedlak made a wise crack about how lousy the bikes’ paint jobs looked. Reiman squared off on the young man and said “If you think it’s so bad, maybe you can do better,” and pushed a cracked and scraped fiberglass tank into his hands.
For fans of pinstripe art, this is the Michelangelo Moment. My mind runs the film loop in slow motion as I envision the tank thrust into Sedlak’s chest; as profound as God’s touch in the Sistine Chapel painting. Cue the theme music to 2001: A Space Odyssey, thundering loudly at the moment of creation.
Knievel gave only basic direction to Sedlak; he wanted the colors of the flag, his name in gold, and Harley-Davidson in block letters.
What followed would become some of the most iconic graphics ever created – a simple band of blue with red pinstripes and white stars – inseparable from the larger-than-life man it defined. As familiar as The Lone Ranger’s mask. As cool as Fonzie’s leather jacket.
I caught up with Sedlak at a panel jam pinstriping event during the NEW Motorama in Green Bay, Wisconsin. He was busy striping a soda cooler for a charity auction, but he stopped to chat and the stories poured out as if from a firehose. We talked for an hour before I got the chance to inform him that I was a journalist.
“I could probably write a book,” he said of his fascinating career. “But I keep digressing – there is so much to tell.”
After that first gas tank, Knievel had him paint his helmet, inscribing the daredevil’s self-effacing motto: Color Me Lucky. “There was a fair bit of repeat work. He tended to bang them up a bit,” Sedlak said with a wink.
Sedlak’s lifelong friendship with Knievel offers some insights into the man whose tough-guy public image obscured some thoughtful acts.
“At the Wembley Stadium jump in London, he wanted to send a limousine to pick up my mom and bring her to the show when she was vacationing in France,” Sedlak said.
Horribly crashing on the attempt to jump 13 buses, Knievel returned to the U.S. and was met at the airport by ABC’s Wide World of Sports host Frank Gifford and his son.
“Evel was so touched that they were the only ones to come to check on him that he gave them his helmet,” Sedlak recalled.
Not wanting to retire after a crash, Knievel returned to successfully jump 14 buses at Kings Island amusement park near Cincinnati in 1975. In the post-jump television interview held on the takeoff ramp, Evel gave heartfelt thanks to Roger Reiman and George Sedlak, pointing to the song lyrics from The Four Tops painted on his tank – “Are you man enough? Big and bad enough?”
On that same tank were two hundred-dollar bills under layers of clearcoat paint.
“I went into my banker and asked him how I could do it. He cut two corners off a hundred-dollar bill, leaving the majority of the bill intact and he turned it in as damaged. It didn’t cost me a thing,” Sedlak said. Evel loved the result and called George to say, “Next time, I want a thousand-dollar bill!”
Sedlak painted a total of six helmets and six motorcycles for Knievel, but he has been commissioned to replicate and authenticate his work for numerous collectors and museums.
One collector shared the inspiration for his Evel Knievel replica XR750.
“He told me that as a kid he’d heard Evel speak about the danger of drugs,” Sedlak said. “Evel said, ‘Some race car drivers cheat and use nitro in their engines. Sure, they can run real fast for a couple of laps, but then they burn out their engines and blow all to hell. That’s what it’s like when you use drugs.’
“The message hit home with this kid. He was running around with the wrong crowd, and he was on a bad path. He straightened himself out and today is a bank president. His XR750 replica reminds him of Evel and his life-changing advice.”
During a phone conversation, Sedlak relayed that story to Knievel: “I told him what his words meant to this guy. The phone went silent on the other end. I asked if he was still there. He kind of cleared his throat and said, ‘Yeah, give me a minute.’ He was getting choked up over the story.”
Sedlak, now 66, is revisiting an early interest in fine-art painting, with some of his favorite subjects being vintage race cars and motorcycles. He’s produced a series of giclée prints of his paintings featuring British F1 champion Jim Clark and his Lotus. He has also painted livery for a number of pre-war Indy cars. Continually looking for more artistic inspiration, he can be found attending vintage races around the country.
But he’ll always be grateful for the lucky chance which allowed him to paint for the legendary daredevil.
“I’m not the world’s greatest artist,” Sedlak said. “But this has worked out pretty nicely for me.”
For more about George Seldak, visit his studio website.