The scene progressed as it had two dozen times before—petite, 21-year-old Debbie Lawler, perched atop a growling motorcycle, hurtling toward a ramp, over a string of cars, then bouncing down the opposite ramp to safety. Only this time it didn't work: just as she cleared 15 cars at California's Ontario Motor Speedway, Debbie was caught by a gust of wind, carried beyond the landing ramp and turned slightly off course. She was smashed to the pavement, her back broken in three places. "By all rights," she says sweetly, "I should have been killed."

This does not mean, of course, that Debbie Lawler is hanging up her helmet. Quite the contrary; once she mends—next month she'll make her first professional jump since the March accident—Debbie figures the crash will enhance her value as a crowd draw. "I'm glad it happened before a large audience," she says. "They certainly got their money's worth. I'm getting to be a household word."

Debbie is the daughter of veteran motorcycle racer Ben Lawler, and grew up on a saddle seat. She began jumping professionally as the female Evel Knievel two years ago, and has quickly caught on as a show-and heart-stopping sensation (in addition to beating Knievel's indoor jump record by clearing 16 trucks recently). "The crowd expects to see a 300-pound tattooed lady with chains hanging down her back," coos Debbie. "They don't expect me." When not all suited up for jumps, Debbie weighs in at 106 pounds. Her eyes are blue, her blond hair natural. She modeled for a while, but—as might be expected—found it boring. Besides, it wasn't as profitable as jumping. "I make nice money," she says, setting another record—for understatement. She earns about $35,000 a performance—$20,000 per engagement and a percentage of the gate.

While there is something cavalier about the way Debbie tosses off one-liners about crashing and death, her preparations for the jump itself are meticulous and she has made hundreds of practice jumps. She insists on wearing a special persimmon-orange bra she says brings her luck—and she calculates her runs to the millimeter. She must hit the ramp at exactly 76 mph, and she must cut the engine the moment she becomes airborne. Right now, in fact, her greatest concern is to get her weight up. In the hospital she lost a few pounds, and even that minor a variation in her careful formula could be disastrous.