Flirting with Disaster: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel
For children of the '70s, there was no greater thrill than hearing that legendary stuntman Evel Knievel was preparing to make another jump. In the days before CGI and YouTube, Evel was his own special effect, pushing himself and his motorcycle to the edge of disaster on live TV while millions watched. But his public image as a fearless daredevil concealed the man behind the uniform, who was at the same time brave, tragic, and far more complex than most of his fans ever realized. Early Life
Robert Craig Knievel was born in Butte, Montana, on Oct. 17, 1938, to parents of German ancestry. At the age of 8 he attended a local daredevil show, which he inspired his career choice.
Moody and easily bored, Knievel was a man of great natural ability; but he had a tendency to shoot himself in the foot just as success was within his reach. Dropping out of high school after his sophomore year, he took as job as a diamond drill operator with the Anaconda Mining Company. A hard worker, he was promoted to above-ground duty where he drove a large earth mover.
His career was off to a rousing start when one day he decided to use the mover to do a wheelie, a stunt he had seen performed several times by cyclists. As a result he crashed the piece of equipment into a powerline, blacking out the city of Butte for several hours. The mining company promptly terminated his employment.
By the mid-1950s Knievel was having run-ins with the law. In 1956 he wrecked a motorcycle while fleeing from the police, a stunt that landed him in jail. It was there that he was first referred to as “Evil Knievel.” Liking the name but not its sinister overtones, henceforth the young star-to-be insisted on being called “Evel,” which he felt conveyed his reckless side without making him appear wicked.
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After getting out of jail, Knievel starting riding on the rodeo circuit and tried his hand at ski jumping, a sport at which he showed considerable talent. In 1959 he won the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A championship. Just as his skiing career was starting to take off, however, Knievel felt the call to serve his country, joining the Army in the last days of the 1950s. There he showed remarkable athletic ability, running track and excelling at pole vaulting.
After his discharge, Evel returned to Montana and married his first wife Linda Joan Bork. To support his bride, he ventured into the world of semi-pro hockey, again showing considerable ability at the sport. He founded the Butte Bombers and recruited the Olympic hockey team of Czechoslovakia to play his newly founded team. Knievel was tossed from the game during the third period and walked out of the arena. Later it was discovered that the game receipts had been stolen. Knievel was the leading suspect in the case, but he was never proven guilty.
Next he tried his hand at being a professional hunting guide in Montana. As with his prior ventures, this one enjoyed spectacular success, with Evel quickly gaining a reputation as an able tracker. This enterprise came to a bad ending as well, though, when the US government discovered that Knievel had been leading expeditions into nearby Yellowstone Park, where hunting is banned.
Evel turned the incident into a campaign to raise awareness about the poaching of elk, and hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., with a 54-inch wide set of elk antlers and a petition with thousands of signatures. As a result of the publicity, the government relocated the elk to areas where hunting was legal.
Returning home to Montana, Knievel turned over a new leaf, vowing to stop committing crimes and taking a job selling life insurance. As with almost everything else he did in life, he proved to be outstanding at the job, but quit in anger after he was refused a promotion.
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Evel relocated to Washington State, where he opened a Honda dealership. This was the only profession he ever tried that didn’t meet with success, possibly due to the limited popularity of Japanese motorcycles in the early 1960s. About this time he decided to take up stunt riding, which, unlike his earlier occupations, provided the adrenaline rush he needed to keep his considerable talents occupied.
Assembling a team of like-minded daredevils to perform with him, Evel and his group debuted at the 1966 National Date Festival in Indio, California. Public response was huge, and at last Knievel realized his true calling.
Over the next year or so Evel performed multiple times across California and the Pacific Northwest. Quite often he wrecked his bike and broke several bones, but always came back from the brink to ride again. Modern analysis of films from the time indicate that one of the problems Knievel had was poor suspension in the bikes of the era, which made his landings turbulent and hard to control.
Evel’s big break came in 1967, when he got the idea to jump over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. To sell casino CEO Jay Sarno on the idea, Evel placed several calls to his office, pretending to be a writer for Sports Illustrated. Sarno gave his consent, and on Dec. 31 of that year Knievel made the jump. He crossed the 141 feet over the springs without difficulty, but crashed while landing on the safety ramp. Tumbling over his bike, he skidded across the ground into the casino parking lot. Along the way he crushed his femur and pelvis, fractured his wrist, hip, and both ankles, and suffered a concussion.
While technically a failure, the stunt was a huge success commercially. ABC bought the film for an astronomical price and showed it to a national audience. Viewers were fascinated by the man who made his living by flirting with death. Knievel went along with his new public image, even claiming that he lay in a coma for 29 days after the jump.
Evel returned to his chosen profession within six months of the Caesar’s Palace event. He was making $25,000 a week in the late 1960s, in most cases completing his stunts without injury. When he did wreck, however, the results were serious. By 1975 he had suffered 433 bone fractures, earning him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. This was in addition to countless scrapes, contusions, and concussions.
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By the mid-1970s Knievel was a multi-millionaire, having signed lucrative deals with companies like Ideal Toys, which produced the Evel Knievel toy stunt bike I owned as a kid. About 12” tall, it featured a GI Joe-style Knievel action figure atop a motorcycle that launched off a plastic ramp. The ads for the toy said that it could leap over a full set of encyclopedias from A to Z. I later proved the claim to my own satisfaction, using the 1972 World Book collection for my experiment.
Countless times throughout his career Evel publicly stated his desire to leap over the Grand Canyon. Despite years of wrangling with the feds, however, he was never able to gain the necessary permissions. At one point he was ready to go, until aviation authorities turned down his request to use the air space over the canyon.
It’s probably just as well, given that the odds of clearing the width, which ranges from 10 to 18 miles across, are fairly remote. Some think that Knievel kept the idea alive as a way to garner publicity; others say that he simply had a death wish.
Evel’s fame peaked on Sept. 8, 1974, when he tried to leap across Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho, in a steam-powered rocket ship dubbed the Skycycle X-2. He cleared the canyon’s distance at one point, but winds forced his craft back over the opening, and he plunged hundreds of feet to end up beside the river at the canyon’s bottom. Had he landed in the water he would have probably drowned, as the harness he wore malfunctioned, trapping him in the rocket until he was rescued.
Knievel had a knack for self-promotion, a talent that proved to be almost as profound as his fearlessness and athletic abilities. He “retired” numerous times in the second half of the 1970s, only to return after the public demanded he keep jumping. In the winter of 1976 he capitalized on the success of the film Jaws by leaping over a tank filled with sharks.
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Knievel retired for real in 1980 and began traveling with his son and successor Robbie. He passed away on Nov. 30, 2007 at age 69, after a long bout with pulmonary fibrosis complicated by diabetes.
Evel is a amazing example of a man who lived life on his own terms right up until the last moment. For those of us fortunate enough to remember him, he will be sorely missed.
Factoids and Trivia
• Evel was a leading proponent of motorcycle safety. He supported passage of California’s mandatory helmet law and urged riders to always wear helmets, just as he did.
• Knievel had a lifelong grudge against the Hell’s Angels, at one point getting into a brawl with several members of the motorcycle club in the early 1970s.
• His dislike of the Angels was due to their alleged ties with drug dealers. Evel was virulently anti-drug throughout his life, and did several spots for radio and TV urging kids to stay away from illegal substances.
• Knievel played the role of himself in 1977’s Viva Knievel. In the film, he combats a gang of drug smugglers led by Leslie Neilsen of the Naked Gun films. The movie is generally regarded as lacking artistic merit.
• Evel rode a wide variety of motorcycles during his career. His rides included a 250cc Honda, a 750cc bike built by the now-defunct Norton Motorcycle Company, a 650 cc Triumph T120, and a Harley-Davidson XR-750.
• Harley was an official sponsor of Knievel for a while, until he was jailed for beating the author of his biography with a baseball bat. The stuntman was upset about claims the book made regarding his character.
• Evel got the idea for his famous leather suits from Liberace.
• Towards the end of his life, Evel Knievel converted to Christianity and was baptized by TV preacher Robert Schuller. He later officiated at Knievel’s funeral and actor Matthew McConaughey delivered the eulogy.
• Knievel often returned to prior venues to complete stunts he had been unable to perform at the time due to injuries. To him it was a matter of honor; he was legendary for always fulfilling his commitments.
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