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Daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel, the godfather of extreme sports, struggled for much of his career with an internal conflict: staying rich and famous versus staying alive.
If his legacy could be rewritten, his successful, record-breaking jump at Ohio’s Kings Island amusement park in October 1975—over 14 Greyhound buses and 133 feet—would have been a more dignified climax to his legendary career as a daredevil.
“I really wanted to quit then. It was the first jump that I made that was successful where I thought, ‘Yeah, I might hang it up—I did this.’ But of course, I went on from there,” said the stunt star (whose real name was Robert Craig Knievel) in Stuart Barker’s book Life of Evel.
Instead, Knievel’s last leap in the spotlight was a Jaws-inspired gimmick that would help—along with the Fonz—spawn the phrase “jumping the shark,” implying that somebody’s or something’s best days are behind them.
The problem for Knievel was that his dramatic crashes were what elevated him to his status as the world’s greatest stuntman.
READ MORE: What Are the Most Insanely Daring Stunts Since Evel Knievel?
“His fame had little to do with the stunts he successfully pulled off and everything to do with the epic failures and wipeouts,” says Barker. “Besides…what else would he have done? Not only would he have missed the adrenaline rush of doing what he did, he’d have missed being in the limelight even more.”
The 38-year-old Knievel may have been on the downside of his career before his attempted leap over “the world’s largest indoor saltwater pool, which will be filled with man-eating killer sharks,” as the press release read. But he was still a major star when CBS approached him about a new live, primetime series to be called “Evel Knievel’s Death Defiers.” His jump, to take place at the Chicago International Amphitheatre on January 31, 1977, would be the main event of the much-hyped pilot episode that would also include other daredevil acts.
While Knievel and the show’s promoters played up the dangerous aspects of the jump, in the end, the distance to clear the tank was only 64 feet, which for Knievel was not a challenge. The sharks would also pose little threat. Jerry Clay, the man in charge of supplying them for the show, told The New York Times one week prior to the event: “If he should fall in, he’d spook those animals right out of the pool.” Clay was in Florida rounding up lemon and blue sharks, none that resembled the villainous Great White in Jaws.
READ MORE: What Drove Evel Knievel to Keep Battering His Body?
Contrary to his fearless reputation, Knievel had become more cautious of late and attempted to remove risk from his stunts, particularly after a horrendous crash at Wembley Stadium on May 26, 1975 that prompted this dramatic announcement: “I’ve got to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will ever see me jump because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I am through,” Knievel told the crowd after he had failed to clear the last of 13 buses in his path. Despite breaking a hand, fracturing two vertebrae and his left pelvis, Knievel changed his mind about retirement three days later. But he would approach his next stunt at Kings Island with uncharacteristic caution.
“There was a reason for this caution. He had decided that this would be the final long jump of his career,” Leigh Montville wrote in The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel. “The possible consequences, this one last time, suddenly were frightening. He didn’t want Fate to nab him on the way out the door.”
Knievel, on edge and still battered from the Wembley crash, completed the jump to near perfection. Afterward, he told the crowd, “I am going to continue to perform around the world with my two sons, but I have jumped far enough.” Knievel did continue performing, but audiences showed little interest in his more predictable jumps. Meanwhile, he was still living like he was one of the world’s wealthiest celebrities. “He spent money faster than he could earn it,” Barker says.
The shark stunt seemed like a good compromise: If promoted properly, it would keep audiences engaged while being, in theory, less risky. But during a practice run for the jump, Knievel, who cleared the tank with ease, landed awkwardly and crashed hard, taking down a cameraman in the process. Contrary to some widely disseminated accounts, the cameraman did not lose an eye in the wreck.
READ MORE: 7 Death-Defying Historic American Daredevils
“Knievel was a master of self-hype, so he’d tell and retell stories that probably originated with a kernel of truth but later got blown out of all proportion,” Barker says. “He’d throw in exaggerations like, ‘Yeah, the cameraman lost an eye’ because it made for a better story. But then those words would get picked up by the press and repeated as fact.”
Knievel, though, broke his right forearm and left collarbone. The live show went on without him, and while he did interview segments from his Chicago hospital bed and the practice run was shown repeatedly during the broadcast, audiences were not impressed by the lackluster supporting acts, many of whom botched their own stunts. The program was also plagued with production issues.
As for the 12 “man-eating” sharks that made it to Chicago? They fared none too better. One died before the jump. They were also sedated as an added precautionary measure, and five more would perish before they were relocated to an aquarium in Boston.
READ MORE: Travis Pastrana Nails All Three of Evel Knievel’s Historic Jumps
Butte, Montana: Evel Knievel's Last Jump - His Grave
Grave site of the daredevil driver. His tombstone, with its cartoon rocket car, was chiseled in 1974 and ready in the event that he perished when jumping the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Evel lived through his many crazy stunts and finally ended up under his rocket car tombstone in 2007, age 69.
Mountain View Cemetery
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Evel Knievel's Last Jump - His Grave
Evel Knievel's grave is easy to find. There's a sign right as you enter the cemetery.
Evel Knievel's Last Jump - His Grave
A very peaceful final resting place. His monument is taller than most of the others, so it's not too difficult to spot. Look for all of the American flags that people leave at the headstone.
Evel Knievel's Last Jump
If you loved Evel, go see this! It's Evel Knievel's final resting place. He's in the Mountain View Cemetery, off Harrison Ave, just past a golf course. You enter through the black iron arch. Proceed straight to some trees then turn left. Evel's headstone is on the right along the trees. His marker is tall and there is a red, white, and blue banner hanging on the tree next to him.
Evel Knievel's tombstone was made in 1974, just in case he died in his attempt to leap the Snake River Canyon. It stayed there, in storage, for 31 years. Evel apparently never came up with a better one, and had it shipped to him in Montana two years before his death in 2007. A similar-looking stone stands near the Snake River jump site.
An In-Depth Look at America's Greatest Daredevil: Evel Knievel
Legendary rider continues to be an inspiration to motorcyclists and motorcycling culture
It’s been more than 40 years since Evel Knievel made his last jump and even though his name is still synonymous with motorcycle stunt riding, the details of his career have started to blur over the convening years. Nowadays you are more likely to hear things like “Didn’t he break every bone in his body?” or “Did he ever successfully land a single jump?” rather than any true facts about his career. As someone who had such a profound influence on motorcycling and was a true American legend, we owe it to Evel to get the facts straight about his extraordinary career.
Knievel was born on October 17, 1938 in the mining community of Butte, Montana, to Robert and Ann Knievel. Named after his father, Evel's real name was Robert Craig Knievel. Growing up in a rough mining town gave Knievel plenty of opportunities for getting into mischief and his actions eventually led to several run-ins with the local police. One such incident, involving a high-speed motorcycle chase and crash, landed him behind bars where the jailer jokingly referred to him has “Evil Knievel” – a moniker that would stick with him for years to come.
He was also known around town as an incredible athlete, participating in rodeos, ski jumping, and pole vaulting, and he played for two semi-professional hockey teams.
As a young man, Knievel tried several careers before he stumbled upon the idea of being a “professional daredevil.” Like everyone in Butte, he had a stint working a variety of jobs related to the mines before branching out into other fields. Throughout his 20s, he tried his hand at being a hunting guide, a motorcycle racer, an insurance salesman, and even opened his own Honda motorcycle dealership. None of these jobs stuck and in 1965 he decided to put on a motorcycle stunt show based on the automobile stunt shows performed by Joie Chitwood. His first stunt show consisted of one jump over a 20-foot box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions (I guess in the 60s you could just rent rattlesnakes and lions for such events). The jump was successful and Knievel quickly realized that if he found a sponsor and a few more performers he might be able to make some real money.
In 1966, Evel Knievel and his Band of Daredevils debuted at the National Date Festival in California. The first show was a big success and for their next show Knievel decided to mix things up with a new stunt where he jumped spread eagle over a speeding motorcycle. This turned out to be an epic failure as the motorcycle struck him square in the testicles and tossed him 15 feet (guys, just let that sink in for a few seconds). A lengthy hospital stay was enough to break up the fledgling stunt team and from there on out, Knievel became a solo act.
Right from the beginning, Knievel’s claim to fame was jumping vehicles. While other stunt riders were playing it safe and jumping over pools of water or semi-soft animals, Knievel was jumping a much more unforgiving selection of cars, trucks and vans. Just a few months after his “spread eagle” incident, a jump consisting of 12 cars and a van sent him back to the hospital with a broken arm and several broken ribs. The following year, another crash left him with a serious concussion, but he kept performing and with each jump his popularity grew. It also became obvious that his failures were even more popular than his successes as there seemed to be a morbid fascination with this unstoppable force of nature whose resilience bordered on being super human.
With his star on the rise, Knievel successfully negotiated a deal to jump over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on December 31, 1967. Although he wanted to have the event aired live on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, he had to settle for a low-budget film which he paid for out of his own pocket. The jump itself was one of Knievel’s biggest failures as a daredevil and the injuries he sustained seemed unsurvivable. When it was all said and done, he left Caesars Palace with a crushed pelvis and a crushed femur along with a fractured hip and fractures to both wrists and ankles. He also remained in a coma for 29 days due to the severity of the concussion he received upon impact after the failed jump.
As you can guess, even this wasn’t enough to slow Knievel down and in less than six months he was back to jumping (and crashing). Although it is the crashes everyone remembers, his success rate was actually fairly high. The early 1970s saw the most Knievel performances and his records for those years showed that he was an extraordinary rider. In a three-year period from 1971 to 1973, Knievel made an incredible 87 jumps, of which 82 were successful. It is also important to note that on December 12, 1970, Knievel switched from riding various British motorcycles to exclusively riding a Harley-Davidson XR-750, which arguably was a better platform for the type of abuse Knievel was heaping on his motorcycles.
While almost all of Knievel’s jumps involved lines of cars, buses, etc, he also gained much notoriety in his attempt to jump the Grand Canyon and later the Snake River Canyon. Starting in 1968, Knievel began floating the idea of making a jump across the Grand Canyon probably as a publicity stunt more than anything else. Surprisingly the major stumbling block had nothing to do with the actual mechanics of making such a long jump, but with the U.S. government. Even after hiring an attorney to take the battle to court, Knievel was never able to get the US Department of the Interior to grant him permission to use the air space over the canyon for a jump. Not one to give up, Knievel leased some private land on the Snake River Canyon and started developing a plan for jumping that 1-mile-wide canyon instead.
Obviously his Harley-Davidson XR-750 was not up to the challenge of such a long jump, so a special machine had to be developed to clear the canyon. The result was the Skycycle X-2, a two wheeled, steam powered rocket complete with a fully enclosed cockpit and a parachute to simplify the landing. The amount of time and money put into this stunt far outweighed anything Knievel had previously attempted, and many feel it would have been successful had the design of the parachute system not been faulty, causing it to deploy prematurely. The result was that Knievel cleared the canyon, but the prevailing winds caught the parachute and blew it back across the canyon where it crashed down next to the river.
The failure at Snake River Canyon really seemed to “take the wind out of his sails” and Knievel only attempted six more jumps before announcing his retirement (for the final time) in January of 1977. Of these six attempts, three resulted in crashes. One of those crashes, however, was – in a strange way – one of his greatest successes. The crash at Wembley Stadium in London still ranks as the all-time highest rated episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports.
His final crash occurred during a practice run for a jump over a 90-foot shark tank. It left Knievel with two broken arms and the guilt of a cameraman blinded in one eye. Injuring a bystander deeply upset Knievel and although he continued to make regular appearances for the next couple years he only did so as a speaker, saying he had “jumped far enough.”
Always a brilliant self-promoter, Knievel was in and out of the public eye for the remainder of his life. I, in fact, had a brief encounter with him in the mid 1990s while attending Bike Week down in Daytona Beach, Florida. My father and I had stepped into a shop on Main Street to check out leather jackets when we heard some commotion in the back of the store. As we glanced past the racks of jackets we saw Evel Knievel holding up one of his new signature jackets he was obviously displeased with the quality. At the time he was in his early 60’s and I remember thinking that all those crashes had finally caught up with him as he hobbled past me and back on to the street.
Ironically, while he certainly suffered from having broken 35 bones during his career, his death was due to a rare and incurable lung disease known as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He died on November 30, 2007 due to complications of the disease and was laid to rest in his hometown Butte. In true showman style, Knievel arrived at his funeral laid out in his iconic red white and blue leathers under a rain of fireworks. The eulogy was given by actor Matthew McConaughey who eloquently stated: "He's forever in flight now. He doesn't have to come back down he doesn't have to land."
This year also marks a new chapter in the legacy of Knievel with the opening of the Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kansas. The museum’s soft opening was on 26 May – 42 years to the day after the failed jump at Wembley Stadium. The grand opening is set for June 30, to coincide with the 4th of July holiday weekend. Keep in mind that this is a totally new construction, so you’ll not just be walking past a collection of dusty old artifacts in some dimly lit warehouse, but a modern building with exhibits that benefit from state of the art technology.
Of course, there are plenty of static displays showing off some of Knievel’s motorcycles and memorabilia, but there are also be a number of interactive displays, too. What I expect will be the most popular exhibit is the virtual reality jump simulator, in which you actually sit on a replica Knievel motorcycle while wearing virtual reality goggles and get to experience what it is like to do a jump. There is also an interactive jump planner which allows up to four users to plan out a stunt, including everything from selecting the obstacles, the speed, the ramp angle and other factors. Luckily for those that fail, they can simply walk away from the exhibit without any broken bones…
Whether you grew up eating out of an Evel Knievel lunch box or you’ve just watched his jumps on YouTube it is hard not be a fan. His larger than life persona and “extreme courage” are traits to be admired if not emulated. Through his actions he not only encouraged a generation of kids to jump their bicycles off makeshift ramps, but more importantly he taught them value of hard work, commitment, and determination.
He rose to popularity at a time when all Americans were in need of not just entertainment but a hero. Between the Vietnam War and the Watergate Scandal, the late 60s and early 70s were a tumultuous period for this country and Evel Knievel was someone we could all root for. On the surface he may have just been jumping a motorcycle over a line of cars, but deeper down, he truly embodied the American spirit and still serves as an inspiration today.
RETIRED DAREDEVIL EVEL KNIEVEL HAS WATCHED HIS SON'S CAREER TAKE OFF
It has been nearly a dozen years since Evel Knievel went down in history—literally—trying to jump Idaho&aposs Snake River Canyon. Thousands of Evel worshipers had gathered on the crumbling rim to give the daredevil his due. Hundreds of thousands crowded arenas and theaters on the chance that he would splatter onto rocks 2,500 feet below. No doubt many felt cheated when a parachute on Knievel&aposs Sky-Cycle deployed prematurely and he wigwagged to a gentle landing on the river&aposs edge.
Knievel, who gave up stunt jumping for painting in 1980, reached his apogee over the Snake River. For years before that, his bravado on a motorcycle had carried him over a zillion cars, trucks and buses tidily arranged in groups of 10, 12 or 14. But if the Evel era already seems remote, his exploits and harebrained heroics faint, 23-year-old Robbie Knievel says of his father: "Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn&apost ask me about the Snake River. When Dad went up I thought I&aposd never see him again."
Today Robbie rides in his father&aposs trajectory, sailing over various vehicles as a headliner on the tractor-pull/mud-racer circuit. He is sometimes billed as Evel Knievel II. The lesser of the two Evels has even added a twist to the old man&aposs routine by jumping his bike no hands. Since his retirement, Evel I has watched Evel II only once. "Robbie scares the hell out of me," mutters Pop Evel, the words rising like a growl from the belly of a Harley hog.
"I guess I&aposm like any other concerned father, except that nobody else&aposs son guns a cycle over 17 pickups without holding on to the handlebars. The greatest competitor in life is death, and here&aposs a kid giving death the bird every time. He&aposll only miss real hard once. I think the little booger&aposs nuts!"
This comes from a former safecracker who hurtled over a box of live rattlesnakes with two mountain lions staked at the near end of the takeoff ramp, kidnapped his wife before marrying her, shared a jail cell with Awful Knofel, had to be talked out of free-falling 40,000 feet into a haystack and took a baseball bat to a biographer who wasn&apost sufficiently respectful of the Evel gospel.
Old Evel had a search-and-destroy exuberance so electric he seemed to have jumper cables hooked to his chest. Robbie&aposs style is more restrained. He beams a big country grin at the world and rides a 250 Honda. Dad straddled a big 750 Harley. But Jim Dick, one of Robbie&aposs two crewmen, says, "He&aposs a much better rider than his father. He just don&apost have the showmanship."
Evel broke enough bones to make him the American Orthopaedic Association&aposs Man of the Century, according to the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records. (Evel insists it&aposs no more than 60.) Robbie has broken only two wrist bones jumping, and those were during practice runs. Once, in Fremont, Calif. he lost control on landing after clearing 14 cars in a high wind. He hit a guardrail at 90 mph, flipped over the handlebars and skidded 40 yards through the grass. He walked away with only a sprained wrist and a torn knee ligament. "I&aposve had just one other break in my life," he says, "and that was from my father kicking me in the nose."
Robbie came home one night slightly ahead of a couple of cops—he had just robbed a music store for the second time in two years𠅊nd carrying a six-pack of beer. He took a swing at his old man and landed on the floor, where Evel kicked him in the nose. "Stand up and fight like a man," Evel told him. Robbie, then a juvenile, spent only one night in jail. The next morning Dad wheeled up in a $125,000 convertible and drove him to a plastic surgeon, who repaired the schnozz. "The doctor definitely improved on it," says Evel. "Even Robbie says he&aposs got a great-looking nose now. I may break it again if he don&apost listen to me."
"Me and him had a lot of fistfights," says Robbie, "but we always had a great father-son relationship as far as fishing and hunting." Knievel fils rode his first chopper as a 2-year-old passenger, while Dad popped wheelies on the streets of Butte, Mont. "It scared the crap out of me," Robbie recalls. "I clutched the crossbar real tight and cried." At five, he had his own minibike, which Evel kept on a leash. Robbie leaped into show business at eight, with Evel&aposs revue, brandishing an American flag. Back home on their ranch he showed a certain enterprise by billing himself as Evel Jr. and charging tourists 50¢ to see him jump 10 10-speeds on his minibike. He made his first major jump at 13, clearing five vans in Worcester, Mass. That same night Evel jumped 12.
When the Ideal Toy Corp. put out an Evel Knievel doll, Robbie was the first kid on his block to have one. Ideal later added Robbie, The Teen-Age Stuntman, to its Knievel line. But Barbie&aposs mom would never let her go out with him. Robbie&aposs own girlfriend, Jamie, hung her Robbie doll from the rearview mirror of her Vega. On a noose. "I got a couple of $500 royalty checks," says Robbie, "and then we hit that baseball bat thing."
Clobbering his biographer in 1977 landed Evel in jail for six months. Within two years Robbie, who had dropped out of high school in 1978, was outjumping him and starting to perfect his look-Pa-no-hands act. He quit Evel&aposs act for good in 1980. "I left Dad because I couldn&apost stand watching him go down the strip on one wheel at 100 miles an hour," says Robbie. "If he&aposd gotten into a crash, he&aposd have broken into a million pieces."
Robbie didn&apost talk much to Evel over the next few years, but he didn&apost give up the Knievel trademark. He wore Evel&aposs emblematic red, white and blue leathers, took the somewhat dented Sky-Cycle with him on the road and adopted Dad&aposs high-speed philosophy. "Only a lunatic would want to be an English teacher," Robbie says. "An accountant? Pure insanity."
"A lot of kids look up to Robbie," says Evel. "He&aposs got a chance to make a real contribution to society. Just like me and my artwork."
Robbie floats so free that all he needs before a jump is an occasional shot of tequila. Evel used to knock back a fifth of Wild Turkey a day, but he gave up booze and refined sugar a few years back. Maybe that&aposs why he claims he no longer thinks with his fists. He does look pretty good for a man who&aposs held together mostly by steel pins and epoxy.
Evel is paying off the $5 million he says he owes the IRS partly by hawking his paintings in department stores. But he&aposs got a long way to go because his prices start at $19.95. Evel also picks up extra change on golf courses. "I don&apost play for fun," he says. He keeps a certified check for $50,000 at the center of a roll of $20 bills in his pocket, in the event of an emergency that hasn&apost yet come up. "I play golf five days a week," Evel says. "I find that if I play seven days a week I get stale."
Evel travels from course to course in a custom bus only slightly smaller than Iowa. It has a trailer hitched in back rigged with video surveillance equipment that&aposs backed up by a magnum with a barrel the size of a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Inside, Evel keeps a bronze bust of John Wayne and his limited-edition prints—just about everything from Chief Teal Duck to Mother Teresa to Bambi.
A few months ago Evel&aposs caravan stopped in Los Angeles to see Robbie break his own no-hands bus-jumping record before 35,000 at the Coliseum. Evel holed up in his rig, worrying. He worried about Robbie&aposs hands-off technique. He worried about Robbie&aposs approach. He worried about the number of buses. When Evel tried to clear 13 buses in 1975, he crushed a vertebra, fractured his pelvis and broke his right hand.
His fears were not eased when Robbie barely made a practice jump over 11 buses, landing on the near side of the safety ramp and bouncing up in a dangerous front-end wheelie. "What&aposs he trying to prove?" Evel asked.
Robbie announced his presence to the crowd with a nod toward responsibility: "I&aposm proud to carry on the great name and great legend of my father, Mr. Evel Knievel. I hope you&aposll all do what my father taught me: Wear your helmet."
The Deal Between Evel Knievel and Vince McMahon
Vince McMahon Sr.’s entire livelihood depended on his ability to spot a mark. When McMahon Jr. burst into his office to rabidly recount the tale of encountering Evel Knievel in the rocky wild, McMahon Sr. sensed his son had already been ensnared in a hustle. Still, McMahon Sr. wouldn’t let his son fail on his lonesome and agreed to bankroll 50% of the cost of the jump. But McMahon Sr. recognized he would need an adult around to keep an eye on the proceedings and ensure Knievel wouldn’t swindle McMahon Jr. out of everything, including the clothes on his back. So, McMahon Sr. called in a favor. He called Bob Arum, the grand poobah of boxing promotion company Top Rank, Inc.
Arum proved to be as sharp as a machete. And, as he stated in Sports Illustrated, he didn’t blink during his first meeting with Knievel when Knievel stated, "there are three kinds of people I can’t stand: New Yorkers, lawyers, and Jews."
Arum calmly replied, "I’m all three," and agreed Top Rank would take on the contractual responsibility of paying Knievel.
The public was told the deal would work out thus: Knievel would get whatever was larger: either $6 million or 60% of all receipts, including theater gate and promotional sales and income, minus various unspecified promotional expenses to be paid to Top Rank, as reported by the AP. But that was bunk, cover for a Knievel publicity stunt enabling the stuntman to run around the streets, drunkenly boasting with a $6 million check in hand. His actual guarantee was $225,000, and a portion of the gate after Top Rank got its cut.
The promise for a big payday was denoted by two clear revenue streams: the gate for attending the live event at the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, and the gate for attending one of the closed-circuit broadcasts at arenas across the country. Dreams of the live event pulling in over 50,000 proud Americans and broadcasting an additional 1.8 million folks had Knievel making a battery of outrageous proclamations to the press, where he upped his potential take to $20 million. McMahon Jr.’s role would be to work with Arum and secure all those closed-circuit outlets, and then to trade in his jalopy for a Rolls-Royce and ride out of that Connecticut trailer park, with Linda and baby Shane in tow.
Other motorcycles that Evel Knievel rode
Evel Knievel rode several motorcycles throughout his stunt career. He rode a Honda 250cc to jump crates containing rattle snakes and 2 mountain lions.. In 1966 he favored a Norton Motorcycle Company’s 750cc. In 1969 and 1970 Knievel rode a Laverda American Eagle 750cc. He was sponsored by Harley Davidson through the 1970’s often riding a Harley Davidson XR-750 one of his favorites. This model was also a fan of Mark Brelsford, Jay Springsteen and Cal Raborn. After retiring, Evel Knievel promoted the California Motorcycle Company and its “Evel Knievel Motorcycle”, a V-Twin Street Motorcycle not used for wheelies and jumps.
Evel Empire: Knievel’s stranglehold on the SeventiesKing Collection/Photoshot/Getty Images
This story was originally published in the March/April edition of the Hagerty Drivers Club magazine in the US.
Evel Knievel had a stock answer for reporters when they asked him: Well … why? “There’s three mysteries to life,” he said, with practiced conviction. “Where we came from, why we do what we do, and where we’re going to go. You don’t know the answer to any of those three, and neither do I.” Standing next to the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974, as crew members prepped his water-powered rocket cycle to fly the chasm in what would be his ballsiest cheat of death yet, he added: “I’m going to jump it to get to the other side, and I don’t want to drive across that damn bridge.”
Half a century later, we know some of the answers to the three mysteries of Knievel, including where he came from and where he went. We may never really know why, but he probably gave us his best clue in Idaho: “I don’t want to drive across that damn bridge.” Like everyone else would, like mere mortals would. Wherever Evel Knievel would go in life, he planned to fly.
Since Snake River, many of Knievel’s motorcycle jumping records have been toppled with ease. Lighter bikes, miles of suspension travel, and broad dirt ramps have produced YouTube spectacles that are both thrilling and safer. But no one has done it with the showmanship or command of hyperbole that captivated 1970s Malaise-Era America. Knievel in the white star-spangled suit never quite showed all of his cards – but then again, he never really had any, refusing to use a speedometer, a tachometer, or any pre-jump calculations. It was all gut. He ripped shots of Wild Turkey hidden in his diamond cane and then set sail, arcing through the air like a comic book superhero while straddling America’s number one escape vehicle.
His star turns on colour television as well as the 1971 film, Evel Knievel, produced so many iterations of half-truths and exaggerations about his life that it’s hard to separate fact from fiction, and that’s just fine. The film catalysed the daredevil emperor’s conquest and spun him into a national phenomenon with intense command over the social spotlight. Such command, in fact, that even 50 years after the film’s release, we still remember him.
Harley-Davidson’s iconic ‘1’ logo, forever linked to Knievel and emblazoned on the cover of the March/April 2021 edition of the Hagerty Drivers Club. Photo: Hagerty Media
The Lord almighty gifted Robert Craig Knievel to the world on October 17, 1938, in Butte, Montana. Once called “The Richest Hill on Earth” for its position atop veins of copper, silver, and gold, Butte in the 1940s and ’50s was a jagged place. Shafts bored the landscape into Swiss cheese. Big machines, big money, big egos. The youngster with the German last name, pronounced Kin-evil, was a handful, his natural recklessness stoked by the rough-and-tumble mining town. At 18, he wound up in jail – it wasn’t the first time, nor the last – after evading the police but ultimately crashing his getaway motorcycle. There he shared cell walls with a William Knofel, and prison guards labeled the convicts “Awful” Knofel and “Evil” Knievel. The name stuck, but Knievel changed the “i” to an “e” because, despite his misconduct, he didn’t want to be considered evil. He eventually slipped the bars and joined the Army, but his service didn’t last long, and the dropout returned to Butte, where he landed a job at the copper mine. He was promoted to surface duty, but soon he was fired for pulling a wheelie with the bulldozer and knocking over Butte’s main power line.
He was an adrenaline junkie before the term existed. To feed his habit, he dabbled in skiing, rodeo riding, and motorcycle racing. At 19, Knievel formed his own semi-pro hockey team, the Butte Bombers, then somehow persuaded the Czechoslovakian national team to play an exhibition – in Butte, no less. The Czechs destroyed the Bombers, 22 to 3, while Knievel passed a plate around, urging spectators to defray the Czechs’ travel expenses. After the final buzzer, everyone was shocked to find the money gone, along with Knievel.
During those formative years, he also burgled businesses from Montana to Oregon. In a 1971 interview with The New Yorker, he confessed his sins. “When I was stealing, I’d go into a store and ask if they had fire-and-theft, pretend I was selling insurance,” he said. “If the man in the store said he already had insurance and if his attitude was bad – if he told me to get the hell out – then I’d go back that night and rob him. I never carried a gun, never hurt anybody except the insurance companies, and they’re bastardly thieves anyway.” (Knievel spent a few years of his life as a legitimate insurance salesman.) Soon enough, the law closed in. “I had a terrible breakdown when I was about 25. The police chased me across four states – I was in a Pontiac Bonneville, going 120 miles an hour, and after that, I just couldn’t stand the pressure.” So he gave up the life of crime.
Why we do what we do. It was 1966, and after some brief stints selling insurance and Honda motorcycles, Knievel stepped into the sideshow stunt world of county fairs and other regional events. His father had taken him to see the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show, an automotive circus featuring cars jumping, cars on two wheels, and cars on fire. In Washington, Knievel decided to start his own stunt brigade on motorcycles. He partnered with a Norton distributor, dressed in bumblebee-coloured leathers, and briefly reinstated the “i” in his stage name. “Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils!” Their first show took place during the 1966 National Date Festival in Indio, California, somewhere between the dog parades and a performance by the Southern Pacific Railroad Band.
Knievel’s self-promoted events, plus a brief spot on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, spooled interest so quickly that barely a year after the Date Festival, he found him-self in Las Vegas at the top of a ramp at Caesars Palace, ready to rip 141 feet over the fountain of the newly opened resort. He had already ditched the Daredevils, reinstated the “e,” adopted the patriotic leathers that would become his brand, and learned that jumping bikes paid decent money if it was paired with enough show-biz spectacle. Even so, he had to con his way to the top of that ramp by barraging Caesars Palace founder Jay Sarno with a series of phone calls. In each call, Knievel impersonated a lawyer, a broadcast company, or anyone else who might plausibly feign interest in his proposed jump. His blitz earned face time with Sarno, and the two agreed to a jump date.
After a suitable buildup that included Knievel wheeling his Triumph Bonneville T120 back and forth before the huge crowd, he gunned the throttle and barrelled toward the launch ramp. But the daredevil felt the power suddenly sag as he hit the ramp. It was too late to back out rider and bike sailed high over the pluming fountain, Knievel standing on the pegs, almost seeming to try to pull the bike up against the gravity that was closing in. Instead, he clipped the landing ramp short with the rear tire, the front tire slammed down, and – wham! – he somersaulted over the front of the bike and onto the pavement, a bouncing, skidding, tumbling, instantly comatose mannequin of shattered bones.
In 1967, Evel Knievel sails high over the Caesars Palace fountain before crashing, tumbling, and skidding across the Las Vegas casino’s parking lot. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images
Knievel had the entire jump filmed by actor John Derek and Derek’s then-wife, actress Linda Evans. Evans’ gruesome reel, shot from beyond the landing ramp as Knievel spilled, garnered global playback. “Nobody wants to see me die,” Knievel used to say, “but they don’t want to miss it if I do.” For a man who spoke in headlines and hyperbole, this was an unexaggerated truth. It was only in 1967, when he smashed at Caesars, that people began paying attention to the huckster from Butte.
Knievel vaulted over his motorcycle’s handlebars on to late-night talk shows, and the well-spoken, cowboy-handsome fabulist captivated Technicolor audiences with ease. It was on The Dick Cavett Show where Knievel, seated in a New York soundstage, jazz cat Dizzy Gillespie to his right, joked, “I think the thing that upset me most at Caesars Palace was I bounced into the Dunes parking lot and they never paid me for making an appearance.”
All the right people took notice of the burgeoning star, including actor George Hamilton. The debonair dreamboat, known for mushy roles in By Love Possessed and Light in the Piazza, was working on a story about a rodeo rider turned motorcycle stuntman. The story, however, pivoted when the actor learned of Knievel and saw him as a more compelling real-life protagonist. Hamilton commissioned a script from John Milius, a young screenwriter from Missouri who in that same decade went on to write epics such as Jeremiah Johnson and Apocalypse Now. Milius doubled-down on Knievel’s bravado and further embellished the tales from Butte. (See Knievel busting through sorority house doors and riding up the staircase to kidnap his future wife.)
Prior to movie production, actor George Hamilton and Evel Knievel sit atop the stuntman’s 1969 American Eagle 750 motorcycle. Photo: Martin Mills/Getty Images
For the film’s climax, Knievel was to fling his ethyl-chugging XR-750 Harley-Davidson 129 feet over 18 Dodge Colts and one Dodge van lined up inside California’s Ontario Motor Speedway. At this point in his career, he wasn’t yet the main attraction – many of the 80,000 fans packing the grandstands of the newly built $25 million racing palace east of Los Angeles had come for a NASCAR race. No matter. His high-flying act and subsequent movie starring Hamilton as Knievel would launch the real stuntman from opener to main attraction.
The Ontario jump was a smooth spectacle. Only years later, in the biography by Leigh Montville titled Evel, did we learn of the calamity that day. According to an interview with Hamilton, who spent time in the stuntman’s trailer prior to the jump, Knievel was drunk off Wild Turkey and his hand was broken from a practice accident the day before. Worried, Hamilton asked him, “How will you jump with a broken hand?” Knievel replied: “I’ll tape it to the handlebars. It’s logic, George. If your hand is broken, you tape it on.”
We also learn that the weather conditions were better than usual. California’s Santa Ana winds, known to blow over 18-wheelers on the highway adjacent to the speedway, were calm. It was those forceful gusts that blew stunt cyclist Debbie Lawler off course while she attempted a similar jump at Ontario in 1974.
Hindsight is 20/20, though, and in a split second, Knievel’s 300-pound (136kg) Harley floated down to the landing ramp. Knievel rode away, A.J. Foyt won the race, and America rejoiced. Hamilton’s movie, Evel Knievel, premiered later that June, 50 years ago this summer. Perhaps the film was too goofy, or playboy Hamilton wasn’t rugged enough. It recorded decent box-office numbers, but critics were lukewarm. “The life of Evel Knievel contains the same seeds of self-doom as Dostoevsky characters,” said Roger Ebert. “That’s what I miss in the current George Hamilton movie version.” Two stars.
In what served as the climax to the 1971 biopic Evel Knievel, the stuntman from Butte flung his Harley over 18 Dodge Colts and one Dodge van at Ontario Speedway. Photo: Ralph Crane/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Notwithstanding the lack of cinematic clout, Hamilton’s 1971 Knievel biopic was responsible for one life-altering effect. Knievel was no longer a stuntman, he was a silver-screen superhero, and, as Montville, Knievel’s biographer, put it, “the made-up story, added to his own story, pushed his exploits further into the main stage spotlight that he always craved.” Producers even spliced home-video footage into the movie. By the time the audience left the theatres, they couldn’t parse out truth from Hollywood. The movie, projected 40 feet tall across every drive-in screen nationwide, cast Knievel as an American icon, and now everyone knew his name. What the world didn’t know was that he was just getting started.
A year later, miles from Hollywood, in a nondescript factory on the corner of Jamaica Avenue and 184th Place, in Queens, New York, assembly lines were producing miniature versions of the stuntman. Despite the drab digs, the Ideal Toy Company, famous for its Shirley Temple dolls, was already valued at over $71 million. Looking for more, it brokered a deal to produce an Evel Knievel action figure (Knievel receiving 10 percent of the cut). The doll sold well, but it was the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle – a 1973 release that put a plastic Evel on a small windup motorcycle that raced off – that was a midair somersaulting license to print money. It was the industry’s top-selling toy in back-to-back Christmases (indeed, you can buy a rereleased version today on Amazon). The daredevil had reached an unthinkable level of stardom, and like the Greek gods of yore whose images were enshrined in marble statuary, Knievel was immortalised in red, white, and blue plastic. Television and movie stars had their own lunchboxes – only superheroes, G.I. Joe, and Knievel had their own action figures.
All told, Knievel netted an estimated $10 million from his toy deal. By 1973, the merchandising fly-wheel was spinning faster than ever: board games, playing cards, bicycles, pinball machines. He was flush with cash and spent as such. He bought yachts, leased planes, and commissioned coachbuilt Cadillacs and a $91,000 semitruck to haul his bikes around. He arrived at events in police-escorted cavalcades. (See Knievel in a pre-jump parade, in Texas, with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith riding shotgun in the stuntman’s Ferrari 365 GTS/4 Daytona. Goodbye, modesty – not that there ever was any). Gone, too, were the Nortons, Triumphs, and American Eagles. Knievel exclusively rode Harley-Davidsons, and the firm’s iconic red, white, and blue “1” logo was painted and stitched everywhere. His outfit swelled to match his swagger – rings, chains, furs, massive collars and French cuffs. The cape grew longer, the “EK” belt buckle larger, and his cane became a diamond-encrusted gold sceptre it was metamorphosis into a superfly sovereign.
By 1974, Knievel was a superfly sovereign, and his pre-jump speeches – like the one in San Francisco (pictured here) – were equal part showman’s address and militant command. Photo: Heinz Kluetmeier/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images
And his subjects roared. Despite the lavish effects, Knievel preserved his plain-spoken, working-man image. He talked about morals and being “true to your word,” and he wore Old Glory on his back. The public bought in, might have even elected him president in a different era. But this was the era of the 55mph sign, of new rules and regulations and oil crises and inflation and Watergate. The fences were going up everywhere, yet this stuntman rode from the shadows of the stadium tunnels into the spotlight on his chrome-tipped Harley and launched over everything like Captain America, a red, white, and blue middle finger to the establishment. He flew – the corrupt elites, the nannies, and the naysayers, they took the damn bridge.
Knievel was also literally fighting regulations. Since the late 1960s, he had been haggling with the US government over a plan to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle. Negotiations dragged on for years. As the Hollywood trade rag Variety put it, the two sides had “not yet decided who collects should the flight not prove horizontal.” They never agreed, and the talks subsided. Instead, Knievel – now a millionaire – purchased his own gorge, leasing 300 acres of the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, for $35,000. Again, screw the system.
As Knievel sorted the jump location, a team of builders, led by engineers Doug Malewicki and Robert Truax, developed a missile-shaped steam-powered two-wheeler prototype called the Skycycle X-1. Steam power was chosen for its simplicity. Behind the cockpit, 77 gallons of water would be heated to 740 degrees, and the resulting steam buildup would be released via a rear-mounted nozzle, propelling the craft to an anticipated 350mph. This 13-foot-long water rocket would take off from an almost-vertical 108-foot-long metal launching track and carve a steep parabola over the 600-foot-deep canyon. Knievel would deploy a parachute from the cockpit to land on the other side. Or, at least, that was the plan.
By spring 1974, an autumn date had been set for the Snake River Canyon spectacle. A pilotless X-1 was launched into the canyon to test the ramp, and Truax was hard at work on the X-2, the rocket that would carry Knievel across the great divide. To the dismay of those investing in the launch, Knievel was flying his Harley more than ever. He completed four massive jumps in various corners of the US, despite the fact an injury could delay, or outright cancel, the rapidly approaching pay-per-view event at Twin Falls. Also, America had found other daredevils – or “phonies,” as Knievel labeled them. Rival stunt cyclists came roaring out of the gates with Knievel in their crosshairs. Maybe Knievel felt the need to defend his crown. Regardless, he couldn’t shy away from the spotlight, an intense beam that was burning hotter with each appearance.
Photo: Walt Disney Television and Sports Illustrated Classic via Getty Images
As the Skycycle X-2 neared completion, Idaho law required it to be registered as an aircraft. Knievel’s pre-jump speeches developed a bombast and started to sound more and more like screenwriter Milius’s handiwork. Prior to a jump at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, Knievel addressed the crowd: “It’s my canyon. They cannot take that away from me. And the only way they’re going to stop me from jumping is with an anti-aircraft gun. They’re going to have to shoot me out of the air!” The militant, over-the-top Hollywood lines had crept into the real Knievel vernacular. He had become his own caricature.
By the time Knievel was hoisted into the vertically positioned rocket on September 8, 1974, the scene on that cliff’s edge resembled a debauched Woodstock. A semicircle of humanity, miles wide, drawn out from the 50-foot-high dirt launchpad, was densely packed with dehydrated fanatics, fed-up reporters, hippies, biker gangs, and anyone else who could pay $25 for admission to the party. Sideshow acts included a blindfolded motorcycle-riding psychic, a woman suspended by her hair from a helicopter, and a high-wire act near the canyon’s edge by Karl Wallenda of the Famous Flying Wallendas.
Since the pre-jump theatrics and the jump itself were largely put on for customers watching in theatres on closed-circuit, the atmosphere at the launch site was unstable. It was “a circumstance that further agitated the spectators who pressed together in the sunbaked horse pasture drinking beer impatiently,” as a reporter for The Spokesman-Review of Washington noted. “By noon a noticeable number of young men, dirt-streaked and perspiring, staggered over the dusty ground, wearing the same surly look they had arrived with in Idaho.” Amenities were lacking and tension was thick. One newspaper reported that “bored and restless” campers stole 4000 cases of beer from concession trailers while others set fire to portable toilets. Over 30,000 pushed and shoved their way toward the canyon’s mouth in anticipation of Knievel’s launch.
Rocket Man! In 1974, with the entire world watching, Knievel shoehorned himself into a steam-powered missile and launched skyward in an attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho. Photo: Walt Disney Television and Sports Illustrated Classic via Getty Images
At 3:36pm, with an explosion of white steam, Knievel was thrown back into the seat of the Skycycle X-2 as it cleared the launch track. In a split second, missile and man were soaring high above the canyon. The only snag was quite literal upon takeoff, the parachute prematurely evacuated the fuselage. Knievel was a passenger in a rocket-powered kite. As the X-2 crested its parabola, a 15-mph wind pushed the vessel back toward the launch ramp. The crowd gasped as Knievel and rocket dropped like Wile E. Coyote in slow motion. After bouncing twice on the rocks and landing in a foot of water on the canyon floor, he was able to get out. In a mixture of relief and exhaustion, he provided few words to reporters: “I sat in it and gave it my best. I don’t know what to tell you.” Knievel may have not cleared the canyon, but he did clear an estimated $20 million from the escapade, and despite the failure, he was riding an all-time publicity high.
Even in Britain, Knievel knew how to draw attention. Upon arrival, clad in blue leathers for his Wembley jump, he said, “I’m so glad to be here in England, where we came and won the war for you.” Photo: Express/Getty Images
Just a year after Snake River, Knievel took his North American dominance across the pond in what would be labelled by many as the beginning of the end. By the time Knievel was prepped to vault 13 London buses in front of the 80,000 people packing Wembley Stadium, he seemed dejected, forlorn, tired. ABC broadcaster and close friend Frank Gifford spoke to him before the jump. “He was a little wacko,” the late broadcaster recalled in Montville’s biography. “I kind of admired him.” According to Gifford, Knievel confessed to his TV friend that he couldn’t make it over the London buses.
Evel at Wembley Stadium, 1975. Photo: Bettmann and Hulton Archives/Getty Images
Gifford urged him to cancel the event. Knievel refused to back down. “Well, I may not be as good as I always was, but I’m as good once as I ever was,” he told a worried Gifford on ABC’s Wide World of Sports prior to suiting up, like a cowboy who had already seen his best days. Knievel landed short and splattered onto Wembley’s paved floor. Gifford thought he had witnessed his friend’s death and rushed over to the motionless pile of bloody flesh and torn leather. To Gifford’s surprise, Knievel was trying to speak. Prepared to hear the stuntman’s dying words, Gifford bent down to Knievel’s battered face.
“Frank …” said Knievel.
“Yes, Evel,” replied Gifford.
“Get that broad out of my room.”
Despite a broken back, Knievel refused the stretcher and instead asked to be propped up and carried to the top of the landing ramp, where he addressed the stunned audience. “I’ve got to tell you that you are the last people in the world to see me jump because I’ll never jump again. I’m finished.” Knievel was finally retiring.
His retirement only lasted the plane ride home. Perhaps he didn’t want to end his career on a crash. Perhaps he had obligations to Harley-Davidson. Or perhaps, in those silent hours above the Atlantic, worry crept in about what he might do, might become, after jumping was no longer an option. One reporter wrote, “Of course, someone waved a few million under his nose to bring him back to the real world.” Regardless of his motives, the minute he touched down at JFK, he announced he would jump later that autumn.
In the four years since the movie debuted, since he was shot into the celebrity stratosphere, Knievel had been caught in a whirlwind of victories, defeats, alcohol, prostitutes, chronic jet lag, incessant media coverage, and hospital beds. Those four years had aged the man tremendously. Grey hairs were starting to poke out of his slicked-back sandy quaff, and the 36-year-old limped like a reanimated corpse.
He would attempt a record jump at Kings Island, an amusement park in southeast Ohio. Up and over 14 Greyhound buses, one more than the jump that nearly killed him in England.
In what was the most-watched episode of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Knievel soared over the Greyhound buses at Kings Island on October 25, 1975. Nielsen said that just over half of all US homes tuned in to watch Knievel clear 163 feet (a personal best and a record that stood for 24 years). Not even the famed 1976 title fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier could dethrone King Knievel’s ratings from that day. The force of the landing snapped the frame of Knievel’s XR-750 in half, but he was able to ride back to the landing ramp for his interview, where he told old pal Frank, “I have jumped far enough.”
The Guinness Book of World Records reports that Knievel had suffered 433 bone fractures by 1975, and by his own estimation, the stuntman broke at least 35 different bones, undergoing surgery 14 times during his career. Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images
Knievel’s jumping career didn’t end like the 1971 biopic, clearing the ramp and riding off into the sunset as the camera pans skyward. Reality was less graceful. If Kings Island was the apex, the daredevil still had to land. And he landed hard. In 1977, Knievel was still riding the fame wave and produced the film Viva Knievel!, where the untrained actor played himself battling a Mexican drug cartel. It tanked. The same year, CBS also aired Evel Knievel’s Death reflected the wider sentiment when he wrote: “In a desperate and irresponsible bid for ratings, CBS is permitting the ego-ridden exhibitionist Evel Knievel to appear and wrangle top billing by gunning his motorcycle over a huge salt-water pool of man-eating sharks.” He crashed in practice, fracturing his left arm and collarbone, and never jumped the sharks.
As if 1977 couldn’t get any worse, Knievel found himself on the wrong side of a judge’s gavel in November. In an act of what Superior Court Judge Edward Rafeedie called “frontier justice,” Knievel infamously beat his former press agent, Sheldon Saltman, with a baseball bat after reading Saltman’s tell-all book, Evel Knievel on Tour. The book provided a look behind the showman’s curtain and – according to Knievel – portrayed him as a villain. Knievel was ordered to spend six months at the Wayside Honor Rancho correctional facility near Los Angeles.
Explaining why cheques he sent in 1977 to fund an Indy 500 team had bounced, Knievel wrote from prison: “I have not lost the race. I’m in the pits now getting fuel and changing tires, but the boost is going up and when I come back, they better get their ass out of the way.” He never did come back in the way he promised, performing small jumps here and there in the twilight of his career, eventually surrendering the Knievel spotlight to his daredevil motorcycle-riding son, Robbie.
Knievel succumbed to pulmonary disease on November 30, 2007. This was not the fantastic ending he, or even Milius’s screenplay, envisioned. The stuntman who once seemed immortal was buried in Butte at the Mountain View Cemetery, his grave marked by a tombstone he commissioned for his Snake River jump. The engraving read: “A mile-long leap of the Snake River Canyon from this point on September 8, 1974 employing a unique ‘Sky Cycle.’” While we don’t know where he went in his journey to the great beyond, it’s safe to assume he didn’t drive across the damn bridge.
Evel’s stunts invited many contemporaries, including Debbie Lawler, who broke Knievel’s indoor jumping record and inspired an action figure of her own. Click here to read Cameron Neveu’s story on Lawler.
Knievel was born on October 17, 1938, in Butte, Montana, the first of two children of Robert E. and Ann Marie Keough Knievel.  His surname is of German origin his paternal great-great-grandparents emigrated to the U.S. from Germany.  His mother was of Irish ancestry. Robert and Ann divorced in 1940, after the 1939 birth of their second child, Nicolas, known as Nic. Both parents decided to leave Butte.
Knievel and his brother were raised in Butte by their paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Knievel attended a Joie Chitwood auto daredevil show, to which he gave credit for his later career choice as a motorcycle daredevil. Knievel was a cousin of the former Democratic U.S. Representative from Montana, Pat Williams (b. 1937).  : 38 
Knievel left Butte High School after his sophomore year and got a job in the copper mines as a diamond drill operator with the Anaconda Mining Company, but he preferred motorbiking to what he called "unimportant stuff". [ citation needed ] He was promoted to surface duty, where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte's main power line, leaving the city without electricity for several hours. 
Always looking for new thrills and challenges, Knievel participated in local professional rodeos and ski jumping events, including winning the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in 1959. During the late 1950s, Knievel joined the United States Army. His athletic ability allowed him to join the track team, where he was a pole vaulter. After his army stint, Knievel returned to Butte, where he met and married his first wife, Linda Joan Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team.  : 21
To help promote his team and earn some money, he convinced the Czechoslovakian Olympic ice hockey team to play the Butte Bombers in a warm-up game to the 1960 Winter Olympics (to be held in California). Knievel was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czechoslovakian officials went to the box office to collect the expense money that the team was promised, workers discovered the game receipts had been stolen. The United States Olympic Committee ended up paying the Czechoslovakian team's expenses to avoid an international incident.  : 21–22 Knievel tried out with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959, but decided that a traveling team was not for him.   
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family financially. Using the hunting and fishing skills taught to him by his grandfather, Knievel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service. He guaranteed that if a hunter employed his service and paid his fee, he would get the big game animal desired or Knievel would refund his fee.
Knievel, who was learning about the culling of elk in Yellowstone, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington, D.C., in December 1961 to raise awareness and to have the elk relocated to areas where hunting was permitted. After his conspicuous trek (he hitchhiked with a 54-inch-wide (1.4 m) rack of elk antlers and a petition with 3,000 signatures), he presented his case to Representative Arnold Olsen, Senator Mike Mansfield, and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. Culling was stopped in the late 1960s. 
After returning home to the west from Washington, D.C., he joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but he still could not make enough money to support his family. During 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he could not race for at least six months. To help support his family, he switched careers and sold insurance for the Combined Insurance Company of America, working for W. Clement Stone. Stone suggested that Knievel read Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, a book that Stone wrote with Napoleon Hill. [ citation needed ] Knievel credited much of his later success to Stone and his book. [ citation needed ]
Knievel was successful as an insurance salesman (even selling insurance policies to several institutionalized mental patients [ citation needed ] ) and wanted recognition for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to vice-president after he had been a few months on the job, he quit. Wanting a new start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing.  During the early 1960s, he and other dealers had difficulty promoting and selling Japanese imports because of the steep competition of their auto industry, and the Moses Lake Honda dealership eventually closed. After the closure, Knievel went to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington.  Pomeroy's son, Jim Pomeroy, who went on to compete in the Motocross World Championship, taught Knievel how to do a "wheelie" and ride while standing on the seat of the bike. 
Stunt performance Edit
As a boy, Knievel had seen the Joie Chitwood show. He decided that he could do something similar using a motorcycle. Promoting the show himself, Knievel rented the venue, wrote the press releases, set up the show, sold the tickets and served as his own master of ceremonies. After enticing the small crowd with a few wheelies, he proceeded to jump a 20-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and his back wheel hitting the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel realized that to make a more substantial amount of money he would need to hire more performers, stunt coordinators and other personnel so that he could concentrate on the jumps. With little money, he went looking for a sponsor and found one in Bob Blair, owner of ZDS Motors, Inc., the West coast distributor for Berliner Motor Corporation, a distributor for Norton Motorcycles. Blair offered to provide the needed motorcycles, but he wanted the name changed from the Bobby Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel did not want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blair to at least allow him to use the spelling Evel instead of Evil.
Knievel and his daredevils debuted on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. The show was a huge success. Knievel received several offers to host the show after their first performance. [ clarification needed ] The second booking was in Hemet, California, but was canceled due to rain. The next performance was on February 10, in Barstow, California. During the performance, Knievel attempted a new stunt in which he would jump, spread-eagled, over a speeding motorcycle. Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, tossing him 15 feet into the air. He was hospitalized as a result of his injuries. When released, he returned to Barstow to finish the performance he had started almost a month earlier.
Knievel's daredevil show broke up after the Barstow performance because injuries prevented him from performing. After recovering, Knievel started traveling from small town to small town as a solo act. To get ahead of other motorcycle stunt people who were jumping animals or pools of water, Knievel started jumping cars. He began adding more and more cars to his jumps when he would return to the same venue to get people to come out and see him again. Knievel had not had a serious injury since the Barstow performance, but on June 19 in Missoula, Montana, he attempted to jump 12 cars and a cargo van. The distance he had for takeoff did not allow him to get up enough speed. His back wheel hit the top of the van while his front wheel hit the top of the landing ramp. Knievel ended up with a severely broken arm and several broken ribs. The crash and subsequent stay in the hospital were a publicity windfall.
With each successful jump, the public wanted him to jump one more car. On March 25, 1967, Knievel cleared 15 cars at Ascot Park in Gardena, California.  Then he attempted the same jump on July 28, 1967, in Graham, Washington, where he had his next serious crash. Landing his cycle on the last vehicle, a panel truck, Knievel was thrown from his bike. This time he suffered a serious concussion. After a month, he recovered and returned to Graham on August 18 to finish the show but the result was the same, only this time the injuries were more serious. Again coming up short, Knievel crashed, breaking his left wrist, right knee and two ribs.
Knievel first received national exposure on March 18, 1968, when comedian and late-night talk show host Joey Bishop had him on as a guest of ABC's The Joey Bishop Show.
Caesars Palace Edit
While in Las Vegas to watch Dick Tiger successfully defend his WBA and WBC light heavyweight titles at the Convention Center on November 17, 1967, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them.
To get an audience with casino CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and arranged for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on Wide World of Sports. ABC declined, but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel, at the age of 29, used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars jump. To keep costs low, Derek employed his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed the famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed his last $100 on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and had a shot of Wild Turkey, and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two showgirls. [ citation needed ]
After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm-up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he claimed he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot.
As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist, and both ankles, and a concussion that kept him in the hospital. Rumors circulated that he was in a coma for 29 days in the hospital, but this was refuted by his wife and others in the documentary film Being Evel.   
The Caesars Palace crash was Knievel's longest attempted motorcycle jump at 141 feet (43 m). After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than it originally would have had it televised the jump live. [ citation needed ]
In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, Knievel stated that he was uninsurable following the Caesars' crash. Knievel said he was turned down 37 times from Lloyd's of London, stating, "I have trouble getting life insurance, accident insurance, hospitalization and even insurance for my automobile. Lloyd's of London has rejected me 37 times so if you hear the rumor that they insure anybody, don't pay too much attention to it."  Four years later, a clause in Knievel's contract to jump 14 buses at Kings Island required a one-day $1 million liability insurance to the amusement park. Lloyd's of London offered the liability insurance for what was called a "laughable $17,500".  Knievel eventually paid $2,500 to a U.S.-based insurance company. 
Jumps and records Edit
To keep his name in the news, Knievel proposed his biggest stunt ever, a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon. Just five months after his near-fatal crash in Las Vegas, Knievel performed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 15 Ford Mustangs. Knievel ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result of the crash.
On August 3, 1968, Knievel returned to jumping, making more money than ever before. He was earning approximately $25,000 per performance, and he was making successful jumps almost weekly until October 13, in Carson City, Nevada. While trying to stick the landing, he lost control of the bike and crashed, breaking his hip again.
By 1971, Knievel realized that the U.S. government would never allow him to jump the Grand Canyon. To keep his fans interested, Knievel considered several other stunts that might match the publicity that would have been generated by jumping the canyon. Ideas included jumping across the Mississippi River, jumping from one skyscraper to another in New York City, and jumping over 13 cars inside the Houston Astrodome. While flying back to Butte from a performance tour, he looked out the window of his airplane and saw the Snake River Canyon. After finding a location just east of Twin Falls, Idaho, that was wide enough, deep enough, and on private property, he leased 300 acres (1.2 km 2 ) for $35,000 to stage his jump. He set the date for Labor Day (September 4), 1972.
On January 7–8, 1971, Knievel set the record by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. On February 28, he set a new world record by jumping 19 cars with his Harley-Davidson XR-750 at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, California. The 19-car jump was shot for the biopic Evel Knievel. Knievel held the record for 27 years until Bubba Blackwell jumped 20 cars in 1998 with an XR-750.  In 2015, Doug Danger surpassed that number with 22 cars, accomplishing this feat on Evel Knievel's actual vintage 1972 Harley-Davidson XR-750. 
On May 10, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks. His approach was complicated by the fact that he had to start on pavement, cut across grass, and then return to pavement. His lack of speed caused the motorcycle to come down front wheel first. He managed to hold on until the cycle hit the base of the ramp. After being thrown off, he skidded for 50 feet (15 m). He broke his collarbone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm, and broke both legs.
On March 3, 1972, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, after making a successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing area. He reportedly suffered a broken back and a concussion after getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson. Knievel returned to jumping in November 1973, when he successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.  For 35 years, Knievel held the record for jumping the most stacked cars on a Harley-Davidson XR-750 (the record was broken in October 2008).  His historic XR-750 is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Made of steel, aluminum and fiberglass, the customized motorcycle weighs about 140 kg (300 lb). 
During his career, Knievel may have suffered more than 433 bone fractures,  earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of "most bones broken in a lifetime".  However, this number could be exaggerated: his son Robbie told a reporter in June 2014 that his father had broken 40 to 50 bones Knievel himself claimed he broke 35.
The Grand Canyon jump Edit
Although Knievel never attempted to jump the Grand Canyon, rumors of the Canyon jump were started by Knievel himself in 1968, following the Caesars Palace crash. During a 1968 interview, Knievel stated, "I don't care if they say, 'Look, kid, you're going to drive that thing off the edge of the Canyon and die,' I'm going to do it. I want to be the first. If they'd let me go to the moon, I'd crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I'd like to go to the moon, but I don't want to be the second man to go there." For the next several years, Knievel negotiated with the federal government to secure a jumping site and develop various concept bikes to make the jump, but the Interior Department denied him airspace over the northern Arizona canyon. Knievel switched his attention in 1971 to the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho.
In the 1971 film Evel Knievel, George Hamilton (as Knievel) alludes to the canyon jump in the final scene of the movie. One of the common movie posters for the film depicts Knievel jumping his motorcycle off a (likely) Grand Canyon cliff. In 1999, his son Robbie jumped a portion of the Grand Canyon owned by the Hualapai Indian Reservation. 
Death cheated Evel Knievel, taking him like any ordinary septugenarian, at home in bed, after years of declining health. For a man who'd made millions selling the potential spectacle of his public demise, shrouded in leather, flames, and the roar of the crowd, it must have been a disappointment, both aesthetically and financially.
His life, on the other hand, was a thrill ride, filled with so much visionary speed, noise, and hype that he remains relevant decades after he last did something newsworthy. Before the X Games, Jackass, and World's Widest Police Chases, there was Evel. Before rappers who make more off their clothing lines than their albums, there was Evel. He recognized there was a growing market for TV sports programming aimed at viewers with no patience for huddles, time-outs, and games that dragged on for hours. He understood his performances functioned mostly as advertising for the merchandise he could sell. He was post-Napster pre-Napster, a YouTube auteur before the rest of the world had even discovered their remote controls.
In 1965, the 27-year-old Knievel performed his first feat of premeditated daredevilry in Moses Lake, Washington. The young entrepreneur had opened a motorcycle dealership there and he thought jumping over two boxes of rattlesnakes and a couple of mountain lions would be a good way to drum up business.
A few years later, he left the motorcycle dealership behind and began his career as a professional showman. On New Year's Day, 1968, he jumped the fountains in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. To get the gig, he'd called up Caesar's owner Jay Sarno pretending to be a reporter from Life magazine who'd heard that one “Eval Nevall” was planning to perform this feat. Then he called Sarno again, pretending to be from Sports Illustrated. Then he called Sarno a third time, pretending to be from ABC Sports. When, at last, he called Sarno pretending to be his own agent, the casino owner itching to make a deal with the little-known stuntman that somehow everyone was talking about.
ABC Sports proved less manipulable. When the network declined to cover the event live, Knievel paid director John Derek to film it for him. Derek delegated some of the shooting responsibilities to his then-wife Linda Evans it was she who captured the footage that would catapult Knievel.While he cleared the fountains easily at 80 mph, he botched his landing and lost control of his bike, going head over handlebars, then heels over head, head over heels, as the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat fused seamlessly into thirty seconds of pure cathode spectacle.
In slow motion, the action looked impossibly serene. Knievel's helmeted head bounced off the pavement with concussive beauty. His body tumbled down the ramp with a kind of mythic, go-with-the-flow grace. And while the flow happened to be snapping his ankles, crushing his pelvis, breaking his femur, cracking a wrist, fracturing a hip, and sending him into a month-long coma, it was doing so with virtually no visible carnage. It was hynoptic. It was beautiful. It was eminently viewable.
If some other aspiring daredevil had ever crashed in more TV-friendly fashion, he'd either lacked the foresight to capture it on celluloid or was the world's worst salesman. When Knievel, a salesman on par with P.T. Barnum, finally woke up in his hospital bed 29 days later, ABC Sports was eager to do business with him. And so was the rest of America. The enterprising 30-year-old had discovered the art of failing upward. Nailing a jump was good for business. Crashing was even better.
Over the next six years, Knievel attempted hundreds of jumps and failed often enough to require more than a dozen surgeries and frequent hospital stays. The jumps got longer his outfits grew flashier. At the peak of his fame, he dressed like a patriotic pimp with superhero powers, accessorizing his white leather jumpsuit with a snazzy cape and a diamond-tipped walking stick filled with Wild Turkey.
There was no greater badass in the land, and because it was the 1970s, the golden age of badassery, it seemed perfectly natural to market a hard-drinking, skirt-chasing hellraiser who wrecked his body for money to impressionable kids. There were Evel Knievel action figures, Evel Knievel lunchboxes, Evel Knievel Halloween costumes, Evel Knievel pinball games. When reckless 12-year-olds rode their Evel Knievel bicycles off homemade ramps, perforating their intestines and rupturing their spleens, their parents brought Evel Knievel posters and board games to their hospital rooms to cheer them up.
In those days, Elvis was fat and Evel was king. He had a great big leonine head and an ornery gambler's grin. He was a slick, brash-talking promoter out to con the rubes. He was a rebel, a patriot, an outlaw dressed in white. He was cocky, ambitious, preachy, self-righteous, and in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam, the star-spangled shot of old-fashioned American grit and determination that the country needed, living&mdashif chronically injured&mdashproof that with enough gas in the tank, we could do still do great things. Or at least leap a dozen Greyhound buses.
The beauty of Evel's act was its simplicity. He covered distances that were long enough to astonish, but not so long that they became too abstract to appreciate. He employed technology that was within reach of anyone within driving distance of a motorcycle dealership. Instead of space-suits, rocket ships, and command rooms filled with government scientists, he relied primarily on nerve. It made him easy to relate to, and also that much more mythic. You didn't have to be a NASA astronaut to attempt what he attempted. Anyone could give it a shot, and yet only he did.
His courage could only carry him so far, though. If he jumped thirteen buses, people wanted to see him jump fourteen. It was like being a comedian and not being allowed to tell the same joke twice. Eventually, you run out of jokes. His motorcycle couldn't go any further. He couldn't come any closer to killing himself than he already had. What could he possibly do to keep upping the ante?
His answer was the Snake River Canyon jump. From one side to the other, it was 1,600 feet. To cover this distance on an airborne motorcycle would require innovation, investment, months of careful planning. It was the redneck equivalent of the Apollo moon launch. And that was its fundamental flaw. It was too ambitious an undertaking. It was not something the average guy on a motorcycle could dream about doing himself. A NASA aerospace engineer built Knievel a vehicle that looked more like a miniature rocketship than a Harley. When Knievel climbed into its cockpit, only his helmet remained visible. The vital, visceral immediacy of his previous stunts was completely absent. The rebel cowboy barnstormer had morphed into an underfunded astronaut.
The stunt was a failure even before it began, but Knievel blasted off just the same. For the first few seconds, his miniature rocket ship shot toward the heavens. Then, when a parachute deployed too early, it slowed, its nose angled downward, and eventually it began a long, slow, anti-climatic free-fall toward the river below. Knievel would continue to make jumps for a few years after that. He would star in a movie, play golf, sign autographs for money. But even before he touched bottom that day, even before his Sky-Cycle drifted out of the TV cameras' view, obscured by the wall of the canyon, we were turning our attention elsewhere, starting to forget him. Look around today, however, and you can see his ghost everywhere.
Snake River Canyon (1974)
This jump was actually supposed to occur at the Grand Canyon in the late 1960s, but the Department of the Interior repeatedly denied Knievel permission. Instead, he settled for a privately-owned 300-acre section of the Snake River Canyon in Idaho for his most eye-popping jump to date. The jump — which spanned a mile — was set for the afternoon of Sept. 8, 1974. It was boosted by the boxing promoter Bob Arum.
“It was a closed-circuit event,” Mr. Montville said. “People went to theaters and arenas to watch this thing. In their publicity, they said Elvis was going to come, and the Pope was going to come. Nobody came, really.”
As soon as Knievel took off in his special steam-powered rocket, his parachute malfunctioned, sending him toward rocks below in the middle of the chasm. What was billed as a spectacle turned out to be a dud.
But the attempt remained an object of fascination. In 2016, a Hollywood stuntman, Eddie Braun, recreated Knievel’s jump with a rocket he named “Evel Spirit,” designed by the engineer Scott Truax. (Mr. Truax’s father, Robert, designed Knievel’s rocket.) Mr. Braun landed safely on the other side of the canyon.