Stunt hero or kamikaze nutcase? A portrait of Evel Knievel
He was a fearless hero, a loving family man and a bit of a con artist, but above all, Evel Knievel was the ultimate showman.Peter Iantorno January 21, 2015
On February 10, 1966, a 28-year-old Robert Knievel stands in the middle of a small dusty arena in Barstow, California. Faced with a snarling motorcycle revving and kicking up the dust, Knievel readies himself then gives the signal, and the bikes takes off, flying towards him at a rate of knots.
Unfazed by the rapidly approaching machine, Knievel stands his ground, visualising himself springing into the air and completing a perfect spread-eagle jump over the bike. It's not an easy task: jump too early and he'll come back down on the bike, but jump too late and the speeding motorcycle will smash straight into him.
Waiting until the very last possible second, Kenievel summons all of his might and thrusts himself high off the ground. The crowd, watching on with baited breath, erupt in cheers of appreciation as it looks like he's done just enough to avoid the speeding mass of metal. However, he's slightly too late with his jump, and the bike clips him in the groin, spinning him up some 15 feet in the air and sending him crashing back down to earth in a heap. The crowd's cheers turn to gasps, and Kenievel is rushed to hospital, where he'll spend the next months in recovery. Although that ill-fated attempt might not sound like the most successful of stunts, it was the start of a long and lucrative career (albeit not without a few bumps and bruises along the way) for the man, the legend, we all know as Evel Knievel.
Born in 1938 in the city of Butte, Montana, Robert Knievel was always destined to be a daredevil. His fascination with stunts started as early as his second year of high school, when he dropped out of education to take a job working in the copper mines.
His job was to operate a huge earth mover, which you'd have thought would be exciting enough in itself, however, the young Knievel quickly tired of this and decided he was going to try to make the massive machine do a motorcycle-style wheelie. Unfortunately, Knievel misjudged the wheelie, resulting in him driving straight into Butte's main power line, knocking it over and leaving the whole city without power for several hours.
Needless to say, the mining company took a dim view on this and quickly fired Knievel, which sent him on a downwards spiral, often getting on the wrong side of the police due to various bouts of driving around town recklessly on his motorcycle. In 1959 Knievel got married to his first wife Linda Joan Bork, and between then and the mid 1960s, he was accused of (and, in some cases, charged with) various crimes of such an obscure nature that if they appeared in a fictitious crime drama they'd probably be considered too unbelievable.
A small sample of the cons he was linked with: Convincing the Czechoslovakian Olympic hockey team to play his own semi-pro side, the Butte Bombers, and stealing the gate receipts after being ejected from the game; Selling life insurance to the clinically insane; Charging a fee to a hunting party, only to lead them around Yellowstone National Park poaching big game animals; Breaking into the safe at Butte courthouse to get the money to fix his motorcycle. He was nothing if not resourceful.
By 1966, perhaps sick of being caught on the wrong side of the law, Knievel came up with a new money-making idea: to use the skills he'd gained from a lifetime riding motorcycles to entertain people. Under his new stage name, Evel Knievel, he started with a small show at the National Date Festival in Indio, California, where he successfully completed a motorcycle jump over a six-metre-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions.
His next show resulted in his first failure (the aforementioned speeding motorcycle to the groin incident), but instead of putting him off, Knievel just kept on coming back for more, travelling the country as a solo act, jumping over up to 16 lined-up cars - more often than not succeeding, but also quite regularly failing, resulting in all manner of broken bones and other injuries. While his crazy exploits were starting to earn him a bit of exposure, Knievel's really big break (literally as well as metaphorically) came when he managed to arrange a high-profile jump of the Caesar's Palace Fountains in Las Vegas. He had to try every trick in the book to even get an audience with the casino's CEO, first posing as a reporter from Sports Illustrated and making enquiries about "an amazing stunt" that he'd "heard was happening at Caesar's Palace", before calling as himself and pitching the idea.
Somehow the CEO bought into the idea, and the jump went ahead on New Year's Eve, 1967. As the story goes, on the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped off at the casino, placed a $100 bet on blackjack (which he lost) and drank a shot of whiskey before heading outside and attempting the stunt in front of an expectant crowd.
True to form, Knievel thundered through his approach to the ramp fearlessly, but a sudden loss of acceleration on his bike meant that he failed to nail the landing, resulting in a spectacular crash, leaving Knievel with a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to both ankles, his wrist and his hip and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days.
For most people, this would be the final straw and signal the end of a short yet error-strewn stunt career, yet for Knievel, it was the big break he was looking for. The whole jump (and resulting crash, video below) had been filmed and later sold to ABC-TV, which brought Knievel a big pay day and the national exposure he so craved. Although nobody really wanted to see him get hurt, the really enticing thing about watching an Evel Knievel show was the very real threat of imminent injury or worse. This was so captivating to audiences that after waking up from the coma, such was the interest in seeing him attempt more jumps, Knievel, ever the showman, simply couldn't resist.
He returned to the fray as soon as he was able, and put on hundreds more shows over the next 10 years, most notably an epic attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-like machine called the X-2 Skycycle (which he failed, video below), and an attempt to clear 13 London busses in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium, which he also failed, breaking his pelvis in the process.
Looking at the cold, hard facts about all of his failed attempts and broken bones, it could easily be argued that Evel Knievel was not the hero he's made out to be. While he wasn't the most naturally talented and certainly no angel, the thing that made Knievel such a hero was that no matter how impossible the task he was faced with or how many times he was knocked down, he'd always get back up on that bike and give it another go, to earn money, to earn acclaim, but most of all because he was a natural showman.