LIFE OF EVEL KNIEVEL
Evel Knievel was born Robert Craig Knievel on Oct. 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana.
After a police chase in 1956, in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check roll call, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in another. Knofel was well known as “Awful Knofel” (“awful” rhyming with “Knofel”) so Knievel began to be referred to as Evel Knievel (“Evel” rhyming with “Knievel”). He chose this misspelling because of his last name and because he didn’t want to be considered “evil”.
And thus the legend was born…
Death-defying feats have fascinated mankind for centuries. From sword swallowers to human cannonballs, the daredevils of history have risked life and limb to draw a crowd. Few performers gained lasting fame. But in the 1970’s a motorcycle-jumping stuntman from Butte, Montana vaulted this tradition from its sideshow origins to unthinkable heights of popularity and influence.
Evel Knievel made the leap from rural county fairs to sold-out stadiums through a unique combination of bravado, determination, and promotional genius. He invented himself and his business, jumping, crashing, and miraculously recovering to promise even more outrageous stunts to come.
“THE PEOPLE DON’T COME TO SEE ME DIE. THEY COME TO SEE ME DEFY DEATH.”
A generation of kids grew up transfixed by his televised exploits, imitating his stunts on bicycles and with Evel Knievel toys.
Evel’s first jump was in 1966, over two pickup trucks, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. From that point on, Knievel’s stunts became more ambitious and more dangerous.
Some of his most memorable jumps include Caesars Palace (1967), San Francisco Cow Palace (1970) Snake River Canyon(1975), and of course the famous London Wembley Stadium jump (1975).
When USA ABC’s Wide World of Sports collated the top twenty most watched sporting moments of all time, Evel featured five times – including the top spot. In one of his first jumps for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Knievel successfully jumped 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Coliseum in front of a crowd of 35,000.
This performance lead to a world record where Evel jumped 14 greyhound buses at King’s Island amusement park in Ohio in 1975, four months after a spectacular crash in the jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London, England – which remains ABC’s Wide World of Sports’ highest rated show of all time.
Teach your kids about good and Evel. With the throttle wide-open, Evel Knievel went head to head with danger and lived to tell the tale. Despite failed jumps, crashes, and multiple broken bones, he always rose to perform again. This unconventional attitude to do things that had never been done before is exactly what made him a global icon.
Evel Knievel is an inspiration to people – young and old – who recognize they want to be in control of their own destiny. People who want to go out and do great things. People who use drive, determination, personality, and hard work to become their own legend.
Evel Knievel (October 17, 1938 – November 30, 2007), born Robert Craig Knievel, in the mining city of Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938. “The Richest Hill on Earth” had an attitude of its own. The men worked hard and played harder, their women worried and the common rule was…well, there weren’t really any rules, as long as you worked hard. It didn’t take long for young Bobby to start flourishing as a character in this kind of wide-open, anything goes atmosphere. And it didn’t take long for people to notice.
Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel was the first of two children born to Robert E. and Ann Keough “Zippy” Knievel. His surname is of German origin; his great-great-grandparents on his father’s side emigrated to the United States from Germany and on his mother’s side from Ireland. The boys were raised by paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Bobby attended a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show, to which he gave credit for his later career choice to become a motorcycle daredevil.
Knievel started racing around Butte’s grisly, mining-scarred landscapes on his bicycle at an early age before he’d come to realize that it would be his calling.
Always a thrill seeker with a cunning edge, young Knievel found himself in trouble early and often, but never without learning a valuable lesson. As a young boy, he would outsell most of the local newspaper boys, many much older than him, on the busy corners of the uptown, by stretching the truth of the papers’ headlines. Knievel eventually found himself as a high school dropout with an unsavory yet inescapable choice after a hub cap theft bust: go to prison or join the Army. His stint in the service straightened him out several fold. Upon his return to The Mining City, he married Linda Bork, they had their first child, Kelly, and Knievel started to explore legitimate ways to make a living and raise a family. Times were hard, but despite the lack of income, Knievel always showed brilliance and promise in his ventures.
First, he got a job in the copper mines with the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator. He was then 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. The incident left the city without electricity for several hours. Idle, Knievel began to find himself in more and more trouble around Butte. After a police chase in 1956 in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check the roll, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Knofel was well known as “Awful Knofel” (“awful” rhyming with “Knofel”) so Knievel began to be referred to as Evel Knievel (“Evel” rhyming with “Knievel”).
He chose this misspelling because of his last name and because he didn’t want to be considered “evil.”
While trying to support his family, Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood show he saw as a boy and 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 twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel realized to make any amount of real 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 Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel didn’t want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blair to allow him to use Evel instead of Evil.
The debut of Knievel and his daredevils was on January 23, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. Evel performed wheelies, crashed through plywood firewalls and jumped over two pick-up trucks. The show was a huge success. Knievel received several offers to host more shows after that first performance. The second booking was in Hemet, California, but was canceled due to rain. The next performance was on February 10, 1966 in Barstow, California. During the performance, Knievel attempted a new stunt where he would jump, spread eagle, over a speeding motorcycle. Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, violently tossing him into the air. He was placed in hospital 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 a schedule. 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 hadn’t had a serious injury since the Barstow performance, but on June 19, 1966 in Missoula, Montana, he attempted to jump twelve cars and a cargo van. The distance he had for takeoff didn’t 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 May 30, 1967, Knievel successfully cleared sixteen cars 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 a panel truck that was the last vehicle, 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 again finish the show.
Knievel finally received some national exposure when actor Joey Bishop had him on as a guest of The Joey Bishop Show. All the attention not only brought larger paydays, but also female admirers.
While in Las Vegas, to watch Dick Tiger successfully defend his light heavyweight boxing title at the Las Vegas Convention Center in November 1967, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them. To get an audience with the casino’s 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 ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set 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 used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars’ jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel’s famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed his last 100 dollars 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 two showgirls.
After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, it was perfect, the landing however was a disaster.
Knievel came up short which 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 a coma for 29 days. For certain - the most famous motorcycle crash in history.
Before the Caesars’ jump Knievel asked his friend, a Combined Insurance sales agent, to sell him ten accident policies. Combined’s underwriting policies allowed for only one of these policies to be written, since the policy covered any accident and was non-cancelable for the life of the insured. The friend agreed and was fired by Combined when Knievel filed the claim on all ten.
Upon hearing that his friend had been fired Knievel contacted Combined’s President, the positive thinking W. Clement Stone. He agreed to return nine of the policies and be paid full benefits on only one, if Combined allowed the friend to return to work. Combined agreed and his friend was reinstated.
After his crash and recovery Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV showed the jump paying far more than they originally would have had they televised the original jump live. Ironically, when Knievel finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his doctors were telling him that he might never walk without the aid of crutches, let alone ride and jump motorcycles.
JUMPS AND RECORDS
To keep his name in the news, Knievel started describing his biggest stunt ever, a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon. Just five months after his near fatal crash, Knievel miraculously performed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump fifteen 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, 1968, in Carson City, Nevada. As famous for his crashes as his success, Evel lost control when landing and crashed again, breaking his hip once more.
On May 10, 1970 in Yakima, Washington, 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). Knievel broke his collarbone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm and broke both legs.
On January 8 and January 9, 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 in Ontario, California. The 19 car jump was also filmed for the movie, Evel Knievel.
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. Knievel 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 February 1973, where he successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For 35 years, Knievel held the record for successfully jumping the most stacked cars on a Harley-Davidson XR-750. 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 300 pounds.
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.”
Knievel kept up his pursuit of getting the United States government to allow him to jump the Grand Canyon. To push his case, he hired famed San Francisco defense attorney Melvin Belli to fight the legal battle in obtaining government permission. ABC’s Wide World of Sports started showing Knievel’s jumps on television regularly. His popularity, especially with young boys, was ever increasing. He became a hero to a generation of young boys, many of whom were injured trying to imitate his stunts. A. J. Foyt made Knievel part of his pit crew for the Indianapolis 500 in 1970. Evel became great friends with racing legend JC Agajanian whose teams won the race three times.
For the next several years, Knievel would negotiate with the U.S. government to secure a jumping site and develop various concept bikes to make the jump. However, the U.S. Department of Interior denied him airspace over the Grand Canyon. In 1971, Knievel switched his attention to the Snake River Canyon.
After finding a location near Twin Falls, Idaho, that was both wide enough, deep enough and on private property. Knievel leased 300 acres for $35,000 to stage his jump. He set the date for September 1974. He would often claim, "I bought my own canyon."
ABC Sports was unwilling to pay the price Knievel wanted for the Snake River Canyon jump, so he ended up hiring Bob Arum’s company, Top Rank Productions, to put the event on closed circuit television and broadcast to movie theaters. Knievel then hired subcontractor and aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to build him a rocket-powered cycle that he could use to jump across the Snake River, to be called the X-1 Skycycle. Doug’s creation was powered by a steam engine built by former NASA engineer Robert Truax. On April 15, 1972 the X-1 was launched to test the feasibility of the launching ramp and dunked in the river a mile below. The decision was then made to have Truax build the Skycycle X-2 and have it take off and fly more like a rocket than a motorcycle.
The launch at Snake River Canyon (42.59713°N 114.42292°W) was on September 8, 1974, at 3:36 p.m. MDT. The steam that powered the engine was superheated to a temperature of 500 °F (260 °C). Upon take-off, the drogue parachute deployed. The deployed chute caused enough drag that even though the skycycle made it part way across the canyon to the north rim, the prevailing winds caused it to drift back south, into the canyon.
By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, it landed only a few feet from the water on the same side of the canyon it had been launched from. If he had landed in the water, Knievel would have drowned due to a jumpsuit/harness which kept him strapped in the vehicle. Knievel survived the jump with only minor injuries.
After the Snake River jump, Knievel returned to motorcycle jumping with ABC Wide World of Sports televising several jumps. On May 26, 1975, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London, Knievel crashed while trying to land a jump over thirteen single-deck AEC Merlin buses (the term “London Buses” used in earlier publicity had led to the belief that the attempt was to be made over the higher and more traditional Routemaster double-deck type). After the crash, despite breaking his back, Knievel addressed the audience and announced his retirement. Near shock and not yielding to Frank Gifford’s (of ABC Wide World of Sports) plea to use a stretcher, Knievel walked off the Wembley field stating, “I came in walking, I'm going out walking!”
KINGS ISLAND JUMP
After recuperating, Knievel decided that he had spoken too soon, and that he would continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped fourteen Greyhound buses at the Kings Island theme park in Ohio. Although Knievel landed on the safety deck above the 14th bus (the frame of the Harley-Davidson actually broke) his landing was successful and he held the record for jumping the most buses on a Harley-Davidson for 24 years. The Kings Island event scored the highest viewer ratings in the history of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and would serve as Knievel’s longest successful jump at 163 feet. After the Kings Island jump, Knievel again announced his retirement.
Again, his retirement was short lived and Knievel continued to jump. However, after the lengthy Kings Island jump, Knievel limited the remainder of his career jumps to shorter and more attainable lengths. Evel jumped on October 30, 1976, at the Seattle Kingdome. He only jumped seven Greyhound Buses but it was a success. Despite the crowd’s pleasure, Knievel felt that it was not his best jump, and apologized to the crowd.
In January 1977, Knievel was scheduled for a major jump in Chicago, Illinois. The jump was inspired by the film, Jaws. Knievel was scheduled to jump a tank full of live sharks and would be televised live nationally. However, during his rehearsal, Knievel lost control of the motorcycle and crashed into a cameraman. Although Knievel broke his arms, he was more distraught over a permanent injury his accident caused to the cameraman (who lost his eye). The footage of this crash was so upsetting to Knievel, that he did not show the clip for 19 years until the documentary, Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story.
After the failed shark jump, Knievel retired from major performances and limited his appearances to speaking only, rather than stunt riding, saying ”a professional is supposed to know when he has jumped far enough.”
Knievel briefly used a Honda 350cc motorcycle, using it to jump a crate of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, which was his first known jump. Knievel then used a Norton Motorcycle Company 750cc. He used the Norton for only one year during 1966. Between 1967 and 1968, Knievel jumped using the Triumph Bonneville (with a 650cc engine). Knievel used the Triumph at the Caesars Palace crash on New Year’s Eve 1967. When Knievel returned to jumping after the crash, he used Triumph for the remainder of 1968.
Between December 1969 and April 1970, Knievel used the Laverda American Eagle 750cc motorcycle. On December 12, 1970, Knievel would switch to the Harley-Davidson XR-750, the motorcycle with which he is best known for jumping. Knievel would use the XR-750 in association with Harley-Davidson until 1977.
On September 8, 1974, Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket propelled motorcycle designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax dubbed the Skycycle X-2. The State of Idaho registered the X-2 as an airplane rather than a motorcycle.
One of Evel’s qualities was that he had great pride in his core values. Throughout his career (and later life), he would repeatedly talk about the importance of “keeping his word”. He stated that although he knew he may not successfully make a jump or even survive the canyon jump, he followed through with each stunt because he gave his word that he would. Prior to the canyon jump, Knievel stated, “If someone says to you, ‘that guy should have never jumped the canyon. You knew if he did, that he’d lose his life and that he was crazy.’ Do me a favor. Tell him that you saw me here and regardless of what I was, that you knew me, and that I kept my word.”
In the documentary Last of the Gladiators, Knievel discussed the crash of a 1970 Pepsi-Cola sponsored jump in Yakima, Washington. Knievel knew the jump was questionable, but stated, I went ahead and did it anyway. When you give your word to somebody that you’re going to do something, you’ve gotta do it. In the 1971 biopic, George Hamilton (as Evel) emphasizes in the opening monologue that a man does not go back on his word.
Knievel would regularly share his anti-drug message, as it was another one of his core values. Knievel would preach an anti-drug message to children and adults before each of his stunts. One organization that Knievel regularly slammed for being drug dealers was the Hells Angels. A near-riot erupted on January 23, 1970 at the Cow Palace when a tire-iron was thrown at Knievel during his stunt show, and Knievel and the spectators fought back, sending the Hells Angels to the hospital. The plot to his only motion picture as an actor, Viva Knievel, centers around Evel foiling the attempts of drug lords smuggling narcotics into America from Mexico.
Knievel was married twice. He and his first wife, Linda, were legally married for 38 years. During their marriage, the couple had four children: 2 boys and 2 girls (oldest child Kelly and second-born Robbie are the boys and Tracey and youngest child Alicia are the girls). Throughout Kelly’s and Robbie’s adolescence, the boys performed at Knievel’s stunt shows. Robbie Knievel continued into adulthood to perform as a professional motorcycle daredevil. Knievel’s courtship and marriage to Linda was the theme of the 1971 George Hamilton movie, Evel Knievel. Linda and Evel were legally divorced in 1997.
In 1999, Knievel married his girlfriend, Krystal Kennedy. The marriage was held at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The couple were married for two years, divorcing in 2001. Following the divorce, Krystal and Evel would work out their differences and remain close friends and live together until Knievel’s death.
Knievel died in Clearwater, Florida, on November 30, 2007, aged 69. He had been suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis for many years. A longtime friend reported that Knievel had trouble breathing while at his residence in Clearwater, but died before the ambulance could reach the hospital. “It’s been coming for years, but you just don’t expect it. Superman just doesn’t die, right?” In one of his last interviews, he told Maxim Magazine, “You can’t ask a guy like me why [I performed]. I really wanted to fly through the air. I was a daredevil, a performer. I loved the thrill, the money, the whole macho thing. All those things made me Evel Knievel. Sure, I was scared. You gotta be an ass not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death.”
Knievel was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in his hometown of Butte, Montana on December 10, 2007, following a funeral at the 7,500-seat Butte Civic Center presided over by Rev. Robert Schuller (actor Matthew McConaughey gave the eulogy). Prior to the Monday service, fireworks exploded in the Butte night sky as pallbearers carried Knievel’s casket into the center.
On July 10, 2010, a special temporary exhibit entitled TRUE EVEL: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel was opened at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The exhibit was opened in collaboration with Harley-Davidson Motorcycles and Evel’s oldest son, Kelly. Among the various artifacts from Knievel’s life, the exhibit included his “Shark Jump” Harley-Davidson XR-750, the X-2 Skycycle, his “Wembley Blue” jumpsuit, and his trademark “red, white and blue” jumpsuit complete with his helmet and walking stick. Evel Knievel merchandising, personal artifacts, and X-rays from his injuries were also exhibited.
The TRUE EVEL exhibit ran approximately two-months and ended on September 6, 2010.