Evel Knievel

As a kid, I had my heroes, just like any other kid in the world who grew up in front of a TV set. I have some vivid memories of Batman, Captain James Kirk, and obviously, Bugs Bunny. In my list of heroes, one is special, because he was a real guy, doing real stunts on a real motorcycle, jumping over real cars, buses, and believe it or not, rattlesnakes! His name was Evel Knievel.

Knievel started his career as a professional rider a bit late in life when he was 27 years old. He was the first daredevil biker to transform his stunts into a lucrative business and became a worldwide sensation in the 1960s/70s.

Robert Craig Knievel was born in the copper-mining town of Butte, Montana, on October 17, 1938. His parents broke up not long after he was born and the kid was raised by his grandparents.

Knievel was a very energetic teenager, a standout athlete in track and field, sky-jumping, and ice hockey. Unfortunately, he used part of this energy to become a petty criminal.

His very first bike was a Harley-Davidson he stole when he was 13 years old. Three years later his grandmother bought him a Triumph.

One night Robert was caught by the cops for riding his bike recklessly (no shi…!) and was taken to the local precinct. There, the police were holding a guy named Knofel, whom they called “Awful Knofel“. To call Robert “Evil Knievel” was a no-brainer. The name stuck, and some years later, Mr. Knievel legally took the name Evel, changing the “i” to “e” because, he said, he thought it looked better.

Evel and his beloved grandma, during his time as a motorcycle racer.

His career as a petty criminal continued, He was once again caught by the police, at this time, stealing hubcaps. Hoping the military life could straighten him up, the judge decided to give Evel a chance, it would either be going to jail or joining the army. Knievel jumped into the green uniform in the 1950s, but a regular infantry job wouldn’t do it for him; he volunteered to be a paratrooper and performed more than 30 jumps during his tenure. Afterward, he played semiprofessional and professional hockey, for a time with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League. Then he took up motorcycle racing full-time until falling and breaking bones in a race in 1962.

Jumping to glory.

When he was 27, Knievel became co-owner of a motorcycle shop in Moses Lake, Wash. To attract customers, he announced he would jump his Honda 350cc, 40 feet over parked cars and a box of rattlesnakes, and continue past a mountain lion tethered at the other end. More than 1,000 people came to see him, His jump was almost perfect, but he failed to fly far enough; his bike came down on the rattlesnakes. The audience was in awe.

Right then,” he said, “I knew I could draw a big crowd by jumping over weird stuff.”

In 1965 he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils and began barnstorming Western states. Since he was constantly crashing, breaking bones, and staying in hospitals, it was impossible to keep a regular schedule and the group was disbanded. Evel began performing alone, traveling all over the USA, jumping over cars and buses.

Some guys in history were born to become legends and that might be the case with Evel Knievel, even if he turned out to be a controversial one. Some stories about his personal life are as extreme as his stunts. He said he had twice kidnapped his hometown sweetheart, Linda Bork, and married her after the second time. He said he had robbed a service station of $900 when the owner failed to pay off a $25 bet. He said he had worked as a card shark, a swindler, and a safecracker. How much of it is true or not remained unclear.

The Machine

Evel started his career riding Honda, Norton, and Triumph but his favorite bike was Harley-Davidson. For an American hero through and through, there was no other brand that could fit the bill.

He chose the XR 750, a bike designed primarily for dirt track competition, but it could also perform well on paved tracks.

The bike is lightweight (147 kg dry) but sturdy. Powered by a 748cc, air-cooled V-twin, producing between 70 to 100 hp, depending on the level of the modifications adopted. Evel said that the XR had so much torque that was difficult to keep it in a straight line after the takeoff. The picture above shows it clearly.

The worst crash.

To appease the audience (and his ego) Evel was constantly increasing the distance of his jumps. One day, when he was leaving a heavyweight boxing fight in Las Vegas, he came across the fountains of the Ceasars Palace and decided he could jump over it.

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 him to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967.

The jump was perfect but then again, the landing was a disaster. “It was terrible,” he said afterward. “I lost control of the bike. Everything seemed to come apart. I kept smashing over and over and ended up against a brick wall, 165 feet away.”

Caesars Palace was by far my worst crash. I thought it was going to be a piece of cake. It wasn’t the jump—it was the landing that was so bad.”-

Evel, falling off his Triumph Bonneville, at the Ceasar’s Palace.

Weeks before the stunt, Evel tried to sell the broadcasting rights to several TV companies but none of them accepted the deal.

Knievel knew that doesn’t matter the outcome of the jump, it would be a big event. Using his own money he hired a film crew to record the jump. Even his wife worked as a camera operator. In the end, he made millions selling his footage to the same TV channels that said no to him. The first thing he did after leaving the hospital was to buy a Rolls Royce, the picture above shows the car parked under the awning at his house on Parrot Street in Butte, Montana. I guess the car fits well Evel’s flamboyant persona.

The accident left him with a fractured skull and broken pelvis, hips, and ribs. He was unconscious for a month. The Ceasars Palace stunt made him an international celebrity and became the symbol of his career. In 1989, his son Robbie, who also became a motorcycle stuntman, tried the same jump and succeeded. 

Wait a minute, Travis. Where is the Harley?

In 2018 Travis Pastrana honored his idol by replicating 3 of the most iconic Knievel jumps. Sure enough, the Ceasars Palace was among them.

The Ultimate Challenge

Evel saw his near-death crash in Las Vegas as “just another day at the office“. Soon after his recovery, he was back again jumping over a bunch of cars with his Harley-Davidson. But he knew his audience could at any moment get bored with his stunts. Fans have questionable loyalty, the moment they find something more exciting, they will turn their backs on you.

In 1974, Knievel came up with the idea that would be his most dangerous jump ever. He decided to fly over the Snake River Canyon, in Twin Falls, Idaho.

That is a 1600 ft, (almost 1/2 km) jump, no XR750 in the world (or any other bike for that matter) could propel Evel to the other side of the canyon. The only solution was going to the extreme, he hired aeronautical engineer Doug Malewick and retired US Navy engineer Robert Truax to build a rocket-powered bike.

Evel and his son Robert, checking the Skycycle 2, before the launch.

The first machine was named Skycycle X1 and it looked promising but after some testing, the X1 proved to be unfit for the task. The team decided to go full “space program” and they built the Skycycle X2, a real rocket for Evel (picture above).

The Skycycle 2 was designed to gain speed running on a 108 ft rail ramp.

Yes! That is the correct kind of helmet you should wear when flying a homemade rocket over a canyon.

On September 8, 1974, more than 10,000 people showed up to see the crazy stuntman reach the sky. Potato farmers, housewives, hippies, bikers, Boy Scouts, topless women, and a marching band, were all there and the atmosphere was something like 1969 Woodstock. People were so pumped that many had rioted a day before, burning Port-A-Potties and ripping the roofs off of beer trucks.

The crew fired up the Skycycle X2 engine and Evel ran on the ramp like a… well, like a rocket.

Just like many other stunts he performed before, this one looked like everything was going according to plan. When Knievel left the ramp he was flying at 350 miles per hour. The X2 soared 2000 ft over the canyon.

But the parachute deployed too soon, just after the launch, and instead of completing the jump, the rocket came down, floating to the canyon floor. Fans around the globe watched closed-circuit broadcasts in movie theaters, while ABC’s Wide World of Sports aired the event a few weeks later.

At least the parachute worked well. Skycycle 2 landed gently at the bottom of the canyon, leaving Knievel without serious injury. For his efforts, he made $6 million, not too bad considering he didn’t break any bones this time.

Self-made millionaire

Knievel and one of his favorite toys, a 1973 Ferrari Daytona.

Evel Knievel wasn’t only a crazy stuntman, he was a master marketer. The guy was charismatic, no doubt about it, and he knew how to use it. As a result, he became a pop culture icon and the money just followed its natural course.

He also made a ton of money with licensed toys.

I wasn’t the richest man in the world, but for a cycle rider from Montana, I was having a damn good time”- Evel Knievel
Evel was photographed here with some of his best pals before flying to New York to attend a heavyweight fight. He owned the Learjet you see in the picture and more often than he should, he used to fly the aircraft himself, even if he never got a license.

Jumping in England

As a worldwide celebrity, Evel Knievel brought his circus to Wembley Stadium, in London, England, on May 26, 1975. He was set up to jump over 13 buses. In order to allow him to reach the necessary speed, the organizers built a ramp that stretched all the way over the stands.

Surprise surprise! He crashed there, too, breaking his pelvis, vertebrae, and hand.

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!”

After the Wembley crash, the famous actress Ann Margret came to visit Evel, at the London Hospital on her way to the Cannes Film Festival.

The long way into retirement.

At this point in life, Evel was a rich man and adored by fans all over the world. He was popular not only for the stunts he successfully performed but mostly for the ones that he crashed. The fans couldn’t get enough of the stuntman that just refuses to die.

He knew that he could run out of luck at any moment and retirement now should be his most reasonable option…  wait a minute, reasonable and Evel Knievel are two things that do not go together in the same sentence.

Walking away from the spotlight is not an easy thing to do.

Knievel kept a busy jumping schedule. On October 25, 1975, he successfully jumped fourteen Greyhound buses at the Kings Island theme park in Ohio. The stunt was the official record for jumping the most buses on a Harley-Davidson and Knievel kept it 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

The shark jump.

In 1977, Knievel came up with another crazy idea, for a change he would not jump over cars or buses, he would jump over a gigantic tank…full of sharks!!!

This stunt was inspired by Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster Jaws, which was released in 1975 but was still a sensation at the time. The jump was scheduled for January in Chicago, IL and sure enough, the organizers built a gigantic tank and filled it with 13 (small) sharks. Unfortunately, the jump never happened. During his rehearsal, Knievel lost control of his Harley and crashed into a cameraman. Knievel broke both arms and had to cancel the stunt, but what really got him devastated was the permanent injury the 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 was ready.

The disastrous shark jump was the breaking point for Evel. He 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.”

Robbie Knievel visits Jay Leno.

After Evel retired, his son, Robbie Knievel, took his place. Robbie became an accomplished stunt biker and during his career, he broke several records and successfully performed some of the jumps his father had failed before.

The last of gladiators.

As far as he remembered, Evel underwent as many as 15 major operations to relieve severe trauma and repair broken bones — skull, pelvis, ribs, collarbone, shoulders, and hips. “I created the character called Evel Knievel, and he sort of got away from me,” he said.

He had a titanium hip and aluminum plates in his arms and several pins holding other bones and joints together. He was in so many accidents that he occasionally broke some of his metal parts, too.

Living on the fast lane also took its toll, his health had been compromised by years of heavy drinking; he told reporters that at one point he was consuming half a fifth of whiskey a day, washed down with beer chasers.

Mr. Knievel had been in failing health for years with diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable lung condition. In 1999, he underwent a liver transplant after nearly dying of hepatitis C, which he believed he had contracted from a blood transfusion after one of his many hospital visits. He died on November 30, 2007, victim of pulmonary disease, in Clearwater, Florida.

The image of Evel Knievel, the death-defying daredevil riding his Harley-Davidson, jumping over rows of cars, trucks, and buses, became the personification of America’s love affair with motor vehicles. In 1999 he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

This is not going to end up well.

Knievel also became the hero of thousands of kids worldwide, inspiring some daring cul-de-sac stunts. And indirectly responsible for a few broken bones.

Bones heal, chicks dig scars, pain is temporary, glory is forever”-Evel Knievel


Published by Rubens Junior

Passionate about classic cars, motorcycles, airplanes, and watches.

4 thoughts on “Evel Knievel

    1. Thanks, Glenn. Knievel was well known in South America and by the late 1970s there was a rumor that he would come to Brazil and perform a jump at Interlagos, right before the Brazilian F1 Grand Prix. If it was true or not, I can’t tell.

      Liked by 1 person

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