Evel Knievel

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Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel (born October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana) is an American stuntman, best known for his public displays of distance motorcycle jumping which often resulted in serious injuries, particularly during the 1970s. The consummate salesman, he was able to turn his popularity into a marketing juggernaut with products ranging from radios to action figures. His achievements and failures got him into the Guinness Book of World Records several times including his record thirty-five broken bones.


Early life

Knievel was the first of two children born to Robert and Ann Knievel. Robert and Ann divorced in 1940, just after the birth of their second child, Nic. Both parents decided to leave Butte and their two children to get a new start. The children were raised by their paternal grandparents, Ognatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Knievel attended a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show, which he credits for his later career choice to become a motorcycle daredevil.

Knievel dropped out of school after his sophomore year, and got a job with the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator in the copper mines. He was promoted to surface duty where his job was driving a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover pop a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte's main power line, leaving he city without power. With a lot of time on his hands, Knievel began to get into more and more trouble around Butte. After one particular police chase in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail. When the night jailer came around to check the role, he said "Hey, we got a guy named Knievel in one cell and another named Knoffle in the other. Goddamn! Double the guard! We got Evil Knievel and Awful Knoffle her tonight." The nickname stuck.

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 1957. In the late 1950s, Knievel joined the 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, kidnapped and married his first wife, Linda Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel left Butte to join the Charlotte Checkers of the Eastern Hockey League, a minor professional ice hockey league. Realizing that he wasn't talented enough to make it into the National Hockey League and that the real money in sports, at the time, was in owning a team, Knievel returned to Butte and started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team. To help promote his team and earn some money, he convinced the 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team to play his Butte Bombers in a warm up game to the Olympics. Knievel was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czech 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 U.S Olympic Committee ended up paying the Czech expenses in order to avoid an international incident.

After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family. 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 signed up with his service and paid his fee that they would get the big game animal that they wanted or he would refund their money. Business was very brisk until game wardens realized that he was taking his clients into Yellowstone National Park to find their prey. As a result, Knievel had to shut down his new business venture. Having few options, he turned to a life of crime, becoming a burglar.

In December, 1961, Knievel, learning about the slaughter of excess elk in Yellowstone Park, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington D.C. to raise awareness and to have the elk relocated to areas open to hunters. He presented his case to Congressman Arnold Olsen, Senator Mike Mansfield and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. As a result of his efforts, the slaughter was stopped and the animals have since been regularly captured and relocated to areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.

Knievel decided to go straight after returning home from Washington. He joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but still couldn't make enough money to support his family. In 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he couldn't race for at least six months. To help support his family, he switched careers and became an insurance salesman 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. To this day Knievel credits much of his success to Stone and his book.

Knievel did very well as an insurance salesman and wanted to be quickly rewarded for his effort. When the company refused to promote him to Vice-President after few months on the job, he quit. Needing a fresh start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. Times were tough in the early 1960s for Japanese imports. People still considered them inferior to American built motorcycles and there were still resentments about the attack on Pearl Harbor. At one point, Knievel offered a $100 discount to anybody that could beat him in arm wrestling. Despite his best efforts the store eventually closed.


Missing image
Evel Knievel in 1966.

Not having anyway to support his family, Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood show he saw as a boy and decided that he could do a similar show 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 coming up short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.

Knievel realized that to make any real money he would have to hire more performers, stunt coordinators and other personal so that he could concentrate on the jumps. Being broke, he went looking for a sponsor and found one in Bob Blare, a distributor for Norton Motorcycles. Blare 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 didn't want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blare to allow him to use Evel instead of Evil.

The first show of Knievel and his daredevils was on January 3, 1966, at the "National Date Festival" in Indio, California. The show was a huge success. Knievel got several offers to host his show after their first performance. The next booking was in Hemet, California, but it ended up getting canceled because of rain. The next performance was on February 10, 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, tossing him fifteen feet into the air. Knievel ended up in the hospital because of his injuries. When released, he returned to Barstow to finish the performance he started almost a month prior.

Knievel's daredevil show broke up after the Barstow performance because Knievel was unable to perform due to his injuries. After recovering, Knievel started traveling from small town to small town as a solo act. To get ahead of other motorcycle stuntmen that 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 in order to get people to come out and see him again. Knievel hadn't had a serious injury since the Barstow show until June 19 in Missoula, Montana. There, he attempted to jump thirteen cars, the last one being a cargo van. The distance he had for takeoff didn't allow him go get up enough speed. His back wheel hit the top of the van while his front wheel hit the top of the ramp. Knievel ended up with a severely broken arm and several broken ribs. The publicity from the crash and subsequent stay in the hospital were a publicity windfall.

With each successful jump, the public want 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. Coming down on a panel truck that was the last vehicle, Knievel was thrown from his bike. This time he only suffered a serious concussion. After recovering for a month, he 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 finally got some national exposure when 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, several of whom he had adulterous affairs with.

Caesar's Palace

Missing image
Knievel jump the Caesar's Palace fountains

While in Las Vegas, Nevada to watch Dick Tiger fight a middleweight title fight, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesar's Palace, and decided to jump them. To get in to see Caesar's Palace CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious Jewish 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 jumped 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 John Derek produce a film of the Caesar's jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his wife, Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans that filmed Knievel's famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed a bet on the roulette table, which he lost, stopped by the bar and got a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesar's staff, as well as two scantily clad 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, 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 received 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.

After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC bought the rights to the film of the jump and had to pay far more than if they had televised the jump live. Ironically, when Knievel finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his doctors were telling him that he may never walk with out crutches again, let alone ride and jump motorcycles. 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 preformed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump fifteen 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. Everything was going great for Knievel, 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 again, once again breaking his hip. During his recovery, Knievel had the X-1 Skycycle built by NASA rocket scientist Doug Malewicki to promote his Grand Canyon jump. More a show piece than actual motorcycle, the X-1 had two jet engines capable of producing more than 14,000 pounds of thrust bolted to the side of a normal motorcycle. Knievel also had all the trucks he used to go from one jump to the next painted to promote the Grand Canyon jump.

Marketing the image

Missing image
The Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle

Knievel sought to make more money off of his image. No longer satisfied with just receiving free motorcycles to jump with, Knievel wanted to be paid to use and promote a company's brand of motorcycles. After Triumph, the motorcycle that he had been jumping with, refused to meet his demands, Knievel started to propose the idea to other manufactures. American Eagle Motorcycles was the first company to sign Knievel to an endorsement deal. At approximately the same time, Fanfare Films started production of Evel Knievel, a movie starring George Hamilton as Knievel.

Starting in 1972, Ideal started to release a line of very popular Evel Knievel toys, including the most popular toy of the 1970s, the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. The first motorcycle toy ever, it appealed to both boys and their fathers, propelling the Evel Knievel toy line as it revitalized the depressed toy industry, and eventually grossed over $350 million dollars, of which Knievel received approx. 10-15% of the proceeds.

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 defense attorney Melviin Belli to fight the legal battle to obtain government permission.

ABC's Wide World of Sports started showing Knievel's jumps on television with regularity. His popularity, especially with young boys, was ever increasing. He became a hero to a generation of young boys, many of whom injured trying to imitate his stunts. A. J. Foyt made him part of his pit crew for the Indianapolis 500 in 1970. His huge fame caused him to start traveling with a body guard, Boots Curtis, a long time Knievel friend.

Snake River Canyon

Missing image
Knievel in the X-2 Skycycle

By 1971, Knievel realized that the United States 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 the Mississippi River, jumping from one skyscraper to another in New York City and jumping over the Houston Astrodome. While flying back to Butte from a performance tour, Knievel looked out the window and saw 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 three-hundred acres for $35,000 to stage his jump. He set the date for Labor Day, 1972.

On January 7 and 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 in Ontario, California. 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 fifty feet. Knievel broke his collar bone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm and broke both legs.

Knievel continued to jump and promote his Labor Day assault on the Snake River Canyon. On March 3, at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Knievel got into a scuffle with a couple of Hells Angels in the audience. After making a successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing area. Knievel ended up getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a Harley Davidson. Knievel ended up with a broken back and a concussion.

ABC Sports was unwilling to pay the price Knievel wanted for the canyon jump, so he ended up hiring Bob Arum's company, Top Rank Productions, to put the event on pay-per-view cable. Arum brought in Sheldon Saltman to do publicity so that Knievel could concentrate on his jumps. Knievel then hired former NASA engineer Robert Traux to design and build the X-2 Skycycle. During two test jumps, the first on April 15, 1972 and the second on June 24, 1973, the rocket failed to make it all the way across the canyon. Knievel said that there would be no more tests and that he would go ahead with scheduled jump on September 8, Labor Day.

The launch at the Snake River Canyon was at 3:36pm. The steam that powered the engine had to get up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit. About two-thirds the way up the ramp, the drone parachute deployed. The chute caused enough drag that the skycycle couldn't make it all the way across the canyon. The skycycle turned on its side and started to descend into the canyon. The main chute deployed, allowing the wind to carry the skycycle into the canyon wall. By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, the wind had pushed it across the river enough so that it landed half in and half out of the water. Knievel survived the jump with only minor injuries.


On May 31, 1975, in front of 90,000 people in Wembley Stadium in London, Knievel crashed while trying to land a jump of thirteen double decker busses. After the crash, despite breaking his pelvis, Knievel addressed the audience and announced his retirement. After recuperating, Knievel decided that he spoke too soon and that he would keep jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped fourteen Greyhound buses. After the jump, he again announced his retirement.

Knievel made several television appearances, including a guest spot on The Bionic Woman where he played himself. He was a frequent guest on talks shows such as Dinah! and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. On January 31, 1977, during a dress rehearsal for a CBS special on live daredevil stunts, Knievel crashed, breaking both arms and his collarbone. In the process, a misplaced cameraman was injured, losing an eye. In June of 1977, Warner Bros. released, Viva Knievel!, a movie staring Knievel as himself and co-staring Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly and Red Buttons. The movie was a box office flop.

While healing from his injuries, the book, Evel Knievel on Tour was released. Authored by Sheldon Saltman, the book attacked Knievel's character and claimed that he abused his wife and kids and that he used drugs. Knievel, with both arms still in casts, flew to California to confront Saltman, a VP at Twentieth Century Fox. Outside the studio commissary, while a friend held Sheldon, Knievel used a baseball bat to break the left arm of Saltman. On October 14, 1977, Knievel pled guilty to battery and was sentenced to three years probation and six months in the county jail.

With no income, Knievel eventually had to declare bankruptcy. In 1981, Saltman was awarded a $13 million verdict against Knievel in a civil trial. In 1983, the IRS determined the Knievel failed to pay $1.6 million in taxes on earnings from his jumps. In addition to the back taxes, they demanded another $2.5 million in interest and penalties. Then Montana sued Knievel for $390,000 in back taxes. In 1986, Knievel was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman in Kansas City, Missouri. Knievel's wife, Linda, left Knievel and returned home to Butte.

Knievel made several attempts to reconcile with his estranged son, Robbie, even appearing with him at a couple of jumps. After Robbie's successful jump of the Caesar's Palace fountains, the two went their separate ways for good. Knievel made somewhat of a marketing comeback in the 1990s, representing Maxim Casino, Little Caesar's Pizza and Harley Davidson among other companies. In 1994, in Sunnyvale, California, during a domestic disturbance call, police found several firearms in Knievel's car. He was convicted and ordered to perform 200 hours of community service for a weapons violation. In 1993, Evel Knievel was diagnosed with hepatitis C, apparently contracted during one of his numerous reconstructive surgeries. He had a liver transplant in 1999.


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