Fear No Evel

I was recently looking through some photos of events from over the years, that have taken place at Wembley Stadium, and one, literally, jumped right out at me. It was of motorbike stunt performer Evel Knievel who was a massive name in the 1970s. He was all over the telly – and the tarmac on many occasions – and the spin off action toy bearing his name, sold in the millions, with every home seeming to have one.

Robert Craig Knievel was born in October 1938 in Butte, Montana. His unusual surname is of German origin on his paternal side, and he had a brother Nicolas, known as Nic,  born a year later. Within two years of his birth however, his parents had divorced and he and Nic were raised by Ignatius and Emma, his grandparents.
Young Robert was bitten by the daredevil bug aged just 8, after seeing a show by motorcycle showman Joie Chitwood.

He left school around 15 and worked in the local copper mines, though do anything with machines, was his real passion. He was subsequently fired from his job, after doing a wheelie with a large earth mover, on the open ground area around the mine. Unfortunately, he lost control of the vehicle and drove it straight into Butte’s main power supply, which left the town without any electricity for hours.

He picked up his Evel nickname after a night in jail (nicked for reckless driving – I can see a pattern emerging here)  and in the jail that night, was a local man William ‘Awful’ Knofel. Looking to go a step up from awful, Knievel became Evel.

Being a thrill seeker at heart, he took part in ski jumping, rodeos, pole vaulting and ice hockey in the next few years. Married in the late 50s to Linda Joan, he became a father to son Kelly in the very early 60s. He then joined a motor cross circuit but was struggling to make enough money to support his new family. So, he moved them to Moses Lake in Washington and opened a Honda dealership. When that failed, he worked for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop and was taught to do stunts by Don’s son Jim. Remembering the Joie Chitwood daredevil show he had seen many years earlier, he decided to do something similar. He hired a venue, ran the press campaign and served as the Emcee for the event, which ended with Evel jumping a 20-foot-long box which contained rattlesnakes and mountain lions. He managed to just about complete the leap and thankfully he landed the bike safely.

The show only attracted a small audience however, and he soon realised he needed sponsorship to put on a bigger show with more performers to attract  bigger crowd. He found that backer,  in Bob Blair who distributed Berliner Motorcycles. Going out under the name ‘Evel Knievel and his Motorcycle Daredevils’ the new show debuted at a festival in Indio, California in January 1966. However due to constant injuries and the subsequent cancelled events, the show eventually broke up.

Never one to be daunted for too long, once recovered from his latest scrape, Knievel continued to work as a solo act. He began to jump cars on his motorbike and gradually added more and more cars and more and more punters in the crowd. He was up to clearing 15 cars, when he began to gain national TV interest.
Whilst in Las Vegas for a boxing match, Evel announced he would jump the fountains at Caesars Palace, and he would have the attempt filmed. The jump of 140 feet on New Year’s Eve 1967 was to be his biggest jump yet. He was dressed in what would become his trademark white leather, star spangled, jumpsuit, reminiscent of Elvis in his Vegas years, but inspired Evel said, by Liberace, he once again he crashed and suffered severe injuries. The publicity that it generated though, made it worth it. Every attempt he made was later reported to be picking up in the region of $25,000 per jump. In 1971, he sold 100,00 tickets for back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome and he successfully landed a jump over 19 cars, riding a Harley Davidson. Such was his stardom, that a biopic called, not unreasonably, ‘Evel Knievel ‘ was released with George Hamilton in the lead role. 

Here Comes the Merch!  The Ideal Toy Company then released the first Evel Knievel merchandise  in 1972, and within the next six years sold more $350 million worth of toys and action figures.

No one could accuse Knievel of not dreaming big and for years he had tried to get permission to attempt to jump the Grand Canyon, but it was always denied.

‘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.’

Realising he was losing the battle with the Grand Canyon authorities, Knievel switched his attention to the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho. Working with boxing promotions man Bob Arum,  they planned for the attempt to be shown in cinemas and on the early days of ‘pay per view’ TV in the States. Evel’s vehicle of choice to get across Snake River was in truth, more rocket than motorbike. The attempt took place in September 1974 and although the vehicle nearly reached across the canyon, strong winds caused it to drift back instead of landing and it ended up heading down towards the river. Thankfully it landed on a riverbank and Evel emerged having only suffered minor injuries.

Then came Wembley a year later in 1975. A crowd of 90,000 had been fed the hype of him attempting to clear ’13 London Red Buses,’ when in fact, they were single deck vehicles. He then caught the roof of the last bus in the row as he was landing his jump, and this catapulted him to the air, and he became entangled with his bike as they both fell to earth. Ever the showman and despite suffering from a broken pelvis, he announced

‘Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country, 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’m through.’

He then walked off the pitch saying

‘I came in walking; I went out walking!

Like Sinatra and Ali before him, he was soon back out of retirement of course and went on to jump 14 Greyhound buses a while later. That event was shown live on ABC’s ‘Wide World of Sport’ where  it attracted the highest viewing rating in their history.

Away from the stunts, a book entitled ‘Evel Knievel On Tour’ by promotions man Shelly Saltman, was published in 1977 and alleged that Knievel was a drug user, abused his wife and children, and misled the public.  Despite Knievel having signed off consent for the book to be published, and him having both his both arms in plaster casts, after a recent crash, Evel attacked Saltman with a baseball bat. Thankfully he survived, but he was seriously injured. Later that year,  Knievel was sentenced to 6 months in jail and three years’ probation for the attack. As a result, he lost lucrative sponsorship deals and would later be declared bankrupt.

Again he announced his retirement and once again he was soon out performing once more, but the years of injuries were beginning to take their toll on his body and energy. He cut down on the ambition of subsequent jump, perhaps realising he had pushed his luck far enough. He finally hung up his crash helmet in 1980, and instead concentrated on launching the stunt career of his son Robbie, who picked up where his dad left off. Over the years, statistically, most of Evel’s 300-odd jumps were a success. But he was more famous for the number of times he miscalculated timings, distance or speed. It was later claimed, he made over $60 Million from his events, and he pretty much spent all of it.  

He was married twice and had 4 children with first wife Linda, including future daredevil Robbie and Kelly his first son, who oversaw his father’s legacy, including subsequent Knievel merchandise products . Evel’s second wife was Krystal Kennedy. Their marriage only lasted two years, though the couple continued to live together. He then had a period in the wilderness in the 80s , before making a comeback of sorts in the 90s. However, he was a sick man and required a lifesaving liver transplant, having contracted Hepatitis C from the numerous blood transfusions he had had over the years. Despite the success of the operation,  his health slowly deteriorated and by 2005 he was on supplementary oxygen 24 hours a day.

Evel Knievel died in November 2007 aged 69.

‘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. You’re in the air for four seconds, your part of the machine, and then if you make a mistake mid-air, you say to yourself, “Oh, boy, I’m gonna crash,” and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, not at all. 

I created the character Evel Knievel, and he sort of got away from me.’


The Mumper of SE5

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