Knievel, Evel

Knievel, Evel
Oct. 17, 1938-Nov. 30, 2007
American motorcycle stunt performer


His death-defying jumps on a motorcycle have brought fame and fortune to Evel Knievel, who delights in being called "the last gladiator in the New Rome." Since the time he first astonished a large audience in 1968 by hurtling a distance of forty-seven yards over the fountains of a Las Vegas hotel, he has drawn crowds of thrill seekers throughout the nation, who pay substantial sums to watch him fly through the air over as many as twenty automobiles parked side by side.

A superb athlete and long-time motorcycle buff, Knievel began capitalizing professionally on his penchant for daredevil stunts in 1966, after a troubled youth as a small-town hell-raiser and several years as a card thief, con man, and safecracker. Since then his prowess, disdain for death, and showmanship have made of him a kind of folk hero, whose exploits have been celebrated in a song-"Evel Knievel," by John Herring-and in a film-Evel Knievel (Fanfare, 1971), starring George Hamilton. During his flamboyant career Knievel has sustained many serious injuries.

Robert Craig Knievel was born in Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938 to Robert Edward Knievel, a car dealer, and his wife, Ann (Keaugh) Knievel. When the boy was six months old, his parents separated, and he went to live with grandparents. "My grandparents tried extra hard," Knievel told an interviewer for the New Yorker (July 24, 1971), "but they couldn't understand me-you can't bridge that distance." Knievel has one brother, Nic Knievel, and five step-sisters, Loretta Young, Kathy Young, Kristy Laurence, Renee Novack, and Robin Knievel.

Knievel was raised in Butte, a copper-mining town that he has described as "wide-open." "When I was a kid," he recalled in the New Yorker interview, "the main activity was to go up and throw rocks at the whores, bang on the doors, and have the pimps chase us down the street…. I was always a short, skinny kid-I was eighteen before I really started to grow-but I could always do things other kids couldn't do. When I was eight, I saw Joey Chitwood's Auto Daredevils at Clark Park, in Butte. A guy jumped a motorcycle over one car…. That night, I stole a motorcycle from a neighbor, ran it three blocks, then put it back in the guy's garage." By the time Knievel was a teen-ager he owned his own motorcycle, and he used to draw attention to himself with such stunts as riding over a parked car from back to front or doing a "wheelie" (riding on the back wheel) through the main street of town.

But Knievel's youthful escapades were not confined to cycling stunts. "Starting in high school I got into a lot of trouble with the police," he told David Lyle of Esquire (January 1970). "Probably it all started with stealing hubcaps, and then a little more trouble all the time until pretty soon you're snatching purses and robbin' places and doin' things you shouldn't be doing." According to a perhaps apocryphal story that the stunt performer has related to some interviewers, he obtained his nickname during an early brush with the law, when he was briefly jailed for theft. "One of the guys in another cell was named Knoffle," the stunt performer told David Lyle. "This guard thought it was funny as hell and he shouted Goddamn! Double the guard! We got Evil Knievel in one cell and Awful Knoffle in the next!" Elsewhere Knievel has indicated that the nickname was given to him as a young child. In any case, he later modified it by changing the spelling to "Evel."

Outstanding in ski jumping and ice hockey at Butte High School, which he left in 1956, apparently without graduating, Knievel went on to win the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in 1957 and to play briefly with the Charlotte (North Carolina) Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959. (He left after the exhibition season because he felt he had no chance of moving up to the National Hockey League.) Around the same time he was the owner, manager, coach, and star of a semiprofessional hockey team called the Butte Bombers.

While still in high school Knievel worked for Anaconda in the mines, as a diamond-drill operator, but he later became persona non grata with the town's major employer by doing "wheelies" with a fully loaded earth mover. Serving for a time in the United States Army, Knievel distinguished himself at pole-vaulting, clearing a height of fourteen feet, six inches at the Fort Lewis base in Washington. By 1961 he was the owner and operator of the Sur-Kill Guide Service, which outfitted hunters and guaranteed them the game they wanted. That business soon folded, however, because his clients usually found themselves outrunning game wardens. "Thing was," he told David Lyle, "I knew where the game was-it was where they didn't want you to hunt."

As a hunting guide, Knievel learned that excess elk were being slaughtered in Yellowstone Park, and he decided to launch a campaign to have them moved so that they would be made available to hunters. In December 1961 he hitchhiked to Washington, D.C., with a pair of elk antlers and managed to present his case to a Presidential aide, to Senator Mike Mansfield, and to Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall. As a result the slaughter was stopped, and the animals have since been trapped and shipped to Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.

In 1962 Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motorcycle race. While the bones were mending he embarked on a short but spectacular career as a salesman for the Combined Insurance Company of America, selling, in one week of July, a total of 271 policies. He quit Combined Insurance soon after, however, because the company declined to guarantee him a vice-presidency, and thereafter his trail grows vague. It was probably during that period-around 1963-that Knievel was engaged in his often-told but necessarily undocumented career of safecracking. He worked in the Pacific Northwest, apparently, using a technique of entering through the roof. "I robbed so many safes in Oregon that one of the newspapers said it looked like somebody was dropping bombs through the roofs," he told David Lyle. He also claims to have been, at various times, a hold-up man, card thief, and swindler of banks and insurance companies. When his swindling confederate was caught and convicted, he was described by the judge, according to Knievel, as one of the most brilliant criminals ever brought before him. "I always thought there was one more brilliant," the motorcyclist pointed out to Gilbert Rogin of Sports Illustrated (February 5, 1968). "That was me sitting in the courtroom who was never caught."

The criminal life eventually palled on Knievel, especially after a hair-raising chase by the police and an armed robbery in which he beat up a man. "I did it and I got away with it, but it's not the right way of life," Knievel told Gilbert Rogin of Sports Illustrated. "…I love people. I want to be good to people. That's why I changed my whole way of life. I felt if I really loved my wife and children, I'd try to make a contribution to mankind and society as they should be contributed to."

When Knievel decided to go straight, he became a Honda dealer in Moses Lake, Washington, drumming up business by offering $100 off the price of a machine to anyone who could beat him at arm-wrestling. From time to time he had raced on the American Motorcycle Association circuit, and in Moses Lake he built his own racetrack and began promoting races. Then, in 1965 he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils. "We had a travelling show," he recalled during his New Yorker interview. "I'd do five or six stunts-ride through fire walls, jump over boxes of live rattlesnakes and land between chained mountain lions, get towed down a drag-strip at two hundred miles an hour holding on to a parachute."

The Daredevils opened at the Date Festival in Indio, California in February 1966; in March at Barstow, California Knievel was so badly injured that it took him a month to recover. Little by little the other Daredevils dropped out of the act, but Knievel had found his metier at last. He barnstormed the Western states alone. "I did everything myself," he recalled in the Esquire interview. "I'd borrow a forklift truck and get out there before the show to set up the ramps. I did my own public relations, acted as my own m.c., and when it was over I'd take the ramps down, load the truck and move out." At the beginning he charged $500 for a motorcycle jump over two vehicles parked between the ramps. He worked up to sixteen cars and then, on New Year's Day 1968, he jumped 141 feet across the ornamental fountains in front of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The jump was a success but the landing was nearly disastrous. "Everything seemed to come apart," he told Gilbert Rogin of Sports Illustrated a month later. "I couldn't hang on to the motorcycle. I kept smashing over and over…. But, hey, I made the fountains!"

By January 1970 Knievel's price per jump had climbed to $7,500. A year later, in February 1971, at the Ontario (California) Motor Speedway Knievel broke his own Las Vegas jump record by clearing nineteen automobiles-a distance of some 150 feet. He has since improved on that record by clearing twenty autos. Film clips of Knievel's jumps can be seen in the motion picture Evel Knievel, which was produced by the motorcyclist's friend George Hamilton.

Knievel has had at least nine major accidents during his short career as a motorcycle stunt performer and claims to have broken every bone in his body-except his neck-at least once. After his Las Vegas mishap, in which he sustained multiple fractures of the hip and pelvis, he began jumping again long before the bones had properly healed. On crutches for a year, he now walks with a limp. Answering the inevitable question of why he is willing to go on sustaining such injuries, Evel Knievel told David Lyle of Esquire, "John Wayne said something once about not wanting to let your image die. I feel like that. I want it so that when…you get out there in the grandstand and you look at that jump and you see how far it is, you're going to say, 'No way. There's just no way he can make it. He's a dead duck.' Then when you see me make the practice runs, getting ready, and when you see me make the jump, you're just as scared as I am. When I make it you're just as glad."

During his performances Knievel cuts a dashing figure in his snugly-fitting red, white, and blue leathers. A 180-pound six-footer with blue eyes and brown hair, he was described by the New Yorker interviewer as "a lean, handsome man with curly hair, a hard-looking exterior, a quick temper, and a good deal of humor, perception, and charm." "From the choppy years of his youth," the columnist speculated, "he has retained the wary eyes of a card-sharp, a thief's nerve, the combativeness of a brawler, the aplomb of a professional athlete, the flamboyant instincts of a promoter, and the glibness of a con man. There are trace elements of Robert Mitchum, Elvis Presley, Captain Ahab, and an astronaut."

Evel Knievel married his hometown girl friend, Linda Joan Bork, on September 5, 1959, after a wild courtship during which he kidnapped her, he claims, a total of three times. "Once I grabbed her by the hair, took her off an ice rink, and tied her up in my car," he told New York Post columnist Earl Wilson (July 1, 1971). They have three children, Kelly Michael, Robert Edward, and Tracey Lynn. Knievel's hometown is still Butte, although he necessarily spends much of his time on the road. For that purpose he maintains a truck-powered rig-sixty feet long including a motorcycle trailer-that serves him as both home and office.

Knievel enjoys such rigorous sports as football and ice hockey, and he is an inveterate hunter and fisherman. In the past he has also indulged in parasailing, riding in rodeos, and sky jumping. Knievel claims to have repaid all the uninsured businessmen that he robbed during his outlaw phase, and he takes an active part in working with delinquent youth. He credits much of his own moral recuperation and success to the Positive Mental Attitude philosophy of W. Clement Stone, president of the Combined Insurance Company of America and author of The Success System That Never Fails. He also admires The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Knievel denies that his death-defying antics betray a secret wish to kill himself. "I don't have a death wish," he told the New Yorker interviewer. "Life to me is a bore, really, and jumping has replaced card games, ski-jumping, stealing. How some of the other people survive, I don't know. If it weren't for me, they'd have nothing to do-and if it weren't for them, I couldn't make a living."

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