Before there were the X Games there was Robert Craig Knievel.
Born on October 17, 1938, in Butte, Montana—a small copper-mining town in the southwestern quadrant of the state–as the older of two boys. Knievel’s parents divorced after the birth of his brother, Nick, in 1940 and the two boys were raised in Butte by paternal grandparents. Known by friends and family as “Bobby”, Knievel attended Joie Chitwood’s Auto Daredevil Show at eight years old and was hooked, later stating that it was what inspired him to become a motorcycle daredevil. Knievel began jumping his bicycle over anything that was handy and his grandmother, Emma, stated, “He was more than a handful. He was two or three bushels full.” He dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and got a job driving a large earth mover for a local mining company but was fired after making the earth mover do a wheelie and driving it into Butte’s main power line, leaving the city without power. His first motorcycle was a Harley—which he stole at age 13—and his grandmother bought him a Triumph three years later. In 1956, Knievel was jailed on a charge of reckless driving after crashing his motorcycle. William Knofel, known around town as “Awful Knofel”, was in the next cell and Knievel began to be referred to as “Evel” rather than Bobby. He joined the U.S. Army in the late 50’s, where he competed on the track team as a pole vaulter while also making 30 jumps as a paratrooper. In 1959, Knievel won the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men’s ski jumping championship and later played professional ice hockey, first for the Butte Bombers—a semi-pro team that he formed, coached and managed—and later for the Charlotte Checkers of the Eastern Hockey League.
By 1962, was married and had a son. He tried motocross racing but could not earn enough to support his family, so he took a job selling accident insurance, only to quit after being passed over for a promotion. Looking for a new start, Knievel moved to Moses Lake, Washington, and opened a motorcycle shop. To attract customers, he announced he would jump his motorcycle 40 feet over parked cars, a box of rattlesnakes and a mountain lion on a leash. He landed short, came down on the rattlesnakes and wowed the audience. “Right then,” he said, “I knew I could draw a big crowd by jumping over weird stuff.” In 1966, he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils and barnstormed the Western States. He started the idea of jumping cars and, with each successful jump, audiences wanted him to jump one more car. Knievel’s fame and fortune grew more from crashes that successes, as his hospital stays and injuries became a publicity windfall. On New Year’s Eve in 1967, he attempted to jump 141 feet across the fountains at Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas and used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the 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, where he lost control of his bike and skidded across the parking lot, suffering fractures to his pelvis, femur, hip, wrist, ankles and a concussion that kept him in the hospital for 29 days. He returned five months later, crashing and breaking his right leg and foot while attempting to jump fifteen Ford Mustangs in Scottsdale, Arizona.
Evel Knievel was rapidly becoming an American icon. He began talking about jumping the Grand Canyon, Mississippi River, and from one skyscraper to another in New York City. On January 7 and 8, 1971, he set a record by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. One month later, he set a new world record by jumping 19 cars—a mark that stood for 27 years. Knievel repeatedly appeared on ABC’s Wide World of Sports [Daily Dose, July 8], the perfect venue for the flashy showman, and five of his seven appearances rank among the top-20 rated shows in WWOS history. On October 17, 1973–his 35th birthday–Knievel successfully jumped a Harley-Davidson XR-750 over 50 stacked cars before 35,000 fans at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. His career may have peaked on September 8, 1974, when Mr. Knievel attempted to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. A parachute malfunction prevented the rocket from clearing the canyon and Knievel drifted to the bottom, narrowly missing the water and certain death. In 1975, Knievel returned to motorcycle jumping and attempted to clear 13 buses before 90,000 fans at London’s Wembley Stadium. He crashed and broke his pelvis, yet still managed to walk away, saying “I came in walking, I went out walking!” After recuperating, Knievel made the longest successful jump of his career [133 feet] when he cleared 14 Greyhound buses in October of 1975. Fourteen months later, he retired after crashing into a cameraman in Chicago while rehearsing a scheduled jump over a tank full of live sharks.
Evel Knievel was a daredevil, entertainer, painter and international icon. Between 1965 and 1980, he attempted over 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps and was of the most iconic figures of the 1970s. He suffered more than 433 bones fractures, earning him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most broken bones in a lifetime.” His bravado, fearlessness and ability to excite a crowd are unmatched in American showmanship and his Elvis-like star-spangled red-white-and-blue jumpsuit, boots and cape became part of his lore. He underwent 15 major surgeries to relieve severe trauma and repair broken bones and had pins, plates and a titanium hip holding him together. Robert Craig Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999 and died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida, in 2007. He was 69 years old.