There is no doubt that one name comes to mind when you think of the word daredevil: Evel Knievel. Knievel defied death for decades, breaking both bones and records. One of Montana’s most famous sons, he proved to his fans time and time again that while his bones were breakable, his spirit wasn’t.
Robert Knievel was born in Butte, Montana, on October 17, 1938. As a young boy, Knievel attended a show featuring daredevil Joie Chitwood, unaware he would eventually follow in his footsteps, entertaining millions worldwide with death-defying stunts.
Dropping out of school in the tenth grade, Knievel decided he would be better suited for working at the local copper mine, eventually landing a job driving an earth mover. He hadn’t been in his position very long before he popped a “wheelie” on the machine, crashing into a powerline and causing the entire town of Butte to lose power.
A natural-born daredevil, Knievel was arrested not long after that following an unsuccessful police chase where he ultimately crashed his motorcycle.
While in jail, one of Knievel’s cellmates was a man called “Awful” Knofel by the guards. Knievel was then called “Evil Knievel,” and the nickname stuck.
Realizing that his fate was to remain in jail unless he changed his ways, Knievel decided that the answer to reformation was to join the military. Once his time as an enlisted man ended, he soon started a family.
Regardless of how he tried to settle down and “fly right,” Knievel’s thirst for the rush of adrenaline could not be quenched and he continued to perform stunts on his bike. Knievel also tried his hand at motocross, bull riding, ski jumping, and becoming a semi-pro hockey player.
Knievel’s active pursuit of his passion for stunt riding saw success when he began to self-promote his stunt show, where he was to jump a 20-foot box filled with rattlesnakes and two mountain lions during the finale. During the jump, the back wheel hit the box, but Knievel was able to stick the landing.
In order to focus his time on practicing his main jumps, Knievel hired additional performers to entertain fans until he took to the stage for the show’s grand finale. Bobby Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show was born.
Knievel found a sponsor in ZDS Motors Inc, a motorcycle distributor, to help support the show. The owner of ZDS Motors Inc, Bob Blair, wanted Knievel to change the show’s name to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show, provided he could change the spelling to “Evel” to not be associated with the Hells Angels, Knievel agreed.
Evel takes flight
During a show on February 10, 1966, in Barstow, California, Knievel planned to jump spread-eagle while holding his bike’s handlebars for the grand finale. Jumping too late, the bike hit his groin, resulting in a severe injury that left him in the hospital for nearly a month.
During his hiatus, the show disbanded, and Knievel began traveling as a solo act, amassing quite a respectable following as one of the only daredevils to jump over cars rather than animals. After a successful jump, Knievel would add another car for his next jump. This helped to gain loyal followers who would attend show after show to see if he could make it across just one more car.
Just a few months after Barstow, Knievel’s career was brought to prominence as the press took an interest in his promise to clear twelve cars and a cargo van in Missoula, Montana. The jump was unsuccessful, and the daredevil broke his arm and several ribs. The accident brought in tons of publicity even though he was out of commission for quite some time due to his injuries, and his career as a daredevil took flight.
Career highs and lows
While on a trip to Las Vegas, Knievel became captivated by the fountains at Caesar's Palace and he decided it would be a fantastic feat to jump all 141 feet of them on his bike during a televised event.
While the jump itself was incredible, the landing was not, resulting in multiple broken bones in his legs, arms, and wrist, a crushed pelvis and femur. Knievel was in a coma for weeks, but his star power kept on growing.
Initially, ABC’s The Wide World of Sports declined to televise the event live, but they decided to air it at a later date. It became one of the most-watched sporting events in history.
Though doctors told Knievel that he may never walk again, he did not give up and pushed himself to get back on his iron horse. He soon announced what he hoped would be the most significant jump in history: he was to take on the Grand Canyon.
Because the event would need the U. S. Government’s approval, Knievel was buried in red tape, eventually abandoning the idea several years later. Not one to disappoint his fans, the daredevil decided to get as close to his original goal as possible, and he found the nearest comparable jump site possible in Twin Falls, Idaho’s Snake River Canyon.
The stunt took years of preparation, and in the meantime he was selling out the Houston Astrodome and setting records by successfully clearing 19 cars in Ontario in 1971 and 50 stacked cars in Los Angeles in 1973.
To prepare for his Snake River Canyon jump, the stuntman even went so far as to hire a NASA engineer to develop a rocket-powered bike for the event. Knievel hired a company to do a nationwide live broadcast of his jump in movie theaters.
Like other of his attempts at setting records, the jump went differently than planned. On launch, his parachute opened too early, causing significant drag. Knievel landed at the bottom of the canyon, but he only sustained minor injuries.
A year later, Knievel announced his retirement after breaking his back while attempting to jump over 13 busses in front of 90,000 live spectators and a worldwide television audience at Wembley Stadium. However, his retirement was short-lived, as he scheduled an event just a few months later at King’s Island in Cincinnati where he successfully cleared 14 Greyhound buses, the biggest jump of his career at 133 feet.
Knievel performed many more amazing jumps and broke several records over the next few years. Constantly pushing the envelope, he decided to perform a televised stunt where he was to jump a tank filled with sharks.
During a practice jump, Knievel crashed, hitting a camera operator. Feeling tremendous guilt because the cameraman sustained damage to his eye, Knievel hung up his helmet for good and turned his professional attention to public speaking for the remainder of his life.
Though he had cheated death countless times, the great Evel Knievel passed away in 2007 following a lengthy battle with pulmonary fibrosis and was buried in his hometown of Butte, Montana.
The History of Evel Knievel: The Montana Daredevil
Evel Knievel paved the way for many other stunt performers after him and it is doubtful that any will come close to being the showman he was. He will forever be remembered as the people’s daredevil and a true Montana legend.