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Evil Knievel – The Daredevil

evel-knievel_1 I am a lucky, lucky person’… With a Guinness Book of World Records entry of having fractured 433 bones during his entire career and still having survived to tell the tale, nobody else could have rightly justified that statement other than Evel Knievel. Born as Robert Craig Knievel in the town of Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938, he was a popular American motorcycle daredevil and a famed entertainer in the United States and elsewhere between the late 1960s and early 1980s. Dressed and clad in his signature red, white and blue jumpsuit, Knievel would race his motorcycle up steep ramps and over obstacles; the result of which he often crash-landed, thrilling viewers while breaking dozens of bones. His achievements and failures, earned him several entries in the record books and made him a household name and a reputed daredevil.

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As a kid, Knievel loved showing off to the other neighbourhood kids by jumping his bicycle and always came home with cuts and bruises. It was at the age of eight after attending a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show he was later inspired to opt for a career choice to become a motorcycle daredevil. At 13, he got his first motorcycle, and crashed it into a neighbour’s garage, nearly catching the garage on fire when the bike’s gas tank ruptured. After high school, he worked in the copper mines where he drove a large earth mover. But Knievel was soon dismissed when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into the town’s main power line. Then Knievel began to find himself in more and more trouble and had earned himself a mischievous reputation. With his frequent visits at the local jail, the jail inspector referred to him as Evil Knievel (‘Evil’ rhyming with ‘Knievel’). But he chose the misspelling ‘Evel’ because he didn’t want to be considered ‘evil’ and tagged the nickname to his name. From the early 1950’s till the 1960’s he spent his life racing stock cars and motorcycles, riding horses in the rodeo, represented the United States Army track team as a pole vaulter and even played minor pro hockey. To support his family financially he switched careers and opened up a Honda motorcycle dealership at Moses Lake and promoted motocross racing. Despite his best efforts the store eventually closed. Evel then went to work at a motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington. It was here where Jim Pomeroy, a well known motocross racer taught Knievel how to do a “wheelie” and ride while standing on the seat of the bike. Without a way to support his family, Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood show he saw as a boy and decided that he could do something similar 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.

 

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After enticing the small crowd with a few wheelies, for the first time he proceeded to jump a twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short, Knievel managed to land safely. With limited money, he then found a sponsor in Bob Blair, a distributor for Norton Motorcycles for his daredevil show. Blair offered to provide the needed motorcycles and the show was named Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. The show debuted on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California and was a huge success. At the next performance Knievel attempted a new stunt where he jumped and spread eagle over his speeding motorcycle in midair. Unfortunately Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, tossing him fifteen feet in air. It was his first crash. After recovering, Knievel started travelling from small town to small town as a solo act.

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Then on June 19, 1966, the unexpected happened again in Montana, when he attempted to jump twelve cars and a cargo van. Knievel ended up with a severely broken arm and several broken ribs. Later on May 30, 1967, Knievel successfully cleared sixteen cars in Gardena, California. After regularly performing and occasionally crashing, he finally received some national exposure and to add to his publicity stint, Knievel jumped the fountains at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas on December 31, 1967. But when he hit the takeoff ramp at Caesar’s Palace, the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerated and caused a landing malfunction and he tumbled over onto the pavement. As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered 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.

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Just five months after his near fatal crash, Knievel surprisingly performed another jump on May 25, 1968, in Arizona, and again crashed while attempting to jump fifteen Mustangs. Knievel ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result of the crash. Knievel started making more money than ever before, earning approximately $25,000 per performance, and was making successful jumps. Knievel then decided to do a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon but the United States government did not allow him to do the jump. So to keep his fans interested he instead chose Snake River Canyon near Twin Falls, Idaho, that was both wide enough, deep enough and on private property. On February 28, 1971, he then set a new world record by jumping 19 cars with his Harley Davidson XR750cc in Ontario, California and held the record for 27 years. Finally the jump at Snake River Canyon took place on September 8, 1974. But the attempt failed when the prematurely deployed chute caused enough drag to drift him back into the canyon though he had made it across and Knievel luckily survived the jump with only minor injuries. Then on May 26, 1975, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London, Knievel again crashed while trying to land a jump over thirteen redundant single-deck AEC Merlin buses. After the crash, despite breaking his pelvis, Knievel announced his retirement. But after recuperating, Knievel realized that he had spoken too soon, and decided that he would continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped fourteen Greyhound buses at Kings Island, Ohio. This event scored the highest viewer ratings in the history of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. Knievel made only a few daredevil appearances after that, jumping for the last time in March 1981 in Hollywood, Florida. He then retired and his son Robbie Knievel succeeded him as the family motorcycle daredevil. Later in the decade, the merchandising of the Knievel image reached additional Medias and Knievel made several television appearances. In 1993, Evel Knievel was diagnosed with hepatitis C, apparently contracted during one of his many reconstructive surgeries and needed a liver transplant in 1999. The same year Knievel was also finally inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. In 2005, he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease that required him to be on supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day. With a declining state of health each passing day, Evel eventually passed away in Clearwater, Florida on November 30, 2007, aged 69. Knievel was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in his hometown of Butte, Montana on December 10, 2007 following a funeral at the 7,500-seat Butte Civic Center.

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His popularity, especially with young boys, was rampant. He became a hero to a generation of young boys, many of whom were injured trying to imitate his stunts. For years he cheated death, sometimes spectacularly so and the numerous crashes cemented his legend. Men admired him. Their sons wanted to be like him. Women just wanted him. In one of his last interviews when asked why he performed those daredevil acts inspite of the risk of injuries he replied, “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 asshole not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death. God never made a tougher son of a bitch than me.”

 

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