by Mike Corrigan
Look, up in the sky! It's a biker. It's a glam rocker. It's Evel Knievel! To kids growing up in the 1970s, Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel was, in star-spangled white leathers and flowing cape, the wildest daredevil ever to throw a leg over a Harley, a real-life superhero eager to put his life on the line time and time again for the sake of our entertainment. In his nearly 40 years as a motorcycle trick rider and daredevil, Knievel has captured the imagination of millions around the world and has astonished both fans and critics with his daring stunts, showmanship, tenacity and willingness to continue after catastrophic setbacks that would have permanently sidelined lesser, saner men.
Next week (July 29-Aug. 3), Butte, Montana's favorite son will return to his hometown once again to spend some time with his adoring fans during Evel Knievel Week, a six-day celebration of the daredevil's life and professional exploits. When Butte rolls out the welcome mat (as it does every year for St. Patty's Day), the whole town gets into the action.
When was the last time you witnessed someone taking a risk on television -- a real risk, with real danger, where there was a strong possibility that the risk-taker wouldn't walk away after the performance in one piece? That was the tension that kept everyone riveted to every single Knievel stunt in the daredevil's '70s heyday. In this age of safe, clean and predictable entertainment, Knievel seems less of an anachronism than truly, the last of the American gladiators.
"Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it." -- Evel Knievel
Knievel began his career in a mid-'60s motorcycle road show he called "Bob Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils" (though he was soon billed as "Evel"). It wasn't long before his exploits landed him on television programs such as ABC's Wild World of Sports. With the completion of each jump, successful or not (and there were plenty in the latter category), Knievel's popularity soared. In fact, his ever-expanding list of fractures and other injuries only seemed to add to his mystique, as did his astounding ability to jump again and again after truly horrific wipeouts.
Probably his most famous crash -- and the one that initially thrust him into the public's awareness -- was his Caesar's Palace fountain jump attempt in Las Vegas on New Year's Day 1968, when Knievel cleared the fountains but clipped the landing ramp and was thrown from his cycle. He suffered multiple fractures and was in a coma for 28 days. When he awakened, he discovered that he had become America's newest folk hero. More spectacular jumps (and crashes) followed: New York's Madison Square Garden in 1971, The L.A. Coliseum in 1973, the Canadian National Exposition in 1974 (where he cleared 13 Mack trucks).
Later in 1974, Knievel attempted his most ambitious jump of all, a quarter-mile leap over the Snake River canyon in a steam-propelled, rocket-like "Sky Cycle." The stunt -- hyped for months and broadcast nationwide on television -- was a failure (aborted soon after lift-off, with Knievel narrowly avoiding serious injury). Undaunted, he traveled to England in 1975 to jump 13 buses before a sold-out crowd at Wembley Stadium. That jump, too, ended in disaster, but five months later, after vowing he would never jump again, Knievel broke his own record by clearing 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island, Ohio.
Knievel went on to more successful jumps and to star in his own action movie (Viva Knievel) in 1977. Knievel was also the inspiration for one of the most successful toy lines of the '70s (his likeness appeared on everything from action figures and powered stunt sets to colorforms, gum cards, steel lunchboxes, three different plastic model kits and something called the "King of Stuntmen Arctic Explorer Set"). Today, Knievel stars in television commercials and is currently -- incredibly -- planning yet another jump (a reported 220 feet) in 2003 to celebrate his 64th birthday.
"Life is an everyday battle at keeping death at a comfortable distance." -- Evel Knievel
No celebrity in modern history has paid such a staggering physical price for fame. Knievel used to boast that he had broken every bone in his body at least once. Well-documented fractures include his legs, arms, hands, fingers, collarbone, hip and back. Perhaps it's no surprise then that few celebrities in modern history have enjoyed the fruits of fame with as much gusto as Evel Knievel. For this, he makes no apologies.
"I'd rather live rich than die rich." -- Evel Knievel
Despite his dangerous profession and notoriously rough and hedonistic lifestyle, Knievel always managed to maintain his positive role model status by routinely admonishing his adoring fans (most of whom were kids) "not to try this at home" and to steer clear of alcohol and drugs. He's also been involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and has participated in countless bicycle rodeos and (remarkably) motorcycle safety clinics.
Though Butte's Knievel Week is obviously geared for fans and motorcycle freaks -- it's scheduled to allow riders on their way to the nation's largest motorcycle gathering in Sturgis, S.D., to stop by for a visit -- this party might also be just the ticket for sociologists, pop culture buffs and thrill-seekers of all stripes. The fun begins on Monday, with the dedication of a new public exhibit of Knievel artifacts at the Piccadilly Museum of Transportation Memorabilia and Advertising Art. The Picadilly collection will include Knievel toys, motorcycles, leather riding gear and motorcycle helmets (including the helmet he wore in his 1968 Caesar's Palace jump), and the centerpiece of the collection, the actual Sky Cycle rocket bike from the failed 1974 Snake River Canyon jump.
Other activities planned for the week include the Youth Motorcycle Experience (a motorcycle safety clinic on July 30 for kids 6 and older), a Knievel-led cycle cruise night on Aug. 1 through the Butte valley, with stops at some of the daredevil's favorite nightclubs, and a motorcycle parade on Aug. 2 followed by a $50-a-plate Knievel "meet and greet" dinner. Friday night at 10 pm, fellow daredevil Spanky Spangler will set himself on fire and jump from the roof of Butte's Finlen Hotel. On Saturday, another motorcycle ride will be followed by a concert with Joan Jett and the Blackhearts (tickets are $20 in advance and $22 at the door) and a fireworks extravaganza.