The Sum Of All Evel
by Davey Coombs - March 1998
Like it or not, Evel Knievel ain't going away
Evel Knievel is the world's most famous motorcyclist. He was also something of a savior, a messiah in an Elvis Presley jumpsuit who raised America up from the gooey social morass of the 1970s. If you have doubts about any of this, just ask him.
"I came along at the right time at the right place," says Knievel today of his rocket ship ride to fame. "America was down on it's ass when I came along and needed somebody who was truthful and honest, someone who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, somebody who wasn't a phony".
He would no doubt tell you otherwise, but Robert Craig Knievel was a mediocre, semi-pro flat-tracker who came out of Butte, Montana, with little than a criminal record and huevos the size of Rhode Island. There wasn't a lot of money to be made in racing back in the late 1950s and early '60s, but Knievel found he had a useful knack for stunt riding--jumps, wheelies, whatever. Asked how far he could ride a wheelie, Evel once bragged, "'til the top end runs out of oil." Pretty soon, Knievel was doing stunts for a living. Possessed of a P.T. Barnum-like talent for self-promotion, he parlayed a series of unspeakably dangerous acts on a motorcycle into global fame and a millionaire's bank account.
Evel's first professional jump was over a box of rattlesnakes. His last paid riding job came about four decades later when he rode a Harley in a television commercial for Little Caesar's Pizza. In between, Knievel did hundreds of stunt, suffered dozens of crashes and broke a hard-to-pin-down number of bones. The amount varies from the mid-20s to the low 400s, depending on the report. Evel himself guesses the figure to be 37. Among his most memorable crashes was his failed 1967 jump over the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The jump measured a grand total of 50 yards - after landing short, he bounced, skipped and rag-dolled for another 165 feet, farther than the actual attempt.
So, depending on whether you stood at the take-off ramp or the landing ramp, Evel was either the greatest stuntman ever or Wile E. Coyote in a star-spangled helmet. At any rate, while the likes of motorcycle racing legends Mike Hailwood, Giacomo Agostini, Kenny Roberts and Roger DeCoster toiled for years for little popular acclaim, several of Knievel's jumps rank among the highest-rated episodes ever on ABC's "Wild World of Sports." The crashes and broken bones elevated him to superhero status, as did the whole schtick that Evel developed - those cornball red-white-and blue outfits; patriotic speeches about being a better person by being a better American; even offering himself up as a posterboy for both the motorcycle-safety and anti-drug-abuse lobbies. It all worked.
" He was God to me," says Ray Blank, now a vice president at American Honda. "Imagine the dichotomy of this master stuntman preaching motorcycle safety to kids while making only about half his jumps! He was telling people, 'Don't let your kids do this - watch me instead.'"
The spectacle that was Evel Knievel catapulted the stuntman into that rare stratosphere of fame where the majority of the people on this planet know you be a single name. In the 70s there was Ali, the boxer; O.J., the football player; and Evel, King of all daredevils. Knievel ran in Hollywood circles, all the while wearing that ridiculous cape, riding those motorcycles and talking about America. He was an international celebrity of the highest degree. "Evel came along at a time that was great for this country," continues Blank, in an effort to offer up an explanation as to what made Knievel bigger than life. "America was at it's worst. There was Vietnam and Watergate and the whole transition from the feel-good drugs of the Sixties to the nasty drugs of the Seventies, and here comes this white knight on a motorcycle, preaching Truth, Justice and the American Way, then flying over a bunch of busses dressed as an American flag. He was just the kind of hero we needed."
Especially for motorcyclists in this country, who were still paying for the black-leather sins of Marlon Brando in The Wild One. Knievel was the first motorcyclist accepted back into mainstream. There were signature toys and pinball machines, signature blankets and curtains, signature lunchboxes and bicycles, etc., ad nauseum. Evel Knievel then was almost like Michael Jordan now.
" People pulled for me because they pulled for the underdog," Knievel says today. "I got hurt bad, but I kept trying, I refused to lay down and die. I always tried to get up. And America needed that worse than anything in the world because we were pretty down in the Seventies."
In between stunts, Evel spent his time living the good life of wine, women, and song. He was a notorious gambler, once bragging that he had "won $60 million dollars, but spent 61." He augmented his income with endorsements of all those countless products. He also appeared in several television shows and specials, including the memorable camoe role on "The Bionic Woman." He was subject of two feature-length films: one starring George Hamilton and one in which he played himself. The latter, Viva Knievel, is now a camp classic with a cast that also included comedian Red Buttons, dancer Gene Kelly, supermodel Lauren Hutton, and football star and fellow philanderer Frank Gifford. Evel even cut a couple of spoken-word record albums.
"There's no motorcyclist now who has the kind of popularity that Evel Knievel did at his peak," says Ed Youngblood, head of the American Motorcyclist Association. "He was very influential in the Seventies - a household word, even." Youngblood adds that, for what it's worth, Knievel is a lifetime member of the AMA, having asked for and received special membership #711 to symbolize his questionable luck.
"As far as motorcyclists go, maybe only Marlon Brando's character Johnny in The Wild One was as influential, but that was a Hollywood persona," continues Youndblood. "Steve McQueen was a real-life, active motorcyclist, not some kind of poser, and that's about as close as you get to Evel."
Youngblood looks at Evel's legaacy as a mixed bag for today's motorcyclists, though. "Evel was a double-edged sword for us because the danger factor hurt, but the safety speeches helped," he says. "With all the crazy jumps and broken bones and wild outfits, he did an awful lot to promote the idea that motorcyclists are crazy and that it's a terribly dangerous activity. In a way, Evel was saying all the right words, but doing the wrong things."
If Evel's risr to fame as a jumper was lined with fun and firworks, women and whiskey, the ride down was pretty mucha crash landing. Knievel's Waterloo came in September, 1974, with the notorious promotion/execution of his Snake River Canyon jump aboard the X-2 Sky Cycle, which was less a motorcycle than a homemade rocket. Evel threw himsalf a week-long block party that was billed as a sort of latter day Last Supper. Then, as the world watched in anticipation of a life-or-death stunt to end all stunts, Evel's safety chute shot out before he left the landing ramp. He landed safely on the bank - near the bank! - and the public felt cheated. It was as if Evel was counting his money before he even touched the ground.
Most of American left their love for Evel at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon. This includes Ray Blank. "There was a fine line between being a hero of America and being a baffoon," he recounts. "With the Snake River jump, Evel crossed that line." Blank compares Evel's sudden fall from grace with that of a recent boxing icon. "It too Mike Tyson 20 seconds to lose everything. He was a living legend who had it all, a kid from the streets, tough as nails and fearless, who actually comes back from a rape conviction to redeem himself. Then he bites someone's ear off! The world turned its back on him with such a force that you could feel the wind, and the same thing happened to Evel. We were all pulling for him until that absurd carnival where he took advantage of us."
The jumping era was about to come to an end, anyway. Evel and his imitators were about to lose a lot od business to a new form of motorcycle racing called supercross. According to Pace Motor Sports' Roy Janson, formerly director of supercross for the promotional firm, the end of Evel's heyday coincided with the arrival of supercross wild man Danny "Magoo" Chandler.
"The old stunt jumpers were a great spectacle until Magoo came along," recalls Janson. "Then they weren't such a spectacle anymore. All of a sudden, guys out on the track are jumping higher and farther that the stunt specialists ever dreamed. The advent of supercross racing and its doubles and triples ended the whole movement."
Evel did a few more jumps after the Sake River debacle before hanging up his cape, appropriately enough, at the end of the 70s - a decade that was a spectacle unto itself. Afetr his retirement came a series of bad bets, bad business moves and some bad run-ins with women and reporters. He more or less hit bottom in the 1980s when the money ran out just like the clock on his battered body's ability to do much of anything. He began splitting time between his beloved adopted home of Las Vegas, his real home in Montana and his favorite Golf courses on the Gold Coast of Florida. He spent his days on the links and his nights in the bars or casinos, depending on which town he was in.
There was a brief flicker of re-lit fame when son Robbie started jumping, but their relationship soon soured for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the fact that Evel seemed to have trouble turning the spotlight over to his son.
After drifting in and out of obscurity, however, Evel recently started a comeback. Aided by the public's current hunger for All Things Seventies, Knievel suddenly was back in vogue, along with the suspect rebirth of disco music, bellbottoms and lava lamps. Suddenly, there's a crash clip of Evel on MTV, then he's chatting up Conan O'Brien on NBC and appearing in such general-interest magazines as Sports Illustrated, Icon, Bikini and Details. Ever the salesman, Evel's also back on the soapbox hawking everything from cigars to western paintings to pain-relief stimulators. There's renewed talk of yet another movie about the daredevils life, this time starring Mathew McConaughey. And in the consummate nod to now, Knievel's even got his own website: www.evelknievel.com/
Evel on the internet? Don't laugh. The world's best-known motorcyclist is still stretching his 15 minutes of fame - it just passed 30 years.