His personal life was filled with as many “thrills” as his life of jumping over anything and everything.
For those who were around then, the image is timeless.
Water fountains shooting up to the sky. A crowd of onlookers igniting flashbulbs that popped in the desert and a motorcycle that vaulted to the heavens, more than 100 feet in the air as the imposing Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nev., stood watch in the background on New Year’s Eve, 1967.
There are many moments that were the signatures on a life that was so daring and few will ever forget the day Robert Craig Knievel launched himself over those water fountains in Vegas, soaring into infamy and breaking nearly every bone in his body upon landing 165 feet away against a brick wall.
“It was terrible,” he later said. “Everything seemed to come apart.”
He lived hard. He died suddenly. In between, “Evel” Knievel didn’t just live life to the fullest, he gobbled it up and spat it out.
He went from stealing motorcycles as a boy to riding them, quickly becoming one of the most famous daredevils in the world.
He jumped everything he could find. One day it was 19 cars. Another day it was sailing over 13 big-rig trucks. Or there were the 13 doubledecker buses in London, England.
And, of course, the failed attempt to leap the Snake River canyon in Idaho on a rocket-powered motorcycle.
John Herring sang a song about him. Sam Elliot and George Hamilton played him in movies. Hundreds of millions of dollars in toy sales were made using his image.
“I created the character called Evel Knievel and he sort of got away from me,” he once said.
So, how in the world did a boy from a copper-mining town of Butte, Mont., the son of divorced parents and raised by grandparents, become so famous? Or infamous?
It was all by design.
He acquired the name Evel from a prison guard after being arrested for stealing hubcaps. It stuck.
Inspired by American stuntdriver Joie Chitwood, as a boy Knievel was actually a star athlete in track and field as well as ski jumping and ice hockey. After joining the Army in the 1950s, Knievel volunteered to be a paratrooper, making 30 jumps those first few years.
After playing semi-pro hockey, he took up motorcycle racing until he fell and broke a few bones in a race in 1962. He didn’t know he had already stumbled onto his future.
When Knievel was 27 he became co-owner of a motorcycle shop in Moses Lake, Wash. To earn money and attract customers, he announced he would jump his motorcycle 40 feet over parked cars and a box of rattlesnakes and ride past a mountain lion that was tethered at the other end of the jump.
In front of 1,000 people, Knievel made the leap, but landed in the snakes. The audience was hooked and so was Knievel.
“Right then,” he once told the New York Times, “I knew I could draw a big crowd by jumping over weird stuff.”
Knievel’s own life was a series of oddities.
He admitted to twice kidnapping his high school sweetheart. He stole. He was a card shark, a safecracker and a swindler.
But the public persona he created wasn’t easy for most people to forget.
By 1965 he formed a group called “Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils” and began crossing the Western United States as a motorcycle daredevil. But Las Vegas changed everything.
Dressed in star-spangled red, white and blue with a leather jumpsuit, cape and boots — and using his own money to finance the jump — the worldwide fame and notoriety gained from one jump changed his life, even if it almost killed him.
The accident left him with a fractured skull, broken pelvis, hips and ribs. He was unconscious for a month.
“I kept smashing over and over,” he said.
But his fame was sealed.
After recovery, people came from all over to see Knievel jump. Next up were 52 cars at the Los Angeles, Calif., Coliseum. Then the Snake River Canyon, when his parachute opened too soon and he drifted to safety. Then came London and another horrific crash and then a jump over a tank of 13 sharks in Chicago, Ill.
For all of this, he made millions. At one point, in 1978, Knievel owned 16 boats, five mink coats and two houses.
“I am a guy who is first of all a businessman. I am not a stunt man. I’m not a daredevil. I am an explorer.”
But life wasn’t easy. He had a titanium hip and aluminum plates in his arms and hundreds of pins holding other joints and bones together. He crashed so many times, he even broke the metal parts in his body.
“Nothing but scar tissue and surgical steel in this body,” Knievel once said.
By 1980 he was retired from jumping, but he wasn’t very good at staying out of trouble.
He was convicted of beating his former press agent with a baseball bat after the agent wrote a book about Knievel that he thought treated him unfair-In his later years, he continued to make public appearances, promoting the career of his son, Robbie.
But no one was ever larger than Evel. Even in death — last year at 69 of failing health and an incurable lung condition — few ever forgot his name or his memorable moment in the desert night.
Before his funeral service, fireworks lit up the sky in Butte.
In his last interview, he told Maxim Magazine, “You can’t ask a guy like me why [I performed]. I 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 a [jerk] not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death.”
Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.