The Legend of Evel Knievel
Words by Andrew Campo
Several years back, my mother was in my ear about world crisis—preaching her views on government, the conspiracy of the Illuminati, and their role in the impending economic collapse—but I was tuned out, thumbing through a fresh issue of Racer X. I tried to make eye contact, faking my best “Oh, really?” expression every so often, hoping she’d let me get back to the “real issue” at hand. The charade was over; she wasn’t buying it. She could see by the blank stare in my eyes that I was elsewhere. Her voice cut through my thought process like a hatchet:
“All you have thought about since the third grade is motocross; can’t you put down that magazine and give your mom five minutes of focus?”
I knew the answer to her question was no. I did not have five minutes of focus for rantings about global chaos.
My love affair with motorbikes began when I was 4 years old. Since then it’s grown infinitely, its infectious and inexplicable nature weaving its way into every facet of my life and of those around me. Motorcycles create a special bond and unite the souls of those who ride them. As we started to pull together the pages of this book, I drifted back to my earliest memories of motorcycles and the people who introduced them to my life in an attempt to celebrate it in written word. Tracing the thread back in my mind, I arrived at the memory of me building backyard ramps for a toy that would impact me for decades to come and ultimately help to shape my character.
In 1973, New York–based Ideal Toys created toys based on Butte, Montana’s daredevil son, Robert “Evel” Knievel. This toy changed my life and history was made. I spent countless hours winding up the stunt machine and sending Knievel rocketing to ramps better suited for “Hot Rod”; he jumped anything and everything I could conjure up. Win, lose or draw, I was addicted to those precious seconds between takeoff and touchdown. Those moments when time slows down, life hangs in the balance and one way or another you’re gonna leave saying, “Whew, that was a hell of a ride.” When it was time for bed, I would end the day with a gander through one of my Evel Knievel comic books, and when I woke up and headed to school, you can bet your ass I didn’t forget my Evel Knievel lunchbox. I could care less about football teams, superheroes, any of that. I was on a steady diet of dirtbikes, Farrah Fawcett and AC/DC at an early age when most kids were playing around with Stars Wars figures and Little League.
Knievel had become a household name, but to me he was much, much more. American hero, daredevil, death defier and living legend defined his character and created an allure that put him above all on my list of badass dudes. Knievel was a pioneer who would influence my life path for decades to come. From jumping my sisters on my Schwinn Stingray back in ’77 to going over the bars and cartwheeling into the Pacific in February of 2014 to the Whiskey Daredevils tattoo I wear with pride, Knievel has been there as my fearless leader.
The legend of his death-defying feats came to life at sold-out stadiums across the globe as fans flocked in anticipation of witnessing the baddest man on two wheels hurl his Harley over anything standing in his way. He was a one-man show of enormous stature in a golden era. Through the ever-furrowed brow and piercing stare of his trading card, Knievel challenged me to fight the system and defy the odds. Knievel’s story is best told through the facts below, but not before noting his eminent ingenuity and ability to look forward. His marketing genius not only influenced kids of the era and beyond, but it also opened the door for his son, “Kaptain” Robbie Knievel, and the likes of Travis Pastrana and Robbie Maddison, who continue to keep his daredevil spirit alive. The legend of Evel Knievel will stand the test of time. As an journalist, a fan and a motorcyclist, it is simply an honor to put this to press.
Evel Knievel, 1938–2007
An American Daredevil
More Facts on the legend, Evel Knievel
After a police chase in 1956 in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check the roll, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Knofel was well known as “Awful Knofel” (“awful” rhyming with “Knofel”), so Knievel began to be referred to as “Evel Knievel” (“Evel” rhyming with “Knievel”). He chose this misspelling because of his last name and because he didn’t want to be considered “evil.”
Wanting a new start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted racing. During the early 1960s, it was difficult to promote Japanese imports. People still considered them inferior to American-built motorcycles, and there was lingering resentment from World War II, which had ended less than 20 years earlier. Always the promoter, Knievel offered a $100 discount to anybody who could beat him at arm wrestling.
After the closure of the Moses Lake Honda dealership, Knievel went to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington. It was there that Jim Pomeroy, a well known motorcycle racer taught Knievel how to do a “wheelie” and ride while standing on the seat of the bike.
While trying 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. After enticing the small crowd with a few wheelies, he proceeded to jump a twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the rattlesnakes, releasing the snakes and dispersing the crowd of around 1,000, Knievel managed to land safely.
One of Evel’s qualities was that he had great pride in his core values. Throughout his career (and later life), he would repeatedly talk about the importance of “keeping his word.” He stated that although he knew he may not successfully make a jump or even survive the canyon jump, he followed through with each stunt because he gave his word that he would.
Knievel would regularly share his anti-drug message, as it was another one of his core values. Knievel would preach an anti-drug message to children and adults before each of his stunts. One organization that Knievel regularly slammed for being drug dealers was the Hells Angels. A near-riot erupted on January 23, 1970, at the Cow Palacein Daly City, California, when a tire iron was thrown at Knievel during his stunt show and Knievel and the spectators fought back, sending the Hells Angels to the hospital.
On the morning of his December 31, 1967, jump at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed his last $100 on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and had a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside, where he was joined by two showgirls. After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm-up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, it was perfect; the landing, however, was a disaster. Knievel came up short, which caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement, where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot. 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. For certain, it was the most famous motorcycle crash in history.
On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped 14 Greyhound buses at the Kings Island theme park in Ohio. Although Knievel landed on the safety deck above the 14th bus (the frame of the Harley-Davidson actually broke), his landing was successful and he held the record for jumping the most buses on a Harley-Davidson for 24 years.
In January 1977, Knievel was scheduled for a major jump in Chicago. The jump was inspired by the film Jaws. Knievel was scheduled to jump a tank full of live sharks, and it would be televised live nationally. However, during his rehearsal Knievel lost control of the motorcycle and crashed into a cameraman. Although Knievel broke his arms, he was more distraught over a permanent injury his accident caused the cameraman, who lost his eye. The footage of this crash was so upsetting to Knievel that he did not show the clip for 19 years, until the release of the documentary Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story.
After the failed shark jump, Knievel retired from major performances and limited his appearances to speaking only, rather than stunt riding, saying “a professional is supposed to know when he has jumped far enough.”
In one of his last interviews, he told Maxim magazine, “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 ass not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death.”
Knievel died in Clearwater, Florida, November 30, 2007, aged 69.
Story featured in Volume 001
Purchase the entire collection of back issues!