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He was known for being a cape-wearing thrill seeker who rode motorcycles to jump multiple vehicles—and he had some breathtaking crashes. Evel Knievel is one of the most popular names in American pop culture. Knievel would wear a patriotic jumpsuit as he jumped his motorcycle over cars, buses, sharks and more. His reputation was as an entertainer who could give sold-out audiences the thrill of his motorcycle jumps associated with the fear of his possible death. He engaged in over 74 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps during his career.
Robert Craig Knievel Jr. was born in Butte, Montana on October 17, 1938. When he was eight years old, Knievel was able to watch the Joie Chitwood auto daredevil show. Later in his career, Knievel gave credit to Joie Chitwood for inspiring him to pursue a motorcycle daredevil career.
During his sophomore year in high school, Knievel dropped out of Butte High School. He then got a job at the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator. During this time, he told friends he would rather spend his time motorbiking than doing other unimportant stuff. Knievel was eventually promoted by the company and given a job on the surface. He was made responsible for operating large earth movers. Knievel started making each earth mover he operated do a wheelie like a motorcycle. After doing this one day, he drove the earth mover into Butte's main power line. The entire city did not have any electricity for several hours.
Knievel was fired that day.
Birth of a Name
With no work and no money, Knievel began to get into trouble around Butte. During 1956, he was being chased by police and crashed his motorcycle. Knievel was then taken to jail. In a cell near him, a man was named William Knofel. He was known around the jail as Awful Knofel. Knievel liked the way those two names rhymed. He started calling himself Evel Knievel. His new first name was intentionally misspelled because he didn't want people to think of him as evil.
After he got out of jail, Knievel began seeking new challenges and thrills. He started participating in local professional rodeos. Knievel also started participating in ski jumping events. In 1959, he won a ski jumping championship with the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association. Knievel then joined the U.S. Army. During his time in the Army, Knievel joined the Army's track team and was a successful pole vaulter.
Doing Motocross and Selling Insurance
After getting out of the U.S. Army, Knievel tried to make a living in different ways. He started a business as a hunting guide but was forced to stop. He had been accused of poaching on government land. In the early 1960s, Knievel had some success being part of a motocross circuit. Knievel broke his collarbone during a motocross accident in 1962. He was unable to ride motocross but still needed to make money. He began selling insurance for Combined Insurance Company of America. Knievel became inspired after reading Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude written by Napoleon Hill. He credited much of his later success to the inspiration he experienced from reading this book. Knievel was a very successful insurance salesman and wanted to be promoted. When the company refused, Knievel quit. He then opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and started spending his time promoting motocross racing.
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The Honda motorcycle dealership closed after a short time. When this happened, Knievel started working at a motorcycle shop in Washington state for a man named Don Pomeroy. Pomeroy's son was named Jim and competed in the Motocross World Championship races. Jim Pomeroy taught Knievel how to ride a motorcycle while standing on the seat as well as how to do a wheelie and more.
Knievel decided to have a daredevil show involving motorcycles. For his first show, he rented a venue, created and sent out all the press releases, set up everything involved with the show as well as sold all the tickets. Knievel was also the master of ceremonies. A small crowd arrived to see his Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show. Knievel did a few wheelies as well as few other stunts. He ended the show by jumping a box that was 20 feet long and contained some rattlesnakes as well as two mountain lions. Knievel landed a little bit short. The back wheel of his motorcycle hit the edge of the box, but he did land safely to the cheering small crowd. This experience motivated him to search for a sponsor and focus his efforts on the jumps. Bob Blair who owned ZDA Motors, Inc. offered to be a sponsor. Blair wanted the name of the show to be Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel agreed to the name change as long as Evel was used instead of Evil.
On January 3, 1966, in Indio, California, Knievel and his daredevils debuted at the National Date Festival. It was a huge success. After the show, Knievel had many offers to host shows. In Barstow, California, Knievel tried a new stunt. It involved him jumping spread-eagled over a speeding motorcycle. During the attempt, he jumped too late and went 15 feet into the air. He was hospitalized. The Knievel daredevil group broke up after this show. Knievel's injuries kept him from performing.
Once Knievel healed, he started traveling from one small town to another performing his daredevil routine as a solo act. There was competition. Many other motorcycle daredevil performers were jumping pools of water as well as animals. This is when Knievel decided to jump cars. As he became more successful, he would add more and more cars to his performances. In Missoula, Montana, he tried to jump a cargo van and a dozen cars. He did not have enough speed to make the jump and his front wheel hit the top of the landing ramp. This crash left Knievel with several broken ribs and a severely broken arm. Staying in the hospital after this event turned out to be a publicity windfall for him.
Once again, after he healed, Knievel would jump vehicles and his fan base was quickly growing. Knievel jumped 16 cars at Gardena, California on May 30, 1967. In July of that year, he had a crash and experienced a serious concussion. After he recovered, Knievel went to jump 16 vehicles again and one more time he crashed. This time he broke his right knee, two ribs, and his left wrist. Late night talk show Joey Bishop had Knievel on his show on March 18, 1968. This national attention resulted in Knievel developing a huge national fan base.
Caesars Palace Jump
When Knievel was in Las Vegas in 1967, he saw the fountain at Caesars Palace. This is when Evel Knievel decided to jump it. He met with the CEO of the Caesars Palace and told him about three fictitious lawyers and the fictitious Evel Knievel Enterprises. Arrangements were made for him to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace on December 13, 1967. ABC refused to air the event live but told Knievel if he had film of it, they would consider using it later. Knievel used his own money and paid someone to film it. Later he said when he hit the takeoff ramp, the motorcycle decelerated unexpectedly. This resulted in him coming up short on the landing, and he fell over the handlebars of his motorcycle and skidded into the Dunes parking lot. Knievel experienced fractures to his wrist, hip and both ankles. He also had a crushed femur and pelvis as well as a concussion. This crash made him even more popular. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film and ended up paying significantly more than if they had televised it live.
Five months after his crash in Las Vegas, Knievel crashed while trying to be the first person to jump 15 Ford Mustangs. After this, he started making successful jumps on a weekly basis. On February 28, 1971, Knievel set a world record at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, California. He jumped 19 cars. The jump was filmed and used in the movie Evel Knievel. In November 1973, at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Knievel successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars.
Grand Canyon Jump
To make this happen, a Skycycle X-2 was designed. It would take off and fly more like a rocket than a motorcycle. On September 8, 1974, the Skycycle X-2 was launched into the Snake River Canyon. Its parachute prematurely deployed. This caused significant drag. It did make it to the other side, but the wind pushed it back into the canyon. It landed a few feet from the water on the side of the canyon where it had been launched. If the Skycycle X-2 had gone into the water, Knievel would have drowned. He was able to survive the failed jump over the Snake River Canyon with only a few minor injuries.
On October 25, 1975, at Kings Island, Ohio, Knievel was able to jump 14 Greyhound buses. It was telecast by ABC's Wide World of Sports and got the station the highest viewer ratings in its history. This was also his longest jump at 133 feet. Seven of ABC's Wide World of Sports top-rated shows featured Knievel. On January 31, 1977, Knievel was going to jump a tank full of live sharks to be shown on national television. During rehearsal, his motorcycle crashed into a cameraman. The footage of the crash upset Knievel, and he did not show if for 19 years. After this event, Knievel retired from live performances.
During his life, Knievel was married two times. He was married to his first wife Linda for 38 years. They had four children. Robbie and Kelly were their two boys. Alicia and Tracey were their two girls. In the early 1990s, Knievel and Linda separated and became legally divorced in 1997. Knievel started dating Krystal Kennedy in 1992 and married her in 1999.
On November 30, 2007, Evel Knievel died at the age of 69. His health had been bad for some time. He suffered for years from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis as well as diabetes. Knievel struggled to breathe and died when being taken to the hospital. Knievel was buried in Butte, Montana at Mountain View Cemetery on December 10, 2007. His funeral service took place at the 7,500 seat Butte Civic Center. Fireworks exploded into the night sky as Knievel's casket was taken by pallbearers into the Butte Civic Center.
© 2019 Readmikenow
Readmikenow (author) on February 20, 2019:
Liz, thanks! His life is a fascinating story.
Liz Westwood from UK on February 20, 2019:
I remember watching some of his stunts many years ago on tv in the UK. But I didn't know the details of his biography.
Readmikenow (author) on February 20, 2019:
Flourish Anyway, Thanks for the read. Yes, his son Robbie was a motorcycle daredevil, and yes, according to him, even Lords of London wouldn't insure him.
FlourishAnyway from USA on February 19, 2019:
I remember watching him as a kid too. I think there were also figurines and lunchboxes with him on them. I didn’t know what his original name was or how he acquired his name ”Evel.” Aren’t some of his kids daredevils? And wasn’t there something about him saying he was uninsurable?
Bill De Giulio from Massachusetts on February 19, 2019:
Hi Mike. I certainly remember watching Evel Knievel perform as a kid. It was always exciting to watch. He was quite the daredevil. What I didn't know was the story behind how he got into motorcycle jumping. I found his story this fascinating. Thanks for sharing this, brings backs memories.