In the 70s, a man named Evel Knievel became more than a daredevil; he became a legend. Kids idolized him for his bravery, his victories and his defeats, and more than a few tried their best to prove they were just as cool as Evel by performing some stupid stunt on their bicycle, usually with a cape attached. That’s how much we wanted to be Evel Knievel.
The man with a propensity to jump things with his motorcycle was born Robert Craig Knievel in 1938. Young Evil liked to do two things – ride motorcycles and get into trouble. The latter eventually led to a jail stint, where he earned the nickname that would make him famous.
After serving in the Army, Evel took to the motocross circuit, but really wanted to be a daredevil like some of his childhood heroes.
In 1966, that’s exactly what he did, by creating his own touring daredevil show that featured Evel as the show’s grand finale. When his popularity began to soar, Knievel was able to convince the owners of the Caesar’s Palace casino in Las Vegas to let him jump the rather large and ornate fountain out front. They agreed, and what happened next made Evel Knievel a household name.
In front of a sizable crowd and a film crew, Evil took off gracefully, then started to falter upon descent. A failed landing led to one of the most spectacular motorcycle crashes ever witnessed.
Evel, intertwined with his bike, tumbled in a seemingly endless fashion, his body contorting in ways that shouldn’t be possible. He survived, spending 29 days in a coma and breaking a significant number of bones. He also became one of the biggest stars of the decade as a result.
Evel performed many a jump after he healed, some where he emerged victorious, and others not so much. He also generated a small fortune along the way, mostly the result of a lucrative marketing machine that included an extremely successful line of toys. For much of the 70s, Evel Knievel’s face was plastered everywhere.
Meanwhile, Evel Knievel continued to raise the bar, jumping a few more buses each time, but it had become redundant. He needed something really big and decided to jump the Grand Canyon. The government said no, so he settled for the slightly less prestigious Snake River Canyon in Idaho.
The motorcycle was replaced with a spiffy, space-aged “X-2 Skycycle,” complete with parachute, and on September 8, 1974, Evel made an attempt while millions watched on television’s ABC Wide World of Sports.
What was certain to be spectacular ended up rather uneventful. Upon launch, the parachute activated prematurely, making it impossible to reach the other side. Evel crashed just short of the river and broke his nose. A mediocre end to a monumental buildup.
Evel returned to the motorcycle and continued to jump things, most notably buses, but a failed attempt to jump a shark tank in 1976 shook the daredevil. To the dismay of many a young fan, he hung up the red, white and blue cape for good, passing the torch to his son and fellow daredevil, Robbie.
He also did that other thing he loved – he got into trouble, spending six months in jail for assaulting someone with a baseball bat. He lost his endorsements and his image as a hero. Still, Evel Knievel managed to make a comeback of sorts later in life, enjoying modest fame as an artist and speaker. He passed away in 2007.
Evil’s life, much like his stunt record, and much like our own lives, was filled with victories and defeats, but one thing is certain – he left an impression on every 70s kid with his larger-than-life, death-defying persona.
In those days of youth, when we propped up boards in the middle of our neighborhood streets, turning them into makeshift ramps and racing towards them with all our might, the wind in our hair, we became Evel for that brief unforgettable moment. His memory won’t soon fade.
If you remember watching Evel jump things on TV, or if you ever set up a ramp in the street and tried to jump something just like Evil, I hope you’ll take a moment to share your memories in our comments section below.