Death Proof IV : Evel Knievel

While it would be complete & utter folly to hold up my Death Proof series as examples of great (or even, having just reread them, marginally acceptable) pieces of writing up on this site – they were most certainly the most fun to do.  By a long shot.

(They also rack up some of the most hits of any posts here – though Jasper’s Robocop piece is still the most popular thing in the site’s history… goddammit)

The idea there was, simply enough: celebrate stuntmen & stuntwomen.  That’s it. 

And while the three posts I did write covered a fair amount of ground – there’s still more singing owed these unsung heroes. 

Most notably… I never did write about Evel Knievel.

He had a titanium hip and aluminum plates in his arms and a great many pins holding other bones and joints together. He was in so many accidents that he occasionally broke some of his metal parts, too. – source

After an early run at stealing motorcycles as a teenager, Robert Craig Knievel joined the Army and thereafter moved on to race professionally in the motocross circuit of the late 1950’s.  After a nasty accident in 1962 – which saw his collar-bone and shoulder shattered – he went into insurance. 

He was extraordinarily successful  as a salesman, but couldn’t rise as fast or as high as he wanted to in his company.  So he said “fuck it” and opened up a Honda dealership but soon found it difficult selling Japanese import bikes (which were still seen as pithy in comparison to American machinery) to a country not yet two full decades out of the Second World War.  The business folded, despite Knievel’s clever marketing strategies (among them:  a $100 prize to any man who could come out to the dealership and beat him at arm wrestling). 

After that, he went into a business with a friend of his, running a new shop out in Washington state.  This would be were Robert Craig died and Evel was born.

To drum up business, Knievel sold tickets and, acting as his own announcer, jumped 40 feet over some parked cars in the lot… and a box of rattlesnakes… and a mountain lion… and another mountain lion.

This is a thing that happened.

Absolutely showered in applause, it was then that he decided to jump just like, fucking everything.

Right then, I knew I could draw a big crowd by jumping over weird stuff. – EK

After that, he was really off & running.

He founded his own troupe of riders – Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils – and honed his showmanship performing wherever he could out west.  He struck out by himself two years later and attempted his first truly high-profile gig, jumping the fountains outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas.


Emphasis here on the word “attempted”.  Despite a  bad ass warm up of playing a single hand of poker inside and downing a shot of Wild Turkey, the jump was doomed as early as the initial approach to the ramp.  Evel said later he felt the bike suddenly decelerate, not giving him enough power to clear the 141 feet in their entirety.  Oh, he made most of them.  But ultimately, he crashed into the safety ramp, the handlebars getting ripped out of his hands, rolling and skidding to a stop against a brick wall 165 feet away from where he took off.  165 feet away, into a brick wall… in the parking lot of the next casino over

Evel cracked his skull (amongst most, other things) and lapsed into a coma for 29 solid days.

When he woke up, he was famous.

He brazenly declared then that for his next death-defying feat, he’d jump the Grand Canyon in a rocket cycle.  Which is exactly what it sounds like.

I don’t care if they say, ‘Look, kid, you’re going to drive that thing off the edge of the Canyon and die,’ I’m going to do it. I want to be the first. If they’d let me go to the moon, I’d crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I’d like to go to the moon, but I don’t want to be the second man to go there.

America cheered its new folk hero, but the Department of the Interior basically immediately replied with some official-sounding version of “The fuck you are.

So, instead, Evel decided to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho.  He strapped himself to a rocket (likely with all the safety precautions a man named Evel would deem necessary) and shot out to the far side of the 500 foot deep, 1/4 mile wide canyon.  Unfortunately, his parachute opened up early, creating a significant amount of drag that the rocket was able to work against for the most part, damn near clearing the canyon just the same.  But when the wind picked up, the vessel got caught up and Evel Knievel drifted back & slowly down to the bottom of the canyon. 

This time, Evel was basically unharmed and the attempt itself was good press and netted him a six million dollar payday.

In the early years of his career, Evel never stopped trying, never stopped pushing himself or his bikes.  Later years saw the daredevil attempting more manageable stunts – still wildly impressive, but without the youthful bravado/arrogance that all too often ended in pain.  

Case in point: in 1975, Evel crashed trying to jump thirteen double-decker buses in front of 90,000 people inside Wembley Stadium.  He broke his hand, vertebrae, and his pelvis. In 1976, Knievel crashed into a cameraman during a practice run over a tank of sharks.  Evel broke both of his arms, but the cameraman lost his eye.  That one haunted him.

Thereafter, he pulled back.  Instead of 13 London Buses, he jumped seven greyhounds here and there around the country.  The first time he did that, he apologized to the crowd.

There were myriad legal troubles to be had in his life, as well.  An assault charge was levied against Evel in 1977 after beating an old press agent with a bat.  The agent had written a book that presented Evel as a drug-taking, woman-beating jackass.  Knievel served six months in prison and was forced to declare bankruptcy.  He was fined in 1986 for propositioning an undercover policewoman and nine years after that, was charged with battering his girlfriend, though she ultimately refused to press charges and wound up marrying him.

Evel’s Daredevil career ended in 1981.  He’d spent the past few years touring with his son, Robbie.  He didn’t do jumps, but he did serve as something of a Master of Ceremonies for the show.

The last decade of his life was spent in illness.  He’d received Hep C from a blood transfusion, which ultimately destroyed his liver.  After being given just a few days to live, Evel’s life was saved by a young donor who, ironically enough, had died in a motorcycle accident.  Evel suffered from diabetes, had two strokes, and in 2005 was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis which forced him to receive supplemental oxygen at all times.  In 2006, he had an internal morphine drip surgically implanted to help him cope with the now-debilitating pain in his lower back.  He passed away in 2007.

You can’t ask a guy like me why. 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.

I think Evel Knievel was a man with a myriad of demons who – like few things – loved performing.  He always spoke to his audience respectfully and with what I’ve always interpreted as sincere affection.  In interviews, he went on & on about the importance of meaning what you say & sticking to your word.  Before each stunt, there was an anti-drug message he’d throw out into the crowd of kids who came out with their parents to watch him.  There was an image to be created/furthered, for sure, but I really do think it was him.  Or maybe, more accurately, a better version of himself that he felt his fans deserved.



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