Saturday, December 01, 2007

Evel Knievel

Evel Knievel, the daredevil motocyclist who became a pop-culture icon in the 70's and a hero to millions of kids, passed away Friday at age 69.

At his peak, Knievel's daring stunts and brushes with death made him a household name. Growing up in the 70's, Knievel inspired countless kids to soup up their bicycles, buy motocross bikes, and do many ill-advised things on bikes and motorcycles. In our neighborhood, the track circling a telephone switching station served as the scene for daily bicycle races, while the drop-off behind the station was ideal for bike and motorbike jumping, often accompanied by shouts of "I'm Evel Knievel!" from us kids.

Robert Craig Knievel was a fine athlete in high school, excelling at ski-jumping, hockey, and track. Always possessed with a restless spirit, Knievel found life in his hometown of Butte, Montana boring. He dropped out of school, had trouble holding a job, and drifted into petty theft, which resulted in several run-ins with the law. Knievel found himself in the Butte jail one night in a cell next to that of one of the local hoodlums, known as "Awful" Knofel. The night jailer remarked that "Awful" Knofel was staying next to "Evil" Knievel. The nickname stuck, although Knievel would change the spelling since he didn't want his name associated with anything truly despicable.

Deciding to straighten his life out, Knievel joined the Army and made 30 jumps as a paratrooper. After his discharge, he tried his hand at semi-pro hockey, and then turned to motorcycle racing. After falling in a race and breaking some bones, he gave that up and became co-owner of a motorcycle shop. As a publicity stunt, he agreed to jump his motorcycle over 40 feet of parked cars, a box of rattlesnakes, and past a tethered mountain lion. Setting the tone for much of Knievel's career, the jump didn't go as planned - Knievel landed on the rattlesnakes. Nevertheless, Evel Knievel had finally found his true calling.

He put together a group, Evel Knievel And His Motorcycle Daredevils, which lasted a short time before he went solo. Motorcycle stuntmen were a dime a dozen in the 60's working county fairs and car shows from coast to coast. Knievel decided to distinguish himself by undertaking longer, higher, and more dangerous jumps than anybody - the American way. He made his rep on New Years Day 1968 by jumping the fountain at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. He cleared the fountain but crash-landed, leaving him with a fractured skull, broken pelvis, hips and ribs. Knievel was unconscious for a month. When he came to, he found himself a star.

Over the next decade, he became the stuff of legend with his Captain America image, Harley motorcycles, and his increasingly daring stunts. He became a fixture of programs such as ABC's Wide World Of Sports. His jumps frequently ended in disaster, resulting in numerous broken bones and concussions. Knievel claimed to had broken every bone in his body at one time or another. His most famous act was his attempted jump of the Snake River Canyon, which Knievel decided upon after the Department of the Interior refused his request to jump the Grand Canyon. The chute on Knievel's rocket cycle deployed early, and he fell to a landing on the bank of the Snake River. Knievel still made $6 million for his attempt.

Knievel retired from bike-jumping in 1981, and spent the rest of his life dealing with legal, financial, domestic, and health problems. The IRS came after him for over $4 million in back taxes. His first wife left him after he was arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer. He was pulled over for a traffic stop, and his car was full of unregistered firearms. Throughout all this, his health slowly deteriorated. The broken bones gave Knievel constant mobility problems. He was diabetic, and suffered pulmonary fibrosis. He contracted hepatitis C as a result of one of his surgeries, and required a liver transplant in 1999. The combination of factors led to Knievel's death.

Throughtout Knievel's last years, though, the legend continued to grow. He signed marketing deals with Harley-Davidson and Little Caesar's Pizza, and bolstered his hard-living rebel image in a series of cantankerous interviews. By the time of his death, Knievel had truly become a larger-than-life anti-hero.

If you're too young to remember, here's the Caesar's Palace jump that made Evel Knievel famous. With almost 40 years hindsight, we can wonder whether this was an act of incredible daring, or one of monumental stupidity.