✪ Robert Craig Knievel, known professionally as Evel Knievel, was an American stunt performer and entertainer. Throughout his career, he attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps. Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.
Evel Knievel was born in Butte, Montana. Raised by his paternal grandparents, Knievel was inspired to become a motorcycle daredevil after attending a Joie Chitwood auto daredevil show. He left high school early to work in the copper mines but was later fired for causing a city-wide power outage. After adopting the nickname “Evel Knievel,” he participated in rodeos, ski jumping events, and served in the U.S. Army before marrying Linda Joan Bork and starting a semi-pro hockey team.
To support his family, Knievel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service and later worked as an insurance salesman. Eventually, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership in Washington but faced difficulties promoting Japanese imports. After the dealership closed, Knievel worked at a motorcycle shop where he learned motocross stunts that would later contribute to his daredevil career.
Knievel was born on October 17, 1938, in Butte, Montana, the first of two children of Robert E. and Ann Marie Keough Knievel. Knievel was of of German-Irish origin. His paternal great-great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from Germany. His mother was of Irish ancestry.
Knievel and his brother were raised in Butte by their paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Knievel attended a Joie Chitwood auto daredevil show, which he credited for his later career choice as a motorcycle daredevil.
Knievel left Butte High School after his sophomore year and got a job in the copper mines as a diamond drill operator with the Anaconda Mining Company, but he preferred motorbiking to what he called “unimportant stuff.” He was promoted to surface duty, where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and accidentally drove it into Butte’s main power line, leaving the entire city without electricity for several hours.
As a boy, Knievel had seen the Joie Chitwood show. He decided that he could do something similar only 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 20-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and his back wheel hitting the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel’s website says that he chose his nickname after spending a night in jail in 1956 after being arrested for reckless driving. In the same jail that night was a man named William Knofel, who had the nickname “Awful Knofel;” this led to Knievel being referred to as “Evel Knievel.”
Knievel realized that to make a more substantial amount of money he would need to hire more performers, stunt coordinators, and other personnel so that he could concentrate on the jumps. With little money, he went looking for a sponsor and found one in Bob Blair, owner of ZDS Motors, Inc., the West Coast distributor for Berliner Motor Corporation, a distributor for Norton Motorcycles. Blair offered to provide the needed motorcycles, but he wanted the name changed from Bobby Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel did not want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blair to at least allow him to use the spelling Evel instead of Evil.
Seeking new thrills and challenges, Knievel participated in local professional rodeos and ski jumping events, including winning the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men’s ski jumping championship in 1959. During the late 1950s, Knievel joined the United States Army. His athletic ability allowed him to join the track team, where he was a pole vaulter. After his army stint, Knievel returned to Butte, where he met and married his first wife, Linda Joan Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team.
To help promote his team and earn some money, he convinced the Czechoslovakian Olympic ice hockey team to play the Butte Bombers in a warm-up game to the 1960 Winter Olympics (to be held in California). Knievel was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czechoslovakian officials went to the box office to collect the expense money that the team was promised, workers discovered the game receipts had been stolen. The United States Olympic Committee ended up paying the Czechoslovakian team’s expenses to avoid an international incident. Knievel tried out with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959, but decided that a traveling team was not for him.
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family financially. Using the hunting and fishing skills taught to him by his grandfather, Knievel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service. He guaranteed that if a hunter employed his service and paid his fee, he would get the big game animal desired or Knievel would refund his fee.
Knievel, who was at the time learning about the culling of elk in Yellowstone, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington, D.C., in December 1961 to raise awareness and to have the elk relocated to areas where hunting was permitted. The culling practice was stopped in the late 1960s.
After returning home to the west from Washington, D.C., he joined the motocross circuit and had moderate successes, but still could not make enough money to support his family. In 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he could not race for at least six months. To help support his family, he switched careers and sold insurance for the Combined Insurance Company of America working for W. Clement Stone. Stone suggested that Knievel read Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, a book that Stone wrote together with Napoleon Hill. Knievel credited much of his later success to Stone and his book.
Although Knievel was successful as an insurance salesman, he wanted more recognition for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to vice president after he had already worked a few months on the job, he quit. Wanting a new start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. During the early 1960s, he and other dealers had difficulty promoting and selling Japanese imports because of the steep competition of their auto industry, and the Moses Lake Honda dealership eventually closed.
Knievel and his daredevils debuted on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. The second booking was in Hemet, California, but was canceled due to rain. The next performance was on February 10, in Barstow, California. During the performance, Knievel attempted a new stunt in which he would jump, spread-eagled, over a speeding motorcycle. Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, tossing him 15 feet (4.6 m) into the air. He was hospitalized as a result of his injuries. When released, he returned to Barstow to finish the performance he had started almost a month earlier.
Knievel’s daredevil show broke up after the Barstow performance because injuries prevented him from performing. After recovering, Knievel started traveling from small town to small town as a solo act. To get ahead of other motorcycle stunt people who were jumping animals or pools of water, Knievel started jumping cars. He began adding more and more cars to his jumps when he would return to the same venue to get people to come out and see him again. Knievel had not had a serious injury since the Barstow performance, but on June 19 in Missoula, Montana, he attempted to jump twelve cars and a cargo van. The distance he had for takeoff did not allow him to get up enough speed. His back wheel hit the top of the van while his front wheel hit the top of the landing ramp. Knievel ended up with a severely broken arm and several broken ribs. However, the crash and subsequent stay in the hospital turned into a huge publicity windfall.
With each successful jump, the public wanted him to jump one more car. On March 25, 1967, Knievel cleared 15 cars at Ascot Park in Gardena, California. Then he attempted the same jump on July 28, 1967, in Graham, Washington, where he had his next serious crash. Landing his cycle on the last vehicle, a panel truck, Knievel was thrown from his bike. This time he suffered a serious concussion. After a month, he recovered and returned to Graham on August 18 to finish the show; but the result was the same, only this time the injuries were more serious. Again coming up short, Knievel crashed, breaking his left wrist, right knee, and two ribs.
Knievel first received national exposure on March 18, 1968, when comedian and late-night talk show host Joey Bishop had him on as a guest of ABC’s The Joey Bishop Show.
While in Las Vegas to watch Dick Tiger successfully defend his World Boxing Association (WBA) and World Boxing Council (WBC) light heavyweight titles at the Convention Center on November 17, 1967, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them.
To get an audience with casino CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and arranged for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on their popular Wide World of Sports. ABC declined but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel, at the age of 29, used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars jump. To keep costs low, Derek employed his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed the famous landing. On the morning of the jump, 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 several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two showgirls.
▶️ 2 Minutes 56 Seconds
After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm-up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he said later, he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes hotel 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 the hospital. Rumors circulated that he was in a coma for 29 days in the hospital, but this was refuted by his wife and others in the documentary film Being Evel.
The Caesars Palace crash was Knievel’s longest attempted motorcycle jump at 141 feet (43 m). After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC declined to air the event live on Wide World of Sports.
To keep his name in the news, Knievel proposed his biggest stunt ever, a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon. Just five months after his near-fatal crash in Las Vegas, Knievel performed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 15 Ford Mustangs. Knievel ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result of the crash.
On August 3, 1968, Knievel returned to jumping, making more money than ever before. He was earning approximately $25,000 per performance, and he was making successful jumps almost weekly until October 13, in Carson City, Nevada. While trying to stick the landing, he lost control of the bike and crashed, breaking his hip again.
By 1971, Knievel realized that the U.S. government would never allow him to jump the Grand Canyon. To keep his fans interested, Knievel considered several other stunts that might match the publicity that would have been generated by jumping the canyon. Ideas included jumping across the Mississippi River, jumping from one skyscraper to another in New York City, and jumping over 13 cars inside the Houston Astrodome. While flying back to Butte from a performance tour, he looked out the window of his airplane and saw the Snake River Canyon. After finding a location just east of Twin Falls, Idaho, that was wide enough, deep enough, and on private property, he leased 300 acres (1.2 square kilometers) for $35,000 to stage his jump. He set the date for Labor Day (September 4), 1972.
On January 7–8, 1971, Knievel set a sales record at the Houston Astrodome by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances there. On February 28, he set a new world record by jumping 19 cars with his Harley-Davidson XR-750 at the Ontario Motor Speedway in Ontario, California. The 19-car jump was shot for the biopic Evel Knievel. Knievel held the record for 27 years until Bubba Blackwell jumped 20 cars in 1998 with an XR-750
On March 3, 1972, at the Cow Palace in Daly City, California, after making a successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing area. He reportedly suffered a broken back and a concussion after getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson. Knievel returned to jumping in November 1973, when he successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For 35 years, Knievel held the record for jumping the most stacked cars on a Harley-Davidson XR-750 (the record was broken in October 2008)
During his career, Knievel may have suffered more than 433 bone fractures, earning an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most bones broken in a lifetime.” However, this number could have been exaggerated as his son Robbie told a reporter in June 2014 that his father had broken 40 to 50 bones. Knievel himself claimed he had only broken 35.
▶️ 3 Minutes 17 Seconds
The famous Snake River launch took place at the south rim of the Snake River Canyon, west of Shoshone Falls on September 8, 1974, at 3:36 pm MDT. The steam that powered the engine was superheated to a temperature of 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius). The drogue parachute prematurely deployed as the Skycycle left the launching rail and induced significant drag. Even though the craft made it across the canyon to the north rim, the prevailing northwest winds caused it to drift back into the canyon. By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, it landed only a few feet from the water on the same side of the canyon from which it had been launched. If he had landed in the water, Knievel said that he would have drowned, due to a harness malfunction that kept him strapped in the vehicle. He survived the failed jump with only minor physical injuries
After the Snake River jump, Knievel returned to motorcycle jumping with ABC’s Wide World of Sports televising several jumps. On May 26, 1975, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London, Knievel crashed while trying to land a jump over 13 redundant single-deck AEC Merlin buses.
After the crash, despite breaking his pelvis, Knievel addressed the audience and announced his retirement by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country, I’ve got to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will ever see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I’m through.” Near shock and ignoring Frank Gifford’s (of ABC’s Wide World of Sports) plea to use a stretcher, Knievel walked off the Wembley pitch stating, “I came in walking, I went out walking!”
After recuperating, Knievel decided that he had spoken too soon and that he would continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio.
The Kings Island event scored the highest viewer ratings in the history of ABC’s Wide World of Sports and would serve as Knievel’s longest successful jump at 133 feet. (although the Caesars Palace jump was longer, it ended in a crash). In the end, Knievel was featured in seven of the ten highest-rated episodes of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After the Kings Island jump, Knievel again announced his retirement.
Attempting his jumps on motorcycles whose suspensions were designed primarily for street riding or flat track racing was a major factor in Knievel’s many disastrous landings. The terrific forces these machines passed on to his body are well illustrated in the super slow-motion footage of his Caesars’ landing.
In 1997, Knievel signed with the California Motorcycle Company to release a limited Evel Knievel Motorcycle. The motorcycle was not built to jump but was rather a V-twin cruiser motorcycle intended to compete with Harley-Davidson street bikes. Knievel promoted the motorcycle at his various public appearances.
Evel Knievel took 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. Before the canyon jump, Knievel stated, “If someone says to you, ‘that guy should have never jumped the canyon. You knew if he did, that he’d lose his life and that he was crazy.’ Do me a favor. Tell him that you saw me here and regardless of what I was, that you knew me, and that I kept my word.”
Knievel would also regularly share his anti-drug message, one of his core values. Knievel would preach an anti-drug message to children and adults before each of his stunts.
Knievel regularly spoke out against the Hells Angels due to their alleged involvement in the drug trade. A near-riot erupted during Knievel’s show at the Cow Palace on March 3, 1971, when a Hells Angels member threw a metal object (either a tire iron or a Coca-Cola can, according to different witnesses) at Knievel. Knievel and a majority of the spectators fought back, injuring three of the fifteen Hells Angels members in attendance to the point that they required hospitalization.
Knievel was a proponent of motorcycle helmet safety. He constantly encouraged his fans to wear motorcycle helmets. The Bell Star helmet he used in the Caesars Palace jump is credited for having saved Knievel’s life after he fell off the motorcycle and struck his head on the ground.
Between 1972 and 1977, the Ideal Toy Company released a series of Evel Knievel-related merchandise, designed initially by Joseph M. Burck of Marvin Glass and Associates. During the six years the toys were manufactured, Ideal claimed to have sold more than $125 million worth of Knievel toys. The toys included the original 1972 figures, which offered various outfits and accessories. In 1973, Ideal released the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. After the release of the Stunt Cycle, the Knievel toys became the best-selling items for Ideal.
Knievel was married twice. He and his wife Linda were married for 38 years. During their marriage, the couple had four children, two boys, Kelly and Robbie, and two girls, Tracey and Alicia. Throughout Kelly’s and Robbie’s adolescence, they performed at Knievel’s stunt shows. Robbie continued into adulthood to perform as a professional motorcycle daredevil.
A municipal judge ordered Evel to stand trial for a weapons possession charge in 1994. Knievel was arrested in October at a Sunnyvale go-go bar on suspicion of battering his girlfriend, 25-year-old Krystal Kennedy of Florida. Sunnyvale police later discovered two handguns and some ammunition in the trunk of his car. The battering charge was dropped when Kennedy declined to cooperate.
In 1999, Knievel married his girlfriend, Krystal Kennedy of Clearwater, Florida, whom he began dating in 1992. The wedding was held on November 19, 1999, on a special platform built on the fountains at Caesars Palace on the Las Vegas Strip (site of Evel’s jump New Year’s Eve 1967). Long-time friend Engelbert Humperdinck sent a recorded tribute to the couple. According to the investment magazine, Registered Rep., Knievel left his entire estate to Krystal.
During the 1980s, Knievel drove around the country in a recreational vehicle, selling works of art allegedly painted by him. After several years of obscurity, Knievel made a significant marketing comeback in the 1990s, representing Maxim Casino, Little Caesars, Harley-Davidson and other firms.
On October 9, 2005, Knievel promoted his last public “motorcycle ride” at the Milwaukee Harley-Davidson dealership. The ride was to benefit victims of Hurricane Katrina. Although he was originally scheduled to lead a benefit ride through Milwaukee, Knievel never rode the motorcycle because he suffered a mild (non-debilitating) stroke before the appearance and limited his visit to a signing session.
In the late 1990s, Knievel required a life-saving liver transplant as a result of suffering the long-term effects of Hepatitis C. He contracted the disease after one of the numerous blood transfusions he received before 1992. In February 1999, Knievel was given only a few days to live and he requested to leave the hospital and die at his home. En route to his home, Knievel received a phone call from the hospital stating a young man had died in a motorcycle accident and could be a donor. Days later, Knievel received the transplant.
In 2005, he was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable and terminal lung disease that required him to be on supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day. In 2006, he had an internal morphine pain pump surgically implanted to help him with the excruciating pain in his deteriorated lower back, one of the costs of incurring so many traumas throughout his career as a daredevil. He also had two strokes after 2005, but neither left him with severe debilitation.
On April 1, 2007, Knievel appeared on Robert H. Schuller’s television program Hour of Power and announced that he “believed in Jesus Christ” for the first time. At his request, he was baptized at a televised congregation at the Crystal Cathedral by Schuller. Knievel’s televised testimony triggered mass baptisms at the Crystal Cathedral.
Knievel died in Clearwater, Florida, on November 30, 2007, aged 69. He had been suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis for many years. A longtime friend reported that Knievel had trouble breathing while at his residence in Clearwater and died on the way to hospital. The friend said, “It’s been coming for years but you just don’t expect it. Superman just doesn’t die, right?”
In one of his last interviews, Knievel 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. […] You’re in the air for four seconds, you’re part of the machine and then if you make a mistake midair, you say to yourself, “Oh, boy. I’m gonna crash” and there’s nothing you can do to stop it, not at all.
Knievel was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in his hometown of Butte, Montana on December 10, 2007, following a funeral at the 7,500-seat Butte Civic Center presided over by Robert H. Schuller with actor Matthew McConaughey giving the eulogy. Before the Monday service, fireworks exploded in the Butte night sky as pallbearers carried Knievel’s casket into the center.✪