Hand color tinted photo of Evel Knievel
Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel (/ˈiːvəl kᵻˈniːvəl/; October 17, 1938 – November 30, 2007) was an American stunt performer and painter. Over the course of his career, he attempted more than 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps; in 1974, he failed an attempted canyon jump across Snake River Canyon in the Skycycle X-2, a steam-powered rocket. Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. He died of pulmonary disease in Clearwater, Florida in 2007, aged 69.
Knievel was born on October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana, the first of two children of Robert E. and Ann Marie Keough Knievel. His surname is of German origin; his paternal great-great-grandparents emigrated to the United States from Germany. His mother was of Irish ancestry. Robert and Ann divorced in 1940 after the birth of their second child, Nicolas, known as Nic. Both parents decided to leave Butte. 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, to which he gave credit for his later career choice to become 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 drove it into Butte’s main power line. The incident
left the city without electricity for several hours. Without work, Knievel began to get into trouble around Butte. After a police chase in 1956, in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check the roll, he noted Knievel in one cell and a man named William Knofel in the other. Knofel was well known as “Awful Knofel” (“awful” rhyming with “Knofel”), so Knievel began to be referred to as “Evel Knievel” (“Evel” rhyming with “Knievel”). He chose this misspelling for his first name because he didn’t want to be considered “evil”.
Always looking for 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 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team to play the Butte Bombers in a warm-up game to the Olympics. 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 wound up paying the Czechoslovakian team’s expenses to avoid an international incident. Evel Knievel also played with the Charlotte Checkers of the Eastern Hockey League.
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 he would refund his fee. Business was very good until game wardens realized that Knievel was taking his clients into Yellowstone National Park to find prey. The Park Service ordered Knievel to cease and desist this poaching.
In response Knievel, who was 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. After his conspicuous trek (he hitchhiked with a 54-inch-wide (1.4 m) rack of elk antlers and a petition with 3,000 signatures), he presented his case to Representative Arnold Olsen, Senator
Mike Mansfield, and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. As a result of his efforts, the culling was stopped. When the population grows, the elk
have since been regularly captured and relocated to areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
After returning home to the west from Washington, DC, Knievel decided to stop committing crimes. He joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but he still could not make enough money to support his family. During 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he couldn’t 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 with Napoleon Hill. Knievel credited much of his later success to Stone and his book.
Knievel was successful as an insurance salesman (even selling insurance policies to several institutionalized mental patients) and wanted recognition for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to vice-president after he had been 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. After the closure, Knievel went to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington. Pomeroy’s son, Jim Pomeroy, who went on to compete in the Motocross World Championship, taught Knievel how to do a “wheelie” and ride while standing on the seat of the bike.
Further information: List of Evel Knievel career jumps While trying to support his family, Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood show he saw as a boy and decided that he could do something similar 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 twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel realized to make any amount of real 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 the Bobby Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils Thrill Show to Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils. Knievel didn’t want his image to be that of a Hells Angels rider, so he convinced Blair to allow him to use Evel instead of Evil.
The debut of Knievel and his daredevils was on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. The show was a huge success. Knievel received several offers to host the show after their first performance. 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 where he would jump, spread eagle, over a speeding motorcycle. Knievel jumped too late and the motorcycle hit him in the groin, tossing him fifteen feet into the air. He was placed in the hospital 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 hadn’t 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 didn’t 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. The crash and subsequent stay in the hospital were a publicity windfall.
With each successful jump, the public wanted him to jump one more car. On May 30, 1967, Knievel successfully cleared sixteen cars 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 a panel truck that was the last vehicle, 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-TV’s The Joey Bishop Show. The national attention brought both a larger paycheck and larger fanbase.
While in Las Vegas to watch Dick Tiger successfully defend his WBA and 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 the casino’s 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 ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set 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 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, 29, used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars’ jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife Linda Evans as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel’s famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed his last 100 dollars 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. 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 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 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. Rumor 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-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than it originally would have had it televised the original jump live.
Before the Caesars’ jump Knievel asked his friend Matt Tonning, a Combined Insurance sales agent, to sell him ten accident policies. Combined’s underwriting policies allowed for only one of these policies be written, since the policy covered any accident and was non-
cancelable for the life of the insured. Tonning agreed and was fired by Combined when Knievel filed the claims on all ten. Upon hearing that Tonning had been fired, Knievel contacted Combined’s Vice President Matt Walsh. He agreed to return nine of the policies and be paid full benefits on only one, if Combined allowed Tonning to return to work. Walsh agreed and Tonning was reinstated.
In a 1971 interview with Dick Cavett, Knievel stated that he was uninsurable following the Caesars’ crash. Knievel said he was turned down 37 times from Lloyd’s of London, stating, “I have trouble getting life insurance, accident insurance, hospitalization and even insurance for my automobile…Lloyd’s of London has rejected me 37 times so if you hear the rumor that they insure anybody, don’t pay too much attention to it.” Four years later, a clause in Knievel’s contract to jump 14 buses at Kings Island required a one-day $1 million liability insurance to the amusement park. Lloyd’s of London offered the liability insurance for what was called a “laughable $17,500”. Knievel eventually paid $2,500 to a U.S.-based insurance company.
Jumps and records
To keep his name in the news, Knievel started describing 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 fifteen 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, Knievel looked out the window 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, Knievel leased 300 acres (1.2 km2) for $35,000 to
stage his jump. He set the date for Labor Day (September 4), 1972.
On January 7 and 8, 1971, Knievel set the record by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. 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 filmed for the movie Evel Knievel. Knievel held the record for 27 years until Bubba Blackwell jumped 20 cars
in 1998 with an XR-750.Then in 2015 Doug Danger surpassed that number with 22 car accomplishing this feat on Evel Knievel’s actual vintage 1972 Harley-Davidson XR-750.
On May 10, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks. His approach was complicated by the fact that he had to start on pavement, cut across grass, and then return to pavement. His lack of speed caused the motorcycle to come down front wheel first. He managed to hold on until the cycle hit the base of the ramp. After being thrown off, he skidded for 50 feet (15 m). Knievel broke his collarbone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm, and broke both legs.
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. Knievel 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, where he successfully jumped over 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. For 35 years, Knievel held the record for successfully jumping the most stacked cars on a Harley-Davidson XR-750 (the record was broken in October 2008). His historic XR-750 is now part of the collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Made of
steel, aluminum and fiberglass, the customized motorcycle weighs about 300 pounds.
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 be exaggerated: his son Robbie told a reporter in June 2014 that his father had broken 40 to 50 bones; Knievel himself claimed he broke 35.
The Grand Canyon jump
Although Knievel never attempted to jump the Grand Canyon, rumors of the Canyon jump were started by Knievel himself in 1968, following the Caesars Palace crash. During a 1968 interview, Knievel stated, “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.” For the next several years, Knievel negotiated with the federal government to secure a jumping site and develop various concept bikes to make the jump, but the Interior Department denied him airspace over the northern Arizona canyon. Knievel switched his attention in 1971 to the Snake River Canyon in southern Idaho.
In the 1971 movie, Evel Knievel, George Hamilton (as Knievel) alludes to the canyon jump in the final scene of the movie. One of the common movie posters for the film depicts Knievel jumping his motorcycle off a (likely) Grand Canyon cliff. In 1999, son Robbie Knievel jumped a portion of the Grand Canyon owned by the Hualapai Indian Reservation.
Snake River Canyon
ABC’s Wide World of Sports was unwilling to pay the price Knievel wanted for the Snake River Canyon jump, so he hired boxing promoter Bob Arum’s company, Top Rank Productions, to put the event on closed-circuit television and broadcast to movie theaters. Investors in the event took a substantial loss, including promoter Don E. Branker, as well as Vince McMahon of the World Wrestling Federation. Arum partnered with Invest West Sports, Shelly Saltman’s company, to secure from Invest West Sports two things: first, the necessary financing for the jump, and second, the services of Saltman, long recognized as one of America’s premier public relations and promotion men, to do publicity so that
Knievel could concentrate on his jumps. Knievel hired subcontractor and aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to build him a rocket-powered cycle to jump across the Snake River, and called it the X-1 Skycycle. Malwecki’s creation was powered by a steam engine built by former Aerojet engineer Robert Truax. On April 15, 1972, the X-1 was launched to test the feasibility of the launching ramp. The decision was then made to have Truax build the Skycycle X-2 and have it take off and fly more like a rocket than a motorcycle.
West of Shoshone Falls, the launch at the south rim of the Snake River Canyon (42.597°N 114.423°W) was on Sunday, September 8, 1974, at 3:36 p.m. MDT. The steam that powered the engine was superheated to a temperature of 500 °F (260 °C). The drogue parachute prematurely deployed as the Skycycle left the launching rail and induced significant drag. Even though the craft made it all the way 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 likely would have drowned, due to a jumpsuit/harness malfunction which kept him strapped in the vehicle. He survived the jump with only minor injuries.
Since the 1974 launch, seven daredevils have expressed interest in recreating the jump, including Knievel’s two sons Robbie and Kelly. In 2010 Robbie announced he would recreate the jump. Stuntman Eddie Braun announced he is working with Kelly and Robert Truax’s son to recreate the jump using a replica of the X-2 Skycycle. Braun’s jump took place on September 16, 2016 and was completed successfully.
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 (the term “London Buses” used in earlier publicity had led to the belief that the attempt was to be made over the higher and more
traditional AEC Routemaster double-decker type). 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 not yielding to 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!”
Kings Island jump
After recuperating, Knievel decided that he had spoken too soon, and that he would continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island near Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Knievel landed on the safety deck above the 14th bus, his landing was successful and he held the record for jumping the most buses on a Harley-Davidson for 24 years (until broken by Bubba Blackwell in late
1999). 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 7 of the ten highest rated episodes of ABC’s Wide World of Sports. After the Kings Island jump, Knievel again announced his retirement.
His retirement was once again short-lived and Knievel continued to jump. However, after the lengthy Kings Island jump, Knievel limited the remainder of his career jumps to shorter and more attainable lengths. Knievel jumped on October 31, 1976, at the Seattle Kingdome. He only jumped seven Greyhound buses but it was a success. Despite the crowd’s pleasure, Knievel felt that it was not his best jump, and apologized to the crowd.
On January 31, 1977, Knievel was scheduled for a major jump in Chicago, Illinois. The jump was inspired by the film Jaws. Knievel was scheduled to jump a tank full of live sharks and would be televised live nationally. However, during his rehearsal, Knievel lost control of the motorcycle and crashed into a cameraman. Although Knievel broke his arms, he was more distraught over what he claimed was a permanent eye injury to cameraman Thomas Geren. The cameraman was admitted to the hospital and received treatment for an injury near his eye, but received no permanent injury. The footage of this crash was so upsetting to Knievel that he did not show the clip for 19 years until the documentary Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story.
Later that year on the television show Happy Days, motorcycle-riding character Fonzie performed a similar trick, albeit on waterskis, later inspiring the creation of the phrase “jump the shark.”
Afterward Knievel retired from major performances and limited his appearances to smaller venues to help launch the career of his son, Robbie Knievel. His last stunt show, not including a jump, took place in March 1980 in Puerto Rico. However, Knievel would officially finish his career as a daredevil as a touring “companion” of his son, Robbie, limiting his performance to speaking only, rather than stunt riding. His last appearance with Robbie (on tour) was in March 1981 in Hollywood, Florida.
The Last Gladiator
The term Last Gladiator was coined and attributed to Knievel circa 1971. The term refers to the Roman gladiator, who entered an arena to fight to the death numerous foes, whom he might vanquish with skill and bravery.
The term was made popular in the 1971 movie Evel Knievel starring George Hamilton. In the movie, Hamilton (as Knievel) states, “I am the last gladiator in the new Rome. I go into the arena and I compete against destruction and I win. And next week, I go out there and I do it again.”
Evel Knievel’s 1988 self-produced documentary was entitled Last of the Gladiators.
“Evel Knievel . . .may be the last great gladiator” is a quote from an article by David Lyle about Knievel that appeared in the January 1970 issue of Esquire magazine.
Knievel briefly used a Honda 250cc motorcycle, using it to jump a crate of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions, which was his first known jump. Knievel then used a Norton Motorcycle Company 750cc. He used the Norton for only one year during 1966. Between 1967 and 1968, Knievel jumped using the Triumph Bonneville T120 (with a 650cc engine). Knievel used the Triumph at the Caesars Palace crash on New Year’s Eve 1967. When Knievel returned to jumping after the crash, he used Triumph for the remainder of 1968.
Attempting his stunts on motorcycles without modern suspension was a primary factor in Knievel’s many disastrous landings. The terrific forces these machines passed on to his body is well-illustrated in the super slow motion footage of his Caesars’ landing.
Between December 1969 and April 1970, Knievel used the Laverda American Eagle 750cc motorcycle. On December 12, 1970, Knievel would switch to the Harley-Davidson XR-750, the motorcycle with which he is best known for jumping. Knievel would use the XR-750 in association with Harley-Davidson until 1977. However, after his 1977 conviction for the assault of Shelly Saltman, Harley-Davidson withdrew their sponsorship of
On September 8, 1974, Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket propelled motorcycle designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax dubbed the Skycycle X-2. The State of Idaho registered the X-2 as an airplane rather than a motorcycle.
At the tail end of his career, while helping launch the career of his son, Robbie Knievel, Knievel returned to the Triumph T120. However, he only performed wheelies and did not jump after retiring the XR-750.
In 1997, Knievel signed with the California Motorcycle Company to release a limited Evel Knievel Motorcycle. However, 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. After the company closed in 2003, Knievel returned to riding modern street Harley-Davidson motorcycles at his public appearances.
Evel’s son Robbie sold limited-edition motorcycles from his company, Knievel Motorcycles Manufacturing Inc. Although two of the motorcycles refer to Evel (the Legend Series Evel Commemorative and the Snake River Canyon motorcycle), Evel did not ride Robbie’s bikes.
Throughout his daredevil career, Knievel was known for his sensational leather jumpsuits that were compared to the jumpsuits worn by Elvis Presley. When Knievel began jumping, he used a black and yellow jumpsuit. When he switched to the Triumph motorcycle, his jumpsuit changed to a white suit with stripes down the legs and sleeves. In interviews, he said the reason for the switch was because he saw how Liberace had become not just a performer, but the epitome of what a showman should be, and Knievel sought to create his own variation of that showmanship in his own jumps. Two variations of the white suit appeared (one with three stars across the chest and one with the three stars on his right
chest). The latter was worn at the Caesars Palace jump.
When Knievel switched to the Laverda motorcycle in 1969, he switched his leathers to a white jumpsuit with Confederate stars on blue stripes. The Confederate stars jumpsuit was used in the beginning and ending of the 1971 film Evel Knievel. Following the Confederate stars, Knievel adjusted the blue stripes to a V-shape (the first version of the V-shape was also used in the 1971 film’s final jump). For the remainder of his career, variants of the V-shaped white-starred jumpsuit would be a constant, including a special nylon/canvas flightsuit that matched his white leathers for the X-2 jump. Each variant would become more elaborate, including the addition of the red-white-blue cape and the Elvis-styled belt-buckled with his initials “EK”. In 1975, Knievel premiered the blue leathers with red stars on the white stripes for the Wembley jump. Both the blue leathers and white leathers were featured in Viva Knievel!.
Motorcycle helmet safety
Knievel was a proponent of motorcycle helmet safety. He constantly encouraged his fans to wear motorcycle helmets. The Bell Star helmet used in the Caesars’ Palace jump is credited for saving Knievel’s life after he fell off the motorcycle and hit his head on the ground (following the Caesars’ Palace crash, each of Knievel’s full-face helmets had the slogan, “Color Me Lucky”). As an ardent supporter of helmet use, Knievel once offered a cash reward for anyone who witnessed him stunting on a motorcycle without a helmet.
In 1987, Knievel supported a mandatory helmet bill in the State of California. During the Assembly Transportation Committee meeting, Knievel was introduced as “the best walking commercial for a helmet law”. Evel claimed the main reason he was still alive and walking was because he was wearing a helmet.
During the 1980s, Knievel would drive 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.
In 1999, Knievel celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Snake River Canyon jump at the Twin Falls mall. His memorabilia was then stored at Kent Knigge’s farm in Filer, Idaho, seven miles west of Twin Falls. During the same year, Knievel was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Knievel once dreamed of housing all of his career memorabilia in an Evel Knievel Museum to be located in his home state of Montana. Those dreams were unfulfilled, and his artifacts are spread throughout transportation museums and private collections around the world. Knievel’s original blueprints and handwritten notes about his desired museum are currently displayed at the Route 66 Vintage Iron Motorcycle Museum in downtown Miami, Oklahoma. The Route 66 site also houses Evel’s Snake River Canyon Jump Mission Control Super Van.
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 prior to the appearance and limited his visit to a signing session.
On July 27, 2006, on The Adam Carolla Show, Knievel said that he had idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and required supplemental oxygen therapy 24 hours a day. The following day, Evel appeared on stage with Robbie at Evel Knievel Days in Butte, marking the last performance the two would appear together. Robbie jumped 196 feet in a tribute to his father.
Shortly before his death, Knievel was saluted by Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond in a BBC2 Christmas special, Hammond having greatly admired Knievel. The 60-minute program Richard Hammond Meets Evel Knievel aired on December 23, 2007, less than a month after his death. The documentary was filmed in July 2007 around the annual “Evel Knievel Days” festival in his old home town of Butte. Knievel was clearly in severely declining health, but he still displayed the same spirit and showmanship that had driven his career.
Evel Knievel: The Rock Opera
In 2003, Knievel signed over exclusive rights to Los Angeles composer Jef Bek, authorizing the production of a rock opera based on Knievel’s life. Directed by Bat Boy co-creator Keythe Farley, the production opened in Los Angeles in September 2007 to some positive reviews.
In the late 1990s, Knievel was in need of a life-saving liver transplant as a result of suffering the long-term effects from Hepatitis C. He contracted the disease after one of the numerous blood transfusions he received prior to 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 successfully 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, Evel 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 over the course of his career as a daredevil. He also had two strokes since 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 Pastor 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, but died on the way to the 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 Pastor Dr. Robert H. Schuller with actor Matthew McConaughey giving the eulogy. Prior to the Monday service, fireworks exploded in the Butte night sky as pallbearers carried Knievel’s casket into the center.