ROBERT CRAIG KNEIVEL, JR. aka "EVEL KNEIVEL"
Oct. 17, 1938 -- Nov. 30, 2007
An American legend passed away a little over a week ago. Motorcycle daredevil Robert Craig "Evel" Kneivel, who once described himself as "the toughest SOB that God ever made," finally lost a 3-year battle with an incurable lung disease. He was 69.
Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Butte, Montana, Kneivel was abandoned by both his parents at an early age and left in the care of grandparents. In high school, he played ice hockey and competed on a ski-jumping team, winning a medal in the latter. Around that time, he also became a motorcycle enthusiast and began jumping his machine over ditches and fences for his own amusement.
In and out of trouble with the law several times in his youth, Kneivel began his thrill show career almost by accident, when a friend convinced him that people would pay money to watch him perform the spectacular motorcycle jumping stunts that he had originated over the years. Always a flambouyant self-promoter, Kneivel quickly learned that his friend was right and his legendary career was launched. Looking for a memorable name to call himself, he came up with Evel Kneivel, often reminding people who mispelled it that he was "Evel, not Evil."
The stunts grew bigger and more spectacular and his fame began to grow, but it was an even more spectacular failure that would bring him national attention and turn him into an American icon forever. In 1968, he attempted to jump over the high water fountains on the grounds of the Caesar's Palace hotel and resort in Las Vegas, Nevada. Kneivel always built his own takeoff and landing ramps and painstakingly calculated how long and high they would have to be, and the speed he would need to obtain in order to complete the jump successfully. On that famous jump, his ramp specifications were off somewhat. The landing ramp wasn't long enough and when you are on your way down, well, that's the wrong time to discover a mistake. He landed short, lost control of the bike, and suffered one of his most brutal crashes.
On film, you can see his body being propelled over the handlebars in a high-side spill -- the worst nightmare of all motorcyclists. You can almost feel the impact as his body hit the ramp very hard, then tumbled to the ground, narrowly avoiding being run over by the flipping and cartwheeling Triumph he rode in those days. He had a broken back, ribs, legs and one arm, as well as a major concussion and was in a coma for nearly a month. After he recovered from the coma, Kneivel said that he was lucky that he hadn't missed the ramp altogether and landed right in the fountain's pool below.
But he was noticed by the national media. After recovering, he never attempted the fountain jump a second time, but made two or three other successful jumps which were equally spectacular and got the attention of ABC Sports. The third jump was featured on that network's Wide World of Sports telecast and Evel Kneivel became a regular fixture from that point on. Through the 1970's almost every major jump he attempted was televised nationally. That was the era in which Kneivel's feats became legendary and iconic. Men admired him, little boys wanted to be like him, and women? Well, they just wanted him, he once told an interviewer. According to him, several of them also got their wish.
Endlessly creative, Kneivel jumped over everything from a huge cage filled with live rattlesnakes, to a tank full of live sharks, to 12 Mack trucks, and 14 Greyhound buses at one time or another. But it was another failure that people would remember the most -- the ill-fated Snake River Canyon jump, which took place in Idaho, in 1974. For this, Kneivel didn't use a conventional motorcycle, but the famous "Sky Cycle" which he had helped design. It was propelled by a steam-powered rocket motor, which had been designed by an associate.
It worked well, blasting Kneivel up the launch ramp and over the canyon, high above the river. He actually cleared the canyon, but then the parachute, which was supposed to ease him down to a gentle landing on the opposite side, deployed too early because of a mistake made by one of Kneivel's crew members. The wind caught the chute and blew him back into the canyon, where he landed on the riverbank far below, almost going into the water. Kneivel was uninjured, but was very angry, refusing all post-jump interviews and retreating into seclusion for several weeks. Like the Caesar's Palace jump earlier, Kneivel never attempted to jump the canyon again.
The Evel Kneivel craze began then and all sorts of toys and collectibles began to appear; there was even an Evel Kneivel comic book published. Actor George Hamilton portrayed him in one movie and Kneivel portrayed himself in another one, entitled, Viva Kneivel. Throughout his career, scores of kids built their own ramps and tried to jump their bicycles and little Honda motorbikes over them in imitation, resulting in thousands of cuts, bruises and broken arms and legs among the young copycats. Scale models of Kneivel's trademark Harley-Davidson and the Sky Cycle still bring hundreds of dollars from memorabilia collectors. And Evel Kneivel held on to his licensing empire for his entire life.
Kneivel formally retired in 1981, his body ravaged by the injuries he'd suffered in his many crashes. His spine was broken seven times, was fused together, and became arthritic with advancing age. He was in pain almost constantly, but he rarely showed it, living up to the toughness he boasted about. Bouts of heavy drinking also took their toll over the years, resulting in a liver transplant. Kneivel was in poor and declining health for years before his death, but he still managed to promote the career of his youngest son, Robbie, who re-attempted the Caesar's Palace fountain jump in the 1990's and completed it successfully, dedicating it to his father. A few years later, they had a falling out and didn't speak to one another for a few more years after that. But they put their differences aside and reunited a year or so before Kneivel passed away.
Evel Kneivel was one of a kind; a daredevil who came out of nowhere and became a legend in his own time. In life, he was larger-than-life, living up to the spectacular feats he promised and giving his fans all the thrills they could ever ask for. But he missed the mark badly when he predicted, years ago, that his death would be just as spectacular. He would probably have never dreamed then that he would slip away so quietly in a hospital room, a shadow of his former self, with his body almost totally used up.
But then, maybe that's the way it should be, after all. Maybe if you don't use it up, you don't really live. Evel Kneivel lived, that's for sure.