Forty years after Evel Knievel’s fated 13-bus jump at Wembley Stadium, David Whitehouse examines the death-defying life of history’s most fearless stuntman
On 26 May 1975, Death – scythe in hand – took his seat at Wembley Stadium beneath a blemishless sky. A crowd of 70,000 trembled with expectancy, but Death was interested in one man and one man alone. Evel Knievel had spectacularly evaded him many times before, and Death wondered if he’d finally cross that famous name from the ledger today.
In fact, the only person in the Western world who didn’t appear to be pondering Knievel’s demise at that moment was Knievel. With the throbbing engine of a Harley XR-750 between his legs, he rose to the top of an enormous ramp to look out across the capacity crowd and the 13 buses they’d paid to see him jump.
Knievel made for a spectacular vision in his blue leather suit, with stars emblazoned on the chest – a symbol of bravery, ambition and defiance, the American Dream made flesh. Little wonder he’d so captured the public imagination. He had a cape, for Christ’s sake. But surely this jump was too far, even for him. Knievel released the throttle. Death readied his pen.
Robert Craig Knievel was born on 17 October 1938 in Butte, Montana, a small but proud mining town in the Rocky Mountains. After high school he worked in the copper mines, but was reportedly fired for making an industrial earth mover pull a wheelie through Butte’s main power line. He’d already discovered a love of motorcycles, and in 1956 was arrested for reckless driving having crashed one. Falling foul of the law doubtlessly sucked at the time, but he didn’t know then that crashing motorcycles would make him the most famous man on Earth.
That night he found himself sharing a jail cell with a man named William Knofel, a local criminal nicknamed ‘Awful’ (awful rhyming with Knofel). And so, Robert Craig Knievel had the idea for his daredevil name, misspelled because he wasn’t actually evil.
“I wouldn’t just describe him as a daredevil,” says his son Kelly, from his home in Las Vegas. “He was much more than a daredevil. The daredevil was just a part of the whole adventure of his life. How do you define someone…? Whatever he did, he just wanted to do the best of and have the best life and the most money and the finest clothes and the fanciest cars and the prettiest women. He used to say, ‘I’ve lived a life as fine as any king who ever lived.’” But he was a king of humble beginnings.
Knievel worked a few jobs to pay for his young family – wife Linda, Kelly and another son, Robbie. He hunted professionally for a time, sold insurance (knowledge of which would later come in handy), took part in rodeos and sold bikes. But by January 1966, a collision of growing ego, explosive ambition and unrestrained machismo meant he’d decided that his future lay in performing daring motorcycle jumps.
“It took a very unique set of American circumstances,” Kelly says. “If he’d been born in Poland, would there have been an Evel Knievel? No. It has a lot to do with the town he grew up in. It has a lot to do with the way he was raised. All those things came together in his personality. He just had an imagination.”
Knievel drove his family across the US, jumping over pick-up trucks in front of small crowds, and with each jump he found the public wanted him to go one further. On 19 June 1966 he attempted to clear 12 cars and a cargo van in Missoula, Montana, but crashed just before the landing ramp, breaking his arm severely and many ribs. His failure, however, was a publicist’s dream.
Developing an unrivalled sense of showmanship, Knievel was undeterred. He cleared 16 cars on 30 May 1967 in Gardena, California, before crashing out on the same amount two months later and being hospitalised for concussion in Graham, Washington. On 18 August he was back in Graham to finish the show, however the results were the same and the injuries more devastating. He broke a wrist and both knees. But every time Knievel crashed, he became more famous, and soon the nation was watching. It was time to go big.
On New Year’s Eve 1967, Knievel attempted to leap the famous fountains outside Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – a jump of 141ft. He’d have been in a medically induced coma, recovering from a crushed pelvis and femur, plus fractures to his wrists, hips and ankles, when ABC bought the rights to the footage of the crash and aired it on national television. It’s not difficult to see how Knievel would one day enter the Guinness Book Of World Records as the survivor of the most broken bones in a lifetime (433 fractures), or even to see how his fame rapidly grew to the point where Evel Knievel dolls were outselling Action Man to be the biggest selling toys in the world. He was, to a generation, a real-life superhero, cape and all. Brave. Dynamic. Possibly even invincible.
“My dad was like a freight train,” Kelly says. “He was the first to sell things with his image on. He was a great businessman, aware of his circumstances and how to exploit them. He didn’t want to have to go to an office and have people there working for him, or to wear suits and ties and go to meetings. He hated that.”
Less easy to understand is how his mind worked… how a man continually returns to face injury and death, then limps away from it laughing, all the while from stunts more audacious than the last.
“He’s just crashed on his motorcycle jumping 140ft [at Caesar’s Palace], and then he decides he’s gonna jump the Grand Canyon.” Kelly says. “I mean, how does a guy do that? He experimented with motorcycles with wings on them. He had no idea how he was going to do that.”
A real drag
As it happened, despite huge public interest, Knievel wouldn’t get to jump – or disappear into – the Grand Canyon. Despite several years of negotiation and the development of winged concept bikes, the interior department wouldn’t grant him the airspace.
He turned his attention instead to Snake River Canyon, Idaho, which he attempted to cross in the Skycycle X-2 – essentially a cross between a rocket and bike. But Knievel – and the huge crowd of spectators there and watching live in cinemas across the US – were disappointed when the built-in parachute controversially deployed too early, causing significant drag. He hit the bottom of the canyon slowly enough to avoid serious injury, having travelled just far enough to avoid the river, where, strapped in to the Skycycle, he’d probably have drowned.
Knievel’s ego was index-linked to his celebrity, as was his wealth. “He had seven aeroplanes at one time.” Kelly says. “He’d buy Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches… Then he ended up with a big ship with a helicopter on it. He liked to drive around Florida and honk the horn at all the guys operating the bridges. Everybody knew him. When he walked into a room full of Hollywood celebrities, everyone wanted to meet him.” There was one thing he could do: get bigger.
Knievel landed in London three weeks before his Wembley jump to find that the promoters had only sold 3,000 tickets. He sacked them on the asphalt where they’d come out to greet him, and tenaciously put his mind to making the event a sell out, which he did. Britain had fallen for his lack of fatalism, his charisma, his apparent death-wish. The TV rights were sold, and at 5pm, 26 May, he found himself atop the ramp, seemingly unaware of the Grim Reaper’s place among his biggest ever audience, each one of them holding their breath. He’d calculated, based on instinct rather than physics (Knievel didn’t even have a speedometer), that he’d need to hit between 93 and 95 miles per hour to clear the 130ft over 13 buses.
“He never displayed any fear or apprehension,” Kelly says. “It was showtime, for crying out loud. He had a job to do.”
The take-off looked true enough, but Knievel lacked the acceleration he needed. The ramp was too short. His motorcycle clipped the final bus, vaulting him dramatically over the handlebars. He hit the ground at speed, and once he’d finished rolling, the motorcycle landed on top of him, as if it couldn’t bear to be alone. A bone punctured his hand. Blood dribbled from his mouth. He had a compressed fracture of the fourth and fifth vertebrae in the lower part of his spine and a fractured pelvis. But Knievel wouldn’t let them take him to the ambulance. Instead he demanded to be carried back to the ramp, where, with a microphone in his hand, he told Wembley Stadium: “Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country, I have to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I’m through.” Death, perhaps out of respect for one of the greatest showmen ever to have lived, had apparently gone home early. But did Kelly believe him?
“First of all, when you’re injured and in shock, you probably say a lot of stuff you don’t really mean. Did we think it was the end? There was no second guessing my dad. It didn’t surprise me that he kept going. What else was he gonna do? Get a job?”
Knievel’s retirement was short-lived, and he performed a number of other jumps before eventually calling it a day. The fame and the money waned, but the daredevil’s legend was assured. Knievel died on 30 November 2007 after suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. He was 69.
And yet somehow, even now, he is still cheating death.
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