Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, Jr. (October 17, 1938 - November 30,
2007) was a motorcycle daredevil who has been a household name since the late
1960s, and arguably the most iconic motorbike stuntman of all time. Evel
Knievel's highly publicized motorcycle jumps, including his attempt to jump over
the Snake River Canyon, claim four of the top 20 most-watched Wide World of
Sports events of all time. He enjoyed a lengthy career in this extreme sport
despite suffering a series of major injuries during stunts.
Knievel was the first of two children born to Robert and Ann Knievel. He was
born in Butte, Montana. Robert and Ann divorced in 1940, just after the birth of
their second child, Nic. Both parents decided to leave Butte and their two
children to get a new start. The children were raised by their paternal
grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Knievel attended a
Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show, which he credits for his later career choice
to become a motorcycle daredevil.
Knievel dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and got a job
with the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator in the copper
mines. He was promoted to surface duty where his job was driving a large earth
mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover pop a motorcycle-type
wheelie and drove it into Butte's main power line, leaving the city without
electricity for several hours. With a lot of time on his hands, Knievel began to
get into more and more trouble around Butte. After one particular 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 Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Knofel was
well known as "Awful Knofel," so Knievel began to be referred to as Evel Knievel.
The nickname stuck.
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 1957. In the
late 1950s, Knievel joined the 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, kidnapped and married his first wife, Linda
Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel left Butte to join the Charlotte
Checkers of the Eastern Hockey League, a minor professional ice hockey league.
Realizing that he wasn't talented enough to make it into the National Hockey
League and that the real money in sports, at the time, was in owning a team,
Knievel returned to Butte and 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 his 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 U.S. Olympic Committee ended up paying the
Czechoslovakian team's expenses in order to avoid an international incident.
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to
come up with a new way to support his family. 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 signed up with his service and paid his
fee that they would get the big game animal that they wanted or he would refund
their money. Business was very brisk until game wardens realized that he was
taking his clients into Yellowstone National Park to find their prey. As a
result of this poaching, Knievel had to shut down his new business venture.
Having few options, he turned to a life of crime, becoming a burglar. It is
rumored that Knievel bought his first bike after breaking into the safe of the
In December 1961, Knievel, learning about the culling of elk in Yellowstone
Park, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness
and to have the elk relocated to areas open to hunters. He presented his case to
Representative Arnold Olsen, Senator Mike Mansfield and Kennedy administration
Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. As a result of his efforts, the slaughter was
stopped, and the animals have since been regularly captured and relocated to
areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Knievel decided to go straight after returning home from Washington. He
joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but still couldn't make
enough money to support his family. In 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. To this day Knievel credits much of
his success to Stone and his book.
Knievel did very well as an insurance salesman (even going as far as to sell
insurance policies to several institutionalized mental patients) and wanted to
be quickly rewarded for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to
vice-president after a few months on the job, he quit. Needing a fresh start
away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he
opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. Times were
tough in the early 1960s for Japanese imports. People still considered them
inferior to American built motorcycles, and there were still lingering
resentments stemming from World War II, which had ended fewer than twenty years
earlier. At one point, Knievel offered a $100 discount to anybody who could beat
him at arm wrestling. Despite his best efforts the store eventually closed.
Robert Craig Knievel
October 17, 1938(1938-10-17)
November 30, 2007 (aged 69)
Cause of death
Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis
Linda Joan Bork (1959–1997)
Krystal Kennedy (1999–2001)
Kelly, Tracey, Alicia, Robbie
Robert Edward Knievel, Ann Kehoe
Not having any way to support his family, Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood
show he saw as a boy and decided that he could do a similar show 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
coming up short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the
rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel realized that to make any real money he would have to hire more
performers, stunt coordinators and other personnel so that he could concentrate
on the jumps. Being broke, he went looking for a sponsor and found one in Bob
Blair, 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 first show 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 got several offers to host his show after their first performance. The
second booking was in Hemet, California, but was cancelled because of 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. Knievel ended up in the
hospital because of his injuries. When released, he returned to Barstow to
finish the performance he had started almost a month before.
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 stuntmen 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 in order 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 only suffered a serious
concussion. After recovering for a month, he 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 finally got some national exposure when actor Joey Bishop had him on
as a guest of The Joey Bishop Show. All the attention not only brought
larger paydays, but also female admirers.
While in Las Vegas, Nevada, to watch Dick Tiger fight a middleweight title
fight, 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 used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film
of the Caesar's 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 a
single $100 dollar bet on the blackjack table, which he lost, stopped by the bar
and got a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by
several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two scantily clad 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 a coma for 29 days.
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 they originally
would have, had they televised the original jump live. Ironically, when Knievel
finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his
doctors were telling him that he might never walk without the aide of crutches,
let alone ride and jump motorcycles. 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, Knievel performed another
jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting
to jump fifteen 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 again, once
again breaking his hip. During his recovery, Knievel had the X-1 Skycycle built
by NASA aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to promote his Grand Canyon jump.
More showpiece than actual motorcycle, the X-1 had two rocket engines capable of
producing thrust of more than 14,000 pounds force (62 kN) bolted to the side of
a normal motorcycle. Knievel also had all the trucks he used to go from one jump
to the next painted to promote the Grand Canyon jump.
Snake River Canyon
By 1971, Knievel realized that the United States 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 near Twin Falls, Idaho, that was both 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, 1972.
On January 7 and January 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 in Ontario,
California. 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.
Knievel continued to jump and promote his Labor Day assault on the Snake
River Canyon. On March 3, 1972 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Knievel got
into a scuffle with a couple of Hells Angels in the audience. After making a
successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing
area. Knievel ended up getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a
Harley-Davidson. Knievel ended up with a broken back and a concussion.
ABC Sports was unwilling to pay the price Knievel wanted for the canyon jump,
so he ended up hiring Bob Arum's company, Top Rank Productions, to put the event
on pay-per-view cable. Arum partnered with Invest West Sports, Sheldon Saltman's
company, in order to secure from Invest West Sports two things: 1.) the
necessary financing for the jump and 2.) the services of Sheldon 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 then hired
former NASA engineer Robert Truax to design and build the X-2 Skycycle. During
two test jumps, the first on April 15, 1972, and the second on June 24, 1973,
the rocket failed to make it all the way across the canyon. Knievel said that
there would be no more tests and that he would go ahead with the scheduled jump
on September 8, 1974.
The launch at the Snake River Canyon was at 3:36 p.m. local time. The steam
that powered the engine had to get up to a temperature of 700 °F (370 °C). upon
takeoff, the drogue parachute accidentally deployed when the three 1/4 inch
bolts holding the cover for the chute sheared off with the force of the blast.
The deployed chute caused enough drag that even though the skycycle made it all
the way across the canyon the wind began to cause it to drift back as the
skycycle turned on its side and started to descend into the canyon. By the time
it hit the bottom of the canyon, the wind had pushed it across the river enough
so that it landed half in and half out of the water, just a couple feet more in
the water and Knievel would have drowned. Knievel survived the jump with only
Marketing the image
Knievel sought to make more money off of his image. No longer satisfied with
just receiving free motorcycles to jump with, Knievel wanted to be paid to use
and promote a company's brand of motorcycles. After Triumph, the motorcycle that
he had been jumping with, refused to meet his demands, Knievel started to
propose the idea to other manufacturers. American Eagle Motorcycles was the
first company to sign Knievel to an endorsement deal. At approximately the same
time, Fanfare Films started production of The Evel Knievel Story, a 1971
movie starring George Hamilton as Knievel.
Knievel kept up his pursuit of getting the United States government to allow
him to jump the Grand Canyon. To push his case, he hired famed San Francisco
defense attorney Melvin Belli to fight the legal battle to obtain government
permission. ABC's Wide World of Sports started showing Knievel's jumps on
television with regularity. His popularity, especially with young boys, was ever
increasing. He became a hero to a generation of young boys, many of whom were
injured trying to imitate his stunts. A. J. Foyt made him part of his pit crew
for the Indianapolis 500 in 1970. His huge fame caused him to start traveling
with a bodyguard, Boots Curtis, a long time Knievel friend.
Later in the decade, the merchandising of the Knievel image reached
additional mediums. Ideal Toys released a bendable Knievel action figure in
1974; along with a host of accessories, there was also a female counterpart
available—Derry Daring. In 1977,
Bally marketed its Knievel pinball machine as the "first fully electronic
commercial game"; it has elsewhere been described as one of the "last of the
classic pre-digital games."
On May 26, 1975, in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London,
England, Knievel crashed while trying to land a jump over thirteen redundant
single-deck AEC Merlin buses (the term "London Buses" used in earlier publicity
had led to many believing the attempt was to be made over the higher and more
traditional Routemaster double-deck type). After the crash, despite breaking his
pelvis, Knievel addressed the audience and announced his retirement. After
recuperating, Knievel decided that he had spoken too soon, and that he would
continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel successfully jumped fourteen
Greyhound buses at Kings Island, Ohio. This event scored the highest viewer
ratings in the history of ABC's Wide World of Sports. After this jump, he
again announced his retirement. Evel jumped on October 31, 1976 at the Seattle
Kingdome. He only jumped seven Greyhound Buses. The jump was a success. Despite
the crowd's pleasure, Knievel felt that it was not his best jump. He apologized
to the crowd for the jump not being that great.
Knievel made several television appearances, including a guest spot on The
Bionic Woman where he played himself. He was a frequent guest on talk shows
such as Dinah! and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show. On January 31,
1977, during a dress rehearsal for a CBS special on live daredevil stunts at the
Chicago International Amphitheatre, Knievel crashed, breaking both arms and his
collarbone. In the process, a misplaced cameraman was injured, losing an eye. In
June 1977, Warner Bros. released Viva Knievel!, a movie starring Knievel
as himself and co-starring Lauren Hutton, Gene Kelly and Red Buttons. The movie
was a box office flop.
While Knievel was healing from his latest round of injuries, the book Evel
Knievel on Tour was released. Authored by Knievel's promoter for the Snake
River Canyon jump, Sheldon Saltman, the book painted a less than perfect picture
of Knievel's character and alleged that he abused his wife and kids and that he
used drugs. Knievel, with both arms still in casts, flew to California to
confront Saltman, a VP at Twentieth Century Fox. Outside the studio commissary,
one of Knievel's friends grabbed Shelly and held him, while Knievel attacked him
with an aluminum baseball bat, declaring, "I'm going to kill you!" According to
a witness to the attack, Knievel struck repeated blows at Saltman's head, with
Saltman blocking the blows with his left arm. Saltman's arm and wrist were
shattered in several places before he fell to the ground unconscious. It took
numerous surgeries and permanent metal plates in his arm to eventually give
Saltman back the use of his arm. He had been a left-handed competitive tennis
player before the attack. Sheldon Saltman's book was pulled from the shelves by
the publisher after Knievel threatened to sue. Saltman later produced documents
in both criminal and civil court that proved that, although Knievel claimed to
have been insulted by statements in Saltman's book, he and his lawyers had
actually been given editorial access to the book and had approved and signed off
on every word prior to its publication. On October 14, 1977, Knievel pleaded
guilty to battery and was sentenced to three years probation and six months in
the county jail, during which he publicly flaunted his brief incarceration for
the press as just one more publicity stunt.
With no income, Knievel eventually had to declare bankruptcy. In 1981,
Saltman was awarded a $13 million judgement against Knievel in a civil trial but
never received money from Knievel's estate. In 1983, the IRS determined that
Knievel failed to pay $1.6 million in taxes on earnings from his jumps. In
addition to the back taxes, they demanded another $2.5 million in interest and
penalties. Then the State of Montana sued Knievel for $390,000 in back taxes. In
1986, Knievel was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman in Kansas
City, Missouri. Knievel's wife, Linda, left him and returned home to Butte.
Knievel made several attempts to reconcile with his estranged son, Robbie,
even appearing with him at a couple of jumps. After Robbie's successful jump of
the Caesar's Palace fountains, the two went their separate ways for good.
Knievel made somewhat of a marketing comeback in the 1990s, representing Maxim
Casino, Little Caesar's and Harley-Davidson among other companies. In 1993, Evel
Knievel was diagnosed with hepatitis C, apparently contracted during one of his
numerous reconstructive surgeries.
In 1994, in Sunnyvale, California, during a domestic disturbance call, police
found several firearms in Knievel's car. He was convicted and ordered to perform
200 hours of community service for a weapons violation. He had a liver
transplant in 1999. That year, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
On November 19, 1999, on a special platform built on the fountains at Caesars
Palace on the Las Vegas Strip near Las Vegas, Nevada (site of Evel’s jump New
Year's Eve 1967), Evel married long time girlfriend, 30-year-old Krystal Kennedy
of Clearwater, FL. Standing up for Evel was his oldest son Kelly Knievel;
Krystal's twin sister Shawn (Kennedy) Marsh served as Maid of Honor. Long-time
friend Engelbert Humperdinck sent a recorded tribute to the couple. They were
divorced in 2001.
On July 27, 2006, on The Adam Carolla Show, Knievel said that he has
idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, and requires supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day.
On July 28, 2006, at Evel Knievel Days in Butte, Robbie jumped 196 feet in a
tribute to his father. Robbie also appeared on stage with his father, Evel.
In December 2006, Knievel sued rapper Kanye West for trademark infringement
in West's video for Touch the Sky.  The case was later amicably
settled on November 28, 2007 for an undisclosed sum of money. 
Conversion to Christianity
On April 1, 2007, Knievel announced to a worldwide audience that he "believed
in Jesus Christ" for the first time. He professed his personal faith in Christ
to more than 4,000 people who gathered inside the Crystal Cathedral for Palm
Sunday services in Orange County, California, and to millions via an Hour of
Power telecast of the service to over 100 countries.
Knievel told how he had refused for 68 years to accept Jesus Christ as his
Savoir because he didn’t want to surrender his lifestyle of "the gold and the
gambling and the booze and the women." He explained his conversion experience by
saying, "All of a sudden, I just believed in Jesus Christ. I did, I believed in
him!" Knievel said he knew people
were praying for him, including his daughter's church, his ex-wife's church, and
the hundreds of people who wrote letters urging him to believe.
Knievel recounted how he "rose up in bed and, I was by myself, and I said,
'Devil, Devil, you bastard you, get away from me. I cast you out of my life….' I
just got on my knees and prayed that God would put his arms around me and never,
ever, ever let me go." At his
request, he was baptized before the congregation and TV cameras by Dr. Robert H.
Schuller, Founding Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral. Christianity Today
reported that "...Knievel's testimony triggered mass baptisms at the Crystal
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 of
2007 to excellent reviews.
Six Flags Evel Knievel Roller Coaster
Evel Knievel partnered with Six Flags St. Louis to name a new wooden coaster
after "America's Legendary Daredevil."
The amusement park in Eureka, Missouri, outside of St. Louis, Missouri, will
open the ride in 2008.
Evel Knievel died on November 30, 2007 of liver failure. He had been ill for
years due to contracting Hepatitis C from a blood transfusion 15 years ago.
Awaiting your comments