written by Brandon Sutton
From George Washington to Muhammed Ali, American history does not lack iconic figures. All of whom, irrespective of their fields, share a few key characteristics. One trait is their ability to not only embody the American Spirit, qualities people believe make America exceptional, but to redefine that spirit.
In our conversation with Shea Evans, founder and leader of the Go Hard Boyz, he cited one such figure as the inspiration for his love of dirt bikes stunts and racing: Evel Knievel.
Shea was aware of how seemingly odd this might sound, saying, “You have to understand being an African American kid; I’m looking up to this white dude wearing this Elvis Presley red, white, and blue thing. I didn’t know about racism, I didn’t care. He was a hero. He was doing wheelies on the Harley bike and had the cape. I wanted it all.”
But isn’t that how it always goes? After all, another trait of a true American icon is their ability to transcend the traditional boundaries, whether they be the borders of their sport, genre, time, or race, and break their way into the mainstream culture.
So, while Evel Knievel was not the first person to risk their life in front of a crowd of onlookers, as people have been doing that for centuries, he was the first to take what was an act that was more at home at a State fair or Carnival and use it to elevate himself to worldwide renown. A feat that was only possible because he and his act embodied the grandiose sense of America in the minds of the world.
To say that Evel Knievel came from humble and ignoble origins is an understatement. Robert Kraig Knievel was born in 1938 in the small mining town of Butte, Montana. In many ways, it is appropriate that Knievel comes from a place like Butte.
Mining towns, by nature of being founded during the settling of the West by those willing to risk everything to strike it rich, serve as permanent physical reminders of the American spirit of adventure and desire for riches in a way that is uniquely adventurous. Not to mention, the men of Butte were well known for being particularly vigorous in their masculinity.
Evel proved to be a thrill seeker from a young age. In an almost direct parallel to Shea, Evel attributed his love of motorcycles and desire to become a daredevil to an experience he had as a boy when he attended the Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show.
Unfortunately, his love of danger was not limited to riding his bike and, after dropping out of high school, he was caught stealing hubcaps and given a choice: join the army or go to jail.
Choosing the former, Knievel served in the army, where he joined the Army’s track and field team as a pole-vaulter. One assumes that the judge who sentenced Knievel to the Army had intended it to straighten him out, but it is safe to say that history does not bear that out. After leaving the Army, Knievel married, which left him with the goal of settling down and earning money to support his new family. The obvious choice in Butte was to work in the mines.
However, Knievel’s career in mining was cut short by his seemingly unquenchable desire to perform. One day, while running a piece of machinery, Knievel decided to perform a wheelie on it an act that led to him crashing into a generator and the town of Butte being left without power for hours. Now without a job, Knievel roamed the town idle, and in need of money, which was a recipe for trouble and eventually led to him being arrested again.
While in jail, he was placed in a cell next to a man known as “Awful Knofel” a fact that led to the officers referring to him as “Evil Knievel.” Though this was initially done in jest, Knievel liked the sound of it, and began referring to himself as the same, but spelled it “Evel” because he did not want to be thought of as evil.
This stage of Knievel’s life was not so distinct from any young man’s with one major caveat. While he did drift from job to job, and city to city, in search of his calling and a way to support himself, he also competed in various rodeos, skiing, and motorcycle racing competitions in order to satiate his desire for thrills and supplement his unsteady income.
While in Moses Lake, Washington, and struggling to support his family while working for a Honda Dealership, he recalled the motorcycle stunt show he saw as a kid and figured he could do a similar type of show. Knievel had always had a knack for selling and promoting things, going back to his time as a paperboy in Butte, so for his first show, he was confident in his ability to promote, organize, and perform.
The stunt was relatively simple, in comparison to his later ones. Knievel would jump over a twenty-foot long box filled with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Despite clipping the box of rattlesnakes, he managed to land safely.
However, it was this jump that made Knievel realize that in order to make the sort of money he would need an entire team of daredevils and promoters, as well as a sponsor to afford them. Thus Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils were born.
Knievel’s early jumps were not all successes. In fact, many of them ended with him being hospitalized or seriously injured.
However, this did not detract from his rise to fame, because it was not merely his ability to complete jumps on the first attempt, his ability to work a crowd, or his innate bravado that cemented his place in people’s minds, but instead his willingness to get back up after failed attempts and try them again, even if it did take him a month or two to recover. In fact, the jump that catapulted him to stardom in the minds of the public was a complete disaster.
Knievel’s jump over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace took place on New Year’s Eve 1967. After calling the CEO of the casino, pretending to be lawyers for a fictitious corporation, as well as employees of Sports Illustrated, he was able to set the deal. However, he was unable to get ABC to air the jump live, which was his original plan. Instead, they agreed to play the footage of the jump if it were as amazing as he was claiming it would be.
The jump was certainly spectacular, if catastrophic, becoming one of the most famous crashes in motorcycle history. Despite taking off perfectly, Knievel landed short, which resulted in him being thrown from his motorcycle and skidding across the parking lot. He fractured his hip, wrist, and both ankles, crushed his pelvis, and received a concussion. But more important than the injuries he sustained, was the reception.
ABC purchased the footage for more than he had originally asked for to air the jump live. What could have been a bittersweet moment of failure, especially considering the fact that the doctors were unsure of whether he’d ever be able to walk again without the aid of crutches, had turned him into a star.
However, embodying the never say die spirit, Knievel made another jump just 5 months after what had become the infamous Caesar’s Palace jump and was already sketching out plans to jump the Grand Canyon.
Knievel’s career post Caesar’s Palace was an amalgamation of amazing successes, punctuated by bone shattering crashes, which is how he earned his entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as “Survivor of the Most Broken Bones in a Lifetime” with 433.
Less than a year after the Caesar’s palace jump he broke his right leg and foot attempting to jump over 15 mustangs. By the time he got back on his bike, a few months later, he was able to draw 25,000 dollars per jump.Though he would never get to jump the Grand Canyon for legal reasons, that did not stop Knievel from breaking more than just bones, or records for broken bones. For 35 years, Knievel held the record of jumping over the most stacked cars (50) and the most buses (14).
He was featured in seven of the ten highest rated episodes of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, with his longest jump at Kings Island being their highest rated episode ever.
His most spectacular stunt was most likely trying to jump over Snake River Canyon, which was intended to replace the Grand Canyon Jump and was attempted on a specialized motorcycle. Propelled by what was essentially a steam-powered rocket, it was even registered as an airplane in the state of Idaho.
Unfortunately, Knievel’s parachute deployed too early in the jump, leading the bike to crash on the same side of the canyon that it took off from, resulting in it only traveling a few feet. However, this jump would be the inspiration for the music video for the Kanye West song “Touch the Sky.”
However, more important than any successes or failures was that ability to get up and try again if it ended in failure or to up the ante and add another car or bus to the jump if it ended in success. That was key to cultivating his status as an American Hero. Then again, his iconic status cannot simply be attributed to his jumps.
Off of the motorcycle he was a similarly larger than life figure. Knievel coined the phrase “The Last Gladiator” to describe himself and his willingness to face death in front of a crowd, but he could just as easily be described as a cowboy, gangster, or any number of rebel figures popular in American pop culture.
Simultaneously, he had what could be described as a man’s code of honor, and one of the tenants of this code was his insistence on keeping his word. Regardless of the whether the conditions of a jump were unfeasible, dangerous, or dubious, he would do the jump because he had given his word. His iconic outfit, white leather sporting stripes and stars up the sides were inspired by his appreciation for the showmanship of Liberace.
Over the course of his career, Knievel retired multiple times, seemingly unable to give up the thrills and spotlight. His last major jump was in 1977, when he attempted to jump over a shark tank, and during a rehearsal accidentally injured a cameraman when he crashed.
Despite breaking both of his own arms, Knievel was more devastated by the fact that he had injured the bystander. It was this event that spurred him to retire from more daring jumps, sticking to easier ones and going on the road with his son Robby, who had become an accomplished daredevil in his own right.
It is hard to argue that Knievel was as close as one could get to being a real life superhero, he even had comic books produced by Marvel during the 70s. Additionally, there have been documentaries about him, museum exhibits dedicated to him, and one of his Harley Davidson’s still sits in the Smithsonian museum.
Because of his refusal to stay down, another American Icon, Muhammed Ali once referred to him as “the white Muhammed Ali.”
His ability to defy death was so legendary, that when he did finally die, at the age of 69, a longtime friend of his was quoted as being surprised, even though he had been in failing health for years, saying, “you just don’t expect it. Superman doesn’t die, right?”
In one of his last interviews, when asked about his career and motivations, he told a 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.”
In the end, Knievel really did beat the hell out of death, speaking to Shea Evans is the best example of that.
He and countless others worldwide were inspired by Knievel’s life and his philosophy of always getting back up and trying again. Knievel left an indelible mark on our culture so ultimately the answer is “no, Superman doesn’t die.”