Evel Knievel was the best in the world at crashing to the ground, staggering back up
Took a lickin' and kept on tickin’
Evel Knievel was the best in the world at crashing to the ground, staggering back up
Other people’s thrills are a problematic matter. In Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, Basil Seal, after a series of wild adventures in Africa culminating in a, ah, memorable culinary occasion with his girlfriend, returns to London society to find his chums entirely indifferent to his tales of derring-do:
“Darling, I just don’t want to hear about it, d’you mind? I’m sure it’s all very fine and grand, but it doesn’t make much sense to a stay-athome like me.”
“That’s the way to deal with him,” saidAlastairfrom his armchair. “Keep a stopper on the far-flung stuff.”
That’s good advice. In theory, a latter-day adventurer like Sir Ranulph Twistleton-Wykeham-Fiennes, 3rd Baronet, first man to cross the Arctic by foot, amputated his own frostbitten fingertips with a fretsaw, etc., ought to be a fascinating chap. Yet whenever he pops up on TV to talk about his life, I find it hard to stay interested after the bit 40 years ago where he gets discharged from Britain’s SAS after sneaking out from barracks one night and blowing up, for aesthetic reasons, the set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That seems more than enough excitement for any man.
As for the other great challenges the planet has to offer, these days an expedition to Mount Everest attracts less attention than an expedition to mount Paris Hilton. You can’t even get a book out of it unless, like Jon Krakauer’s account of the ill-fated 1996 foray, half the mountaineers die hideous deaths, and even then the most obnoxious of the dilettante gazillionaire Himalayan tourists always make it out alive.
“Because it’s there,” said Sir Edmund Hil-
lary of Everest. It’s unclear whether the late motorcyclist Evel Knievel felt the same about the Snake River Canyon, which was certainly there, in Idaho. Or the fountains of Caesars Palace, which were also there, though they hadn’t been two years earlier. But the 52 wrecked cars in the Los Angeles Coliseum weren’t there, until he piled them up. And nor were there 13 London buses inside Wembley Stadium until he decided to put them there. But canyons and car wrecks, ornamental fountains and municipal transportation, Knievel o’erleapt them all on his (mostly) trusty mechanical steed.
He was the most famous thrill-seeker in the world, and for a public ever harder to impress he distilled it to its essence: here I am. Here’s the buses. Here I am 45 seconds later with multiple broken bones. Success and failure in the same frame: Knievel would usually clear the obstacle but invariably land badly and be carried off to hospital. The ideal Knievel stunt is nicely captured in the Simpsons episode in which a celebrity daredevil (“If he’s not in action, he’s in traction!”) visits the Springfield Truckasaurus rally and attempts to leap over a tank of water filled with “man-eating great white sharks, deadly electric eels, ravenous piranhas, and bonecrushing alligators.” But why stop there? The Knievelesque showman then tosses a lion in the water. And, just to get ’em in the mood, adds a drop of human blood. His motorcycle clears the danger. But, safe on the far side, he raises his mitt from the handlebars to acknowledge the cheers and the bike wobbles and drops the death-defier into the tank. He struggles free to clamber up the side, only to have the lion drag him back in.
The template was established at the first
Knievel stunt. It was 1965 and he was selling Triumph motorcycles in Moses Lake, Wash., and business wasn’t so good. So he announced he would jump the bike over a bunch of parked cars and (in the Simpsons everythingplus-the-kitchen-sink spirit) a sandbox of rattlesnakes, plus a mountain lion. Hundreds of people showed up to watch. He came down on the rattlesnakes. Triumph and disaster simultaneously. I rode Triumphs when I was a teenager. Also Nortons and Royal Enfields. If you’ve ever ridden British bikes, you’re never entirely at ease with a Harley. Nonetheless, I can’t say I’d want to fire a Triumph or a BSA over a line of trucks. Knievel switched to a Harley-Davidson, but amidst the rattlers at his Triumph dealership he’d found his calling. “Right then,” he said, “I knew I could draw a big crowd by jumping over weird stuff on motorcycles.” He got a garish red, white and blue jumpsuit, and unlike Elvis he did actually jump in it.
By New Year’s Eve 1967, Knievel was in Vegas preparing to leap the fountains at Caesars Palace. By New Year’s Day 1968, he was in a coma. By the time he came round, the New Year was a month old. He’d lost control of the bike, hit a wall, fractured his skull, broke his pelvis, ribs and hips. But he was a star. I leave it to scholars to argue whether it was Knievel’s fountaineering expedition or Xavier Cugat’s marriage to Charo the previous year, also at Caesars Palace, that formally inaugurated the new Vegas. But the town was evolving from its tuxedoed Rat Pack cool in ways not everybody approved of. “The witless Knievel is titillating a barbaric appetite for treating violent death as a spectator sport,” George Will wrote of a later stunt. “Like pornography, the event is brutalizing, anti life.”
Oh, I don’t know. I find something oddly inspiring in it: the Caesars Palace fountain
of eternal life-threatening injuries. Knievel was one of those fellows you can meet every day of the week in every town across America. He was at various stages in those early years a high-school dropout, amateur polevaulter, insurance salesman, hunting guide, and safecracker and armed robber. Or so he said. The biography was endlessly mutable: did he get the name “Evel” as a troublesome punk on the streets of Butte, Mont.? Or was he given it years later when he got tossed in jail and found himself next to a local crook called Knoffel whom the sheriff liked to address as “Awful”? Who knows? Who cares? The tales may have been tall but they weren’t long. And underneath the lurid anecdotage and the jumpsuit was a grain of recognizable truth. He was like a lot of guys—okayish at most things, but not distinguished at any of them. So he made himself the best in the world at something it would never occur to most of us that there would ever be a market for excellence in: “jumping over weird stuff on motorcycles.” There was no science to it: In California, in England, in Ontario, he’d show up, make a “guesstimate” about the amount of power he’d need, open the throttle, and away he’d sail.
He and Caesars Palace were made for each other. During the Afghan campaign in 2001, an Internet wag, Glenn Crawford, deftly summed up the different cultural approaches to unpromising terrain—in this instance between the bleak Afghan plain and Nevada. Third World solution: eke a living out of the desert. American solution: “Viva Las Vegas!” In Crazy ForYou, the hit 1990s rewrite of the 1930s Gershwin musical Girl Crazy, they kept the city-slickers-out-west plot but threw in a gag in which someone proposes turning the dead-horse Nevada backwater into a gambling town. The wise guys roll their eyes. “Who’d come to Nevada to gamble?” One wouldn’t commend a den of sin to every trouble spot on the planet, but, motoring through the Sunni Triangle just
after the fall of Saddam and enduring one dreary desert burg after another, I couldn’t help feeling the history of the region would have been a little different if smack in the middle of Araby you could have seen Wayne Newton singing Danke Schoen with full supporting orchestra, followed by Evel Knievel jumping the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, plus 42 weapons of mass destruction and a plague of locusts.
He won and lost a fortune, but the fame never went away. He disliked the term “daredevil” and loathed being called a “stuntman.” “I’m an explorer,” he said, putting himself in the same category as Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Some trudge across the Arctic to find the pole. Some cross the burning desert of Nevada to find a pole-dancer. (Knievel’s, ah, romantic encounters were as numerous as his stunts and as prone to miscalculation: in 1986 he was fined $200 for soliciting an undercover policewoman.) They wrote songs about him, sold action figures, starred him in a lame-o biopic and persuaded both Red Buttons and Gene Kelly to co-star. But in my mind’s eye I always see him after the bus-jumping stunt at Wembley, crashing to the ground yet somehow picking himself up and staggering to the microphone. He holds the all-time world record for most broken bones in a single body: 433. And in the end the hepatitis C contracted from one of his many blood transfusions did more damage to him than any of his leaps: let that be a lesson, boys and girls. It’s not jumping the canyon that’ll kill ya, it’s the C. difficile you get from the trip to the hospital. Crippled by one silent killer after another, Evel Knievel nevertheless gave the impression that, a year or two on, he’d be the first fellow with a walker to jump three La-Z-Boy recliners at the retirement home. As Wayne Newton would put it:
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.