Robert Craig Knievel got his first motorcycle at 13 and crashed it into his neighbor’s garage. On a construction job, he managed to pop a wheelie with a big earth mover and took out the main power line for Butte Montana, leaving the entire city without electricity for several hours.
In 1956, unemployed and often in trouble, he crashed his bike trying to outrun the police. His cellmate was William Knofel and they quickly became known as “Awful Knofel” and “Evil Knievel”. Robert thought “Evil” was too extreme, but “Evel” was just about right. It stuck.
In his first publicized motorcycle stunt, he jumped a Honda 350 over a cage of cougars and a box of rattle snakes, landing short and scattering the snakes into the crowd. Success!
He made a lot more jumps and a lot of good landings, but crashed dramatically in Barstow, Missoula and Gardena. A consumate promoter and showman, he could consistently draw a crowd and deliver the performance and the events were often spectacular.
Evel became truly famous in 1967 when he crashed his Triumph Bonneville 650 trying to clear the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was a big media event. His film of it was later picked up by ABC Wide World of Sports.
He switched to a Laverda American Eagle 750 for a couple years and then finally adopted the Harley Davidson XR 750 when they began to sponsor him in 1970.
The XR 750 is a great racing motorcycle, and it was a dependable jumping steed. Evel had several of them, and he was constantly swapping engines and other parts, getting the configuration he wanted for a particular jump. The one shown above is in the Smithsonian collection and is, at least partially, the one he used to set his 140 foot record jumping 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in 1975.
In total, he made 75 motorcycle jumps and one rocket cycle jump.
You can’t visit Pocatello, Idaho without seeing the Snake River Canyon. It’s right there. And so it was that I found myself looking at the earthen jump ramp left from the 1974 Evel Knievel attempt to jump the canyon in the Skycycle X2.
Here’s a photo of me in front of the Snake river Canyon while on my 6500 mile motorcycle odyssey last Fall. If you zoom in, you can see the jump ramp on the distant horizon above my right hand:
The Skycycles all had steam powered rocket engines. Prior to the manned X2 jump shown below, two unmanned test vehicles were tried and they both went right into the Snake River. In 1974, out of money and only one shot left, Evel Knievel tied himself onto the X2.
The launch was successful but his parachute deployed too soon and slowed him down. He actually cleared the canyon, but winds drove him back over it and he crashed into the side, eventually winding up at the bottom.
In 2016, stuntman Eddie Braun successfully jumped the Snake River Canyon using a replica of the X2 Skycycle and the same technology from Evel’s 1974 jump. He landed about a mile past the canyon.
Evel Knievel was a world-wide daredevil icon. Of his many motorcycle jumps, he said he loved those 4 seconds of air time, risking everything, in front of a crowd.
He died at age 69 of lung disease. Relatively wealthy.
He found a way to make a living doing something he loved and was good at. And he could handle the downside of it. He still holds the Guinness World Record for the most broken bones over a lifetime.
Evel Knievel continually operated on the far side of a line we rarely cross and he made a huge success of it.