Evel Knievel jumps the streets of San Francisco, 1968
One last post to close out the year, this one having nothing to do with the Industry – no bleating about the strike, cold-hearted producers, ambitious young directors who refuse to do their homework before coming to the set, skin-the-crew-to-the-bone production managers, screaming camermen, or the endless struggle with gravity in the form of thick black electric cables that grow heavier every year.
This post is about Evel Knievel, who made one final jump from the physical realm into the Great Beyond on November 30, 2007, succumbing at last to a chronic pulmonary illness. Even if you know nothing about him, you’ve heard his name. Whatever you think of motorcycle jumping – insanity, stupidity, a ridiculous waste of human potential and medical supplies – or all of the above, it can’t be denied that Evel Knievel was a true American Original. Like most extraordinary people, he remained a complex blend of the good, the bad, and the ugly, right down to the end. I can’t let this year pass into the dark mists of history without a nod to the greatest daredevil I ever saw...
While crawling home from work in the rain-snarled traffic over Laurel Canyon, a voice on the radio – in the calm, measured tones of NPR -- announced the death of Evel Knievel, a name I hadn’t heard for a long time, a name that took me way back. It was a few minutes before I could absorb the news. In a way it seemed almost unbelieveable that anyone who lived as hard and fast as Evel Knievel could manage to live long enough to die from the creeping ravages of old age, rather than meet his end in another horrific motorcycle crash, “rag-dolled” by the full fury of Newtonian Physics. That said, it was just as hard to believe he was actually gone -- that a man who had endured such horrendous mayhem in his personal and professional life would turn out to be mortal after all.
It had been thirty years since he last jumped a motorcycle, of course, there being certain immutable physical limits no human can transcend – not even such a larger-than-life figure as Evel Knievel. In the last three decades, health problems, nagging injuries, lawsuits, and financial difficulties dragged him far from those glory days of the late 60’s and 70’s. After his star faded, his name only made the news when he took a new wife, went to jail, was hit with a lawsuit, or when his son Robbie picked up the torch to launch his own motorcycle-jumping career. The kid was good, too -- maybe even a better pure jumper than his dad -- but in the end, there was only one Evel Knievel. That kind of lightening only strikes once.
Like everybody else, he had his share of human faults and failings, but unlike so many of us (including most of our modern celebrities), Evel Knievel was not a bullshit artist. He’d publicly announce what he planned to do, then do it – or try his damnedest – whether that meant jumping a motorcycle over 50 cars in the LA Coliseum (successfully), or strapping himself into the rocket-powered “Sky Cycle” determined to shoot across the Snake River Canyon, a stunt that had all the appearances of a very public suicide. He suffered many setbacks and failures, but never for lack of trying. One account of his career stated that of Evel’s 300 attempted jumps, 276 were successful. A 92% rate of success would be other-worldly in most athletic events (imagine a basketball player sinking 92% of his shots, or a hitter in baseball batting .920 over his career), but in the no-mercy world of motorcycle jumping, an 8% failure rate meant being unable to make a safe, controlled landing – a crash -- 24 times. Thus the thirty-odd broken bones, and more than a dozen post-crash surgeries. His most memorable hard landing was the infamous Caesar’s Palace jump on New Year’s Day of 1968, when he crashed on the landing ramp and began a slow-motion tumble across acres of Las Vegas asphalt that put him into a coma for 29 days. If you watch the footage of that disaster, it’s hard to believe any man could survive – but as soon as Evel recovered, he went right back to jumping motorcycles. I won't argue if you call him crazy, but you can't deny that Evel Knievel had more raw courage than most of us could ever imagine.
Many of his jumps were documented on television, but that grainy film and video footage doesn’t come close to communicating the emotional impact of watching a jump in person. I saw him make two motorcycle jumps, which to this day are among the most jaw-dropping performances I’ve personally witnessed. Those jumps are burned into my memory banks forever: there are some things in life you just don’t forget.
The first was on the streets of San Francisco in the late 60’s, a jump sponsored by a motorcycle show held at the Civic Center. Still a teenager, I’d never heard of Evel Knievel at the time, but being in the early stages of a life-long addiction to motorcycles, went to the show with a couple of buddies to drool over all the new bikes. With the Japanese invasion in full force, there was a lot to look at back then. Honda, Yamaha, and Suzuki were in a fierce competition with the major British manufacturers (Triumph, BSA, and Norton) to produce faster, more sophisticated models every year – and the new bikes were introduced at these annual motorcycle shows.
After staring at all those gleaming, largely unaffordable bikes, we wandered outside to find two big wooden ramps set up on the street facing each other, each six or seven feet high. Being a kid, I wasn’t much at estimating distances, but I’d guess they were at least sixty to seventy feet apart – maybe further -- with nothing underneath but cold, hard pavement. A very enthusiastic announcer was working the public address microphone hard, intoning the name “Evel Knievel” again and again, talking about his many daring jumps in the past, and promising even more extraordinary jumps in the future – the most ludicrous being his intention to jump the Grand Canyon.
Evel Knievel -- what kind of name was that? It sounded like a joke, something straight out of a comic book.
My questions were answered by the full-throttle blast of a Triumph 650 racing motor roaring through wide-open pipes. Out rode a man in white leathers and full-face helmet, doing wheelies all the way along both ramps. This was impressive, but not particularly amazing – I’d seen lots of wheelies before – but when he began doing high-speed wheelies while standing on the seat of that Triumph, I shut up and paid attention.
The man stopped the bike, took off his helmet, and made a short speech to the crowd, then put the helmet back on and kicked the engine to life. Starting well back of the ramps, he made a straight speed run right past them, then came back for another, faster run. The announcer was shouting over the PA speakers again, claiming that Evel had to reach 90 miles per hour to make the jump. Another speed run, then another, this last one clearly fast enough to get the job done. It finally sank into my thick teen-aged skull that this guy with the crazy name was really going to do it: hit that takeoff ramp at high speed, on a motorcycle weighing more than 300 pounds, then hurtle through thin air towards the other ramp.
The likelihood of this ending in disaster seemed high indeed. If he came in without enough speed, he’d smash head-on into the landing ramp and suffer horrendous – possibly fatal – injuries. If he came in too fast, he’d overshoot the sweet spot, lose control, and crash.* If he didn’t feather the throttle at the exact right moment of takeoff, the motorcycle could spin backwards and send him plunging into the pavement. A helmet and leathers would offer precious little protection from a crash like that. Everything would have to go right for this to work.
It all sounds simple enough now, sitting in front of a warm fire on a cold winter day, but it didn’t look too simple at the time. And for good reason -- there was nothing simple about it. At that point, I’d never even heard of anybody attempting such a jump, much less witnessed it.
With the speed dialed in, he made another run, this time right up the ramp, where he slammed on the brakes and slid to a stop right at the lip of the abyss. There he sat, staring for a long time at the suddenly very-distant landing ramp, before finally turning the bike around and riding back to the starting area. This was it. He revved the motor again and again, the tension mounting. I realized just how scared I was now: how scared we all were -- scared he wouldn’t make this jump, and how terrible the consequences would be. It just didn’t seem possible.
He dropped the clutch and roared toward the ramp, nailed it dead center, and an instant later was sailing a good 15 feet above the pavement at 90 mph. At the very peak of his trajectory – a moment of maximum vulnerability -- the bike shuddered with an alarming wobble, but he fought it and hit the landing ramp, tires skidding down the wood to asphalt, barely in control. A very hairy jump had nearly gone all wrong right before my wide-open eyes. But he'd done it. Evel Knievel had pulled it off.
I was stunned, astonished, and elated all at the same time. I’d never witnessed anything like this before. Later, I saw a photo of the jump that clearly showed the bike’s right foot peg cover slipping off in mid-flight – and with it, Evel’s foot. This is what caused the bobble and subsequent rough landing that broke the Triumph’s rear suspension. That he managed to regain control the bike in flight, somehow avoiding what would surely have been a bone-crushing disaster, was a minor miracle. Amazing.
It was five years before I saw him jump again, this time at the Cow Palace in Daly City, south of San Francisco. We made the drive north on a blustery, rainy night in March to see a full slate of indoor motorcycle races highlighted by Evel’s jump. But the Cow Palace was designed to host livestock exhibitions, not motor sports. Once the night’s racing program had been concluded, and the ramps moved into place, it turned out there wasn’t enough room in the arena to get up sufficient speed to make the jump -- which meant he’d have to start the run from outside, in the dark, rainy parking lot. It also meant he'd have very little room to stop the bike once he hit the landing ramp.
Imagine what that would be like: sitting atop a high-powered motorcycle in the cold and dark of a driving rain, getting ready to race at full-throttle towards the light, through the narrow cattle doors of the building's entrance, and into the arena to hit the take-off ramp just right -- then flying a hundred feet through the air and trying to make a safe landing on the opposite ramp. Rain and motorcycles are a dangerous mix in the best of times. Trying such a stunt while starting in the rain seemed beyond foolhardy. This was insanity.
First, though, the build-up. Ever the showman, Evel did his usual crowd-pleasing wheelies and speed runs, the last of which ended in a crash when he ran out of room past the landing ramp. While his mechanics worked on the bike, he came out to address the crowd with his usual “America's the greatest country on earth" speech – but this time, he added a few negative comments about the “bad element” in the motorcycle world, referring to “outlaw” bikers. As it happened, there were several Hells Angels in the audience who were not amused.
Evel ended his speech by giving away a mini-bike to a very happy little black boy, at which point thunderous applause rose from the crowd. He had that audience in the palm of his hand -- everybody but those Hells Angels. With the bike fixed and ready to go, it was showtime.
By now, I’d left the grandstands to watch from the arena floor with close to a thousand other race fans. Evel did one last speed run to make sure all was in order, then headed outside into that dark, rainy night. A couple of minutes later, he came roaring back in, hit the jump perfectly, and flew through the exhaust-laden air to a beautifully smooth landing. It was a spectacular jump -- as only the great ones can, he made it look easy.
What I hadn’t noticed was a Hell’s Angel near the entrance to the arena throw something at Evel – a beer bottle one report said – as he thundered in from the cold rain approaching the ramp. What I saw was a triumphant Evel circle back into the arena, waving to the cheering crowd. He stepped off the bike while it was still rolling, and with one smooth punch, landed a haymaker to the jaw of the nearest Hell’s Angel. When some of the other Angels jumped on Evel, that crowd let out a deep-throated howl of primal rage, turning their adrenaline-fueled fury on every outlaw biker in sight. I saw one Angel throwing punches in the lower grandstand seats, while another held the crowd at bay on the arena floor by swinging a big board around his head. Every time the board passed by, the crowd would surge in at him, then back away when that big chunk of wood came whistling around again. But it was one against a thousand, and even a Hell’s Angel can’t fight those odds for long -- eventually the angry crowd closed in and beat him senseless. By then, the Angel in the grandstands had been overwhelmed as well, and lay unconscious, half his body hanging over the lower edge of the arena while the crowd kept beating him with a board. There were others I couldn't see, but it's a safe assumption that every Hell’s Angel who stood his ground that night ended up a bloody mess.
As suddenly as it started, the fracas was over. With the Angels beaten into submission, the Cow Palace security guards once again took charge. As we were ushered from the arena floor and out of the building, I saw two medics hauling away one of those bloody Hell’s Angels on a stretcher towards a waiting ambulance.
Later that summer, Evel made his famous Snake River Canyon attempt in the Sky Cycle – less a motorcycle than a steam-powered rocket -- after the US Park Service refused him permission to jump the Grand Canyon. The rocket’s parachute malfunctioned, deploying as the Sky Cycle shot up the launch ramp, which left him trapped inside the missile as it drifted down into the canyon towards the river, beyond human control. Once again, Evel made it through, although he never came close to reaching the landing site on the opposite rim. But he did what he said he’d do – try his best to make the jump – and survived yet another rough landing that could easily have ended in tragedy.
Things went downhill after the Snake River fiasco. There were more jumps, more crashes, more broken bones. After being involved with two movies and a book celebrating his exploits, Evel Knievel limped out of a hospital for the last time, hung up his leathers and helmet, and disappeared from the spotlight.
I met him once, during the mid-90’s, when he appeared in a TV commercial for “Trivial Pursuit,” along with three other faded celebrities -- DeForrest Kelley (“Bones”, the prickly doctor from the original Star Trek TV show), Don Adams (Agent 86, from “Get Smart”, and the inimitable Little Richard. All three were probably older in actual years than Evel, but he was the one walking slowly and with a cane now, feeling the lingering ache of every crash and broken bone. They dressed him in those famous white leathers and put him on the motorcycle one last time for the cameras. Even then, two decades past his prime, he drew a crowd of excited kids who gathered around to watch – kids who hadn’t yet been born when he was still jumping motorcycles.
While taking a light-reading, I mentioned I’d seen him make those two jumps in San Francisco. “We had one hell of a rumble up there in that Cow Palace once,” he said, with a weary grin.
We set the lights, rolled the camera, and got the shot, then Evel limped away. The next time I saw him was his photo in the obituaries.
Evel Knievel was a throwback of sorts, hearkening back to the barnstorming days after WW l, when ex-Lafayette Escadrille pilots roamed the countryside dazzling the locals with feats of aerial daring. We don’t see that sort of thing anymore. Modern culture has been largely sanitized of such carney influences, which now play out through the banal vulgarity of television, where the so-called “reality” is invariably synthetic. The annual X-Games, showcase for “Extreme Sports,”come closest to reflecting the rebellious, entrepreneurial spirit exemplified by Evel Knievel -- a young daredevil who became a legend by reacting against the bland homogenization of our pre-fabricated, over-litigated, safety-obsessed, life-in-the-bubble modern culture, and he did it by putting his life on the line every time he went to work.
Many followed in his footsteps. Do a Google search on “motorcycle jumping” and you’ll be surprised how many people have made that flying leap of motorized faith in the past thirty years: his son Robbie and “Super Joe” Einhorn were the best known ("Super Joe" was a terrific jumper who planned to jump Niagara Falls until he suffered brain damage when a less ambitious jump went wrong), but there have been many more. Some jumped further, and some crashed harder – a fatal landing being as hard as it gets – but there was only one Evel Knievel, a man who captured the country’s imagination as no other daredevil in modern times.
I’m not sure what he did would even be possible today. He was a product of his time, and as a society, we pretty much view the world through the lens of television now – the more outlandish and outrageous the event, the better. But watching on TV isn’t the same as seeing it up close, in person. The difference is huge.
I wouldn’t go to see anybody jump a motorcycle these days. Having seen what can happen when a stunt goes seriously wrong, I've had enough of that sort of thing… but I’m glad I saw Evel Knievel jump back then. I can't say the experience really changed my life, sparked any particular epiphanies, or turned me from a life of crime to that of a choir boy. Truth be told, I never had any inclination towards either extreme. But at the time, watching those jumps thoroughly blew my mind in a way nothing else had up until then -- and that’s a useful thing to happen to a young man. If nothing else, Evel Knievel expanded my own concept of what’s possible in life. He showed me what skill, determination, and brass-balls courage can accomplish -- and he showed us all what happens when things go wrong.
So rest easy, Evel, and thanks.
Note: if you're interested in what the IMDB calls "the definitive documentary on Evel Knievel," check out Absolute Evel: The Evel Knievel Story, produced for The History Channel.
*This is what happened at Caesar’s Palace – Evel landed too far down the landing ramp, and the shock of that rough landing ripped his hands from the handlebars, sending him hurtling across the pavement.