Saturday, September 8, 2018

Daredevil Cyclist Evel Knievel Attempts Snake River Canyon Jump [otd 9/8]

On Sunday, September 8, 1974, motorcycle stunt rider Robert Craig (Evel) Knievel launched his jet-powered “Skycycle” across the Snake River canyon at a spot near Twin Falls, Idaho. Idaho was Evel’s second choice to the Grand Canyon. As a Sport Illustrated writer put it, the U.S. Park Service had “refused to grant him permission to kill himself on federal property.”
Knievel in the Snake River canyon.
Sport Illustrated cover.

Perhaps the most successful professional daredevil of all time, Robert was born in 1938, in Butte, Montana. A high school dropout, he picked up his nickname – originally “evil” – during a teenaged stint in jail for reckless driving. He relished the image, but later used the “Evel” spelling to distance himself from outlaw motorcycle vibes.

A gifted natural athlete, Knievel pursued several action sports, including pro rodeo, ice hockey, ski jumping, and motocross. He arranged what is said to be his first public motorcycle stunt in 1965. He tried a forty-foot jump over two mountain lions and a cage filled with rattlesnakes. His crash damaged the snake pen and sent some of the reptiles slithering toward the spectators. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, the show itself was apparently a resounding success.

So he decided to go into the motorcycle daredevil business. He tried it with a troupe for awhile, but went solo in the fall of 1966. As Knievel’s jumps – at county fairs, car shows, and other events – got longer, his fees slowly increased.

That was also when his string of injuries – some of them quite severe – began. Yet wild crashes and survivable (barely) injuries fueled his publicity campaign. Finally, on December 31, 1967, his spectacular jump over the Caesar’s Palace fountain, and equally flamboyant crash, won him national recognition: “the guy’s obviously nuts, but … Wow!”

After weeks of recuperation, Evel went right on jumping, earning larger and larger fees. Although he succeeded on the vast majority of his jumps, the ever-present element of danger attracted hordes of fans. And Knievel didn’t disappoint, mixing in enough crashes and injuries to set several Guinness World Records.

Evel’s fame reached “fever pitch” in the Seventies. His image graced everything from lunch boxes to tricked-out bicycles. Sensible people deplored the craziness. But all across the country, uncounted numbers of young boys tried to emulate his stunts with their bicycles, and many ended up in the hospital. The kids didn’t just not care how dangerous it was, they wanted it to be risky: “I can jump six trash cans.” [Not!]

Skycycle descending on its chute.
Evel Knievel Official Web Site.
Yet feeding such an image forced Knievel onto a treadmill. He needed a topper … like jumping the Grand Canyon. Rebuffed on that notion, Evel looked for another spot and finally chose the Twin Falls location: over 500 feet deep and a quarter mile wide, with scary drop-offs on both side.

Unfortunately, after a long build-up, he couldn’t pull off the jump. The Skycycle’s steam-powered takeoff started all right, but then his parachute deployed way too early. He almost made it across anyway, but ended up floating down into the canyon.

This spectacular misfire did no damage to Knievel image, and he continued to draw fans. Even when he stopped jumping himself in the late Seventies, his name drew crowds to the show starring his son Robbie. After something of a lull, he regained and then kept his marketability into the year of his death in late 2007.

Knievel is a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and one of his motorcycles is on display at the Smithsonian. 
References: Stuart Barker, Life of Evel Knievel, St. Martin's Press (2008).
Owen Edwards, “Daredevil,” Smithsonian Magazine (March 2008).
Evel Knievel Official Web Site.
Steve Rushin, “Seeing All The Good In Evel,” Sports Illustrated (November 29, 1999).

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