Saturday, December 1, 2007

Evel Knievel, What a Maniac

This past Friday, November 30, motorcycle daredevil Robert "Evel" Knievel passed away at age 69. Unless you are my age or older, you are probably too young to have seen any of of his stunts on live TV but in the late 1960's and 1970's, long before the birth of X-Games and their backflipping crazies, Evel Knievel was the definition of out-of-mind, whacko daredevil with a motorcycle. Though too young to really remember his mega-crash landing after jumping the Caesar's Palace fountain in Las Vegas, I do remember at age eleven watching his 1974 attempted job of the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered "skycycle."

Knievel's nationally televised motorcycle jumps represent four of the top 20 most-watched ABC's Wide World of Sports events of all time.

Though the linked article above and other related post-death stories give a brief summary of his life, this guy really was amazing in a crazy sense of the word and the following excerpt from his Wikipedia page is just flat-out fun reading whether you are familiar with Evel Knievel or not.

"While in Las Vegas, Nevada to watch Dick Tiger fight a middleweight title fight, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them. To get an audience with the casino's CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on Wide World of Sports. ABC declined, but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars' jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife, Linda Evans, as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel's famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed a single $100 dollar bet on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and got a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two scantily clad showgirls. After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot. As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days.
After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than they originally would have, had they televised the original jump live. Ironically, when Knievel finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his doctors were telling him that he might never walk without the aid of crutches, let alone ride and jump motorcycles. To keep his name in the news, Knievel started describing his biggest stunt ever, a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon. Just five months after his near fatal crash, Knievel performed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump fifteen Mustangs. Knievel ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result of the crash.
On August 3, 1968, Knievel returned to jumping, making more money than ever before. He was earning approximately $25,000 per performance, and he was making successful jumps almost weekly until October 13, in Carson City, Nevada. While trying to stick the landing, he lost control of the bike and crashed again, breaking his hip once more. During his recovery, Knievel had the X-1 Skycycle built by NASA aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to promote his Grand Canyon jump. More showpiece than actual motorcycle, the X-1 had two rocket engines capable of producing thrust of more than 14,000 pounds force (62 kN) bolted to the side of a normal motorcycle. Knievel also had all the trucks he used to go from one jump to the next painted to promote the Grand Canyon jump.
By 1971, Knievel realized that the United States government would never allow him to jump the Grand Canyon. To keep his fans interested, Knievel considered several other stunts that might match the publicity that would have been generated by jumping the canyon. Ideas included jumping across the Mississippi River, jumping from one skyscraper to another in New York City and jumping over 13 cars inside the Houston Astrodome. While flying back to Butte from a performance tour, Knievel looked out the window and saw the Snake River Canyon. After finding a location near Twin Falls, Idaho, that was both wide enough, deep enough and on private property, Knievel leased 300 acres (1.2 km²) for $35,000 to stage his jump. He set the date for Labor Day (4 September), 1972.
On January 7 and January 8, 1971, Knievel set the record by selling over 100,000 tickets to back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. On February 28, he set a new world record by jumping 19 cars in Ontario, California. On May 10, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks. His approach was complicated by the fact that he had to start on pavement, cut across grass, and then return to pavement. His lack of speed caused the motorcycle to come down front wheel first. He managed to hold on until the cycle hit the base of the ramp. After being thrown off he skidded for 50 feet (15 m). Knievel broke his collarbone, suffered a compound fracture of his right arm and broke both legs.
Knievel continued to jump and promote his Labor Day assault on the Snake River Canyon. On March 3, 1972 at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, Knievel got into a scuffle with a couple of Hells Angels in the audience. After making a successful jump, he tried to come to a quick stop because of a short landing area. Knievel ended up getting thrown off and run over by his motorcycle, a Harley-Davidson. Knievel ended up with a broken back and a concussion.
ABC Sports was unwilling to pay the price Knievel wanted for the canyon jump, so he ended up hiring Bob Arum's company, Top Rank Productions, to put the event on pay-per-view cable. Arum partnered with Invest West Sports, Sheldon Saltman's company, in order to secure from Invest West Sports two things: 1.) the necessary financing for the jump and 2.) the services of Sheldon Saltman, long recognized as one of America's premier public relations and promotion men, to do publicity so that Knievel could concentrate on his jumps. Knievel then hired former NASA engineer Robert Truax to design and build the X-2 Skycycle. During two test jumps, the first on April 15, 1972, and the second on June 24, 1973, the rocket failed to make it all the way across the canyon. Knievel said that there would be no more tests and that he would go ahead with the scheduled jump on September 8, 1974.
The launch at the Snake River Canyon was at 3:36 p.m. local time. The steam that powered the engine had to get up to a temperature of 700 °F (370 °C). Upon take-off, the drogue parachute accidentally deployed when the three 1/4 inch bolts holding the cover for the chute sheared off with the force of the blast. The deployed chute caused enough drag that even though the skycycle made it all the way across the canyon the wind began to cause it to drift back as the skycycle turned on its side and started to descend into the canyon. By the time it hit the bottom of the canyon, the wind had pushed it across the river enough so that it landed half in and half out of the water. Just a couple feet more in the water, and Knievel would have drowned. Knievel survived the jump with only minor injuries."

Evel Knievel truly was a 1970's American sports icon and is lodged in my childhood memory by his Wide World of Sports stunt performances. It sounds like he ran hard off of the motorcycle too so what a life to make it to 69. Rest in peace Evel.


Bruce A. Bateman said...

I have a cd of the film bio starring George Hamilton. (Bought off the oldies rack for 2 bucks). My 3 year old son watches it several times a week. Evil Keevil, Dad, Evil Keevil. I want to see Evil Keevil. No amount of persuasion will deter him. He will repeat it until you go mad. So I just hand him the disc and let him watch it again (while I quietly slip away). I enjoyed it about the first 150 has paled a bit in my esteem recently.

Yep, he was a pretty entertaining guy in the 70's and beyond.

SteeleOnSaipan said...

That's funny and I know my kid would love that too. He goes nuts watching x-games. I'll have to look for that. Long time no see, I'll make it over for HH one evening soon. RS

Bruce A. Bateman said...

Looking forward to seeing you there. Bring Waki.

Try looking at movietime near round two intersection. Over in the 2.00 oldies pile. You may find Evil Keevel there.

Anonymous said...

The article fails to mention how the Hells Angels got their asses whupped by Evel Knievel fans for throwing a tire iron at Evel Knievel, big mistake !