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Evel Knievel (October 17, 1938 - November 30, 2007)

Written by  November 30, 2007

Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, Jr. gained worldwide fame in the 1970s as the most daring stuntman ever to straddle a motorcycle. He died on November 30, 2007, at the age of 69 in Clearwater, Florida. Knievel had been in poor health for many years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. He had undergone a liver transplant in 1999. Billy Rundel, Knievels friend and promoter for many years, said he had trouble breathing at his Clearwater condo and passed away before he could be transported to a hospital. Rundel said, “It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it. Superman just doesn't die, right?'
Robert Knievel was born on October 17, 1938, in Butte Montana, the first child of Robert and Ann Knievel. As a child, Knievel attended an auto stunt show presented by Joie Chitwood that would later inspire him to begin his career as a daredevil. Dropping out of school after his sophomore year, Knievel went to work for the Anaconda Mining Company. His employment there ended when he attempted to pop a wheelie on a large earth mover and lost control, severing Butte’s main power line and leaving the city without power for several hours. From that point on, Knievel couldn’t stay out of trouble for long.

Arrested after a police chase in 1956, Knievel was placed in a cell next to that of William Knofel. The jailer observed that he had custody of “Awful Knofel” and “Evil Knievel.” The nickname stuck, but the spelling was later changed by Evel. During the 50s, he competed in rodeo and ski jumping. After a stint in the Army, Knievel returned to Butte and married Linda Bork. After playing minor league hockey for a short time, Evel again returned to Butte and started his own semi-pro team, the Butte Bombers.

After the birth of his first son Kelly, Knievel went into business as a hunting and fishing guide. Unfortunately, it was discovered that he and his clients were poaching game in Yellowstone National Park, ending yet another career. For a time, Evel resorted to burglary to support his family. In the early 60s, he decided to go straight and did well, for a time, as an insurance salesman. After being refused a promotion, Knievel left Butte and opened a Honda dealership in Moses Lake, Washington. This venture ultimately failed as well.

Remembering the Chitwood show, Evel decided to start his own motorcycle thrill show, serving as promoter, announcer, and performer. He performed wild stunts such as jumping his bike over mountain lions and a 20-foot-long box of rattlesnakes. Needing more income, Knievel formed a stunt team sponsored by a Norton distributor. During one of the group’s early performances, Evel was injured in an attempt to leap over a speeding motorcycle, and the show folded.

As soon as he was able, Knievel began performing solo jumps again. To get ahead of other motorcycle stuntment, Evel began jumping cars in order to increase the danger. At each performance, more cars were added. On June 19, 1966, in Missoula, Montana, Evel crashed while attempting to jump 12 cars and a cargo van, breaking an arm and several ribs. On May 30, 1967, Knievel successfully jumped 16 cars in Gardena, California. Two months later in Graham, Washington, he crashed while attempting to duplicate the feat.

On December 31, 1967, Knievel made one of his most famous jumps, the ill-fated attempt to clear the fountains at Ceasar’s Palance in Las Vegas. Although ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” declined to cover the event live, the producers encouraged Knievel to film the event and agreed to consider it for possible future use if it was spectacular enough. The jump came up short, with the bike coming down hard on the safety ramp. In the ensuing 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. ABC bought the rights to the film of the crash, and Evel was on his way to fame and fortune. The fortune didn't last, but the fame always will.

During his recuperation, Evel kept his name in the news by proclaiming that he planned to jump the Grand Canyon. While his doctors were telling him he might never walk again, Evel was planning future stunts. He attempted a jump in Scottsdale, Airzona, just five months after his near-fatal crash. The result was another crash and another broken leg.

During the early 1970s, Knievel made a number of jumps, some successful and others resulting in more crashes and more broken bones. On September 8, 1974, Evel made his famous attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. The vehicle was more rocket than motorcycle, and the attempt failed when the drogue parachute accidentally deployed during takeoff when the three 1/4 inch bolts holding the cover for the chute sheared off with the force of the blast.

After a crash in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium in London while attempting to jump 13 buses, Knievel’s jumps became less frequent. In March, 1981, Evel jumped for the final time in Hollywood, Florida. During his career he had broken more than 40 bones.

Evel’s life was the subject of two movies. Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and '80s. Evel continued to have more than his share of trouble including bankruptcy and arrests for a variety of offenses. Evel and Linda parted in the early 1990s. They had four children, Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia.
Robbie followed in his father's footsteps as a daredevil, jumping a moving locomotive in a 200-foot, ramp-to-ramp motorcycle stunt on live television in 2000. He also jumped a 200-foot-wide chasm of the Grand Canyon.

Knievel lived with his longtime partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, splitting his time between their Clearwater condo and Butte. They married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together. Knievel had 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

Throughout his life, Evel Knievel never let problems defeat him. No matter what the setback, he always managed to engineer a comeback. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999. Although Evel is no longer with us, his legend will never die.