The story broke Friday afternoon, Nov. 30: “Evel Knievel Dead.”
That line could have been written, perhaps should have been written almost 40 years ago and then again over the ensuing 15 years after any one of a dozen spectacular crashes. Instead it was written as Evel passed away of natural causes in Florida at age 69. Proof positive that God not only has a sense of humor but of irony too. Who would have thought that America’s Daredevil from the 60’s and 70’s would die in Florida like any other senior retiree?
Part daredevil, part showmen, part hustler Evel burst on the scene in the late 60’s when America was embroiled in Viet Nam, the Civil Rights movement, civil unrest and the sexual revolution. Color TV was finally a reality in most American homes and Evel’s Marlboro man good looks, his trademark riding suit, his brash, arrogant attitude and his knack for giving great interviews made him an immediate icon. Unlike the inarticulate morons that masquerade as sports stars today, Evel never saw a camera or a microphone he couldn’t charm. His various pronouncements were bannered all over the news and his exploits often knocked the war, and other news right off the front page. A welcome relief for a population that wondered where it had all gone wrong.
His success’ were huge but his failures were even larger. Who can forget the disastrous attempt to jump the main fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas and the ensuing crash that sent Evel tumbling and bouncing like some rag doll over and over and over again? That crash came closest to killing him and put him into a coma for a month. But just like the American spirit that he embodied, he came back with a vengeance and his next few jumps were all record breakers. His 1974 attempt to jump across Snake River Canyon in Idaho was the most watched event in TV history up to that time. Literally 50% of all the TV sets in America were tuned in to “Wide World of Sports” to see if he could make the jump. He didn’t, as his safety chute deployed on take off and sent him floating downward into the canyon. He survived and walked away with 6 million dollars for his trouble. He once joked that he had made 60 million dollars in his life but spent 61 million! His spending on cars, jewelry and a lavish life style along with his gambling and his fights with the IRS were legendary.
Some said he was no poster boy for “Mr. Nice Guy” but he never set himself up to be anything but what he was: A smart, tough, daredevil with a penchant for self promotion and balls the size of coconuts!
Evel retired after a crash in 1981 and left the public scene he so loved. The after affects from all those crashes and more than 40 broken bones gave him serious health issues in his later years. Recently he had enjoyed a resurgence of popularity and was making a pretty good living doing personal appearances and signing autographs. Two movies were made about his life, 300 million dollars in Evel Knievel toys were sold by Mattel, and his image in his red, white and blue jumpsuit helped Harley get thru some very tough times in the 70’s. “Evel Knievel Days” in Butte, Montana every summer brought out thousands of fans, admirers and bikers. His son, Robbie followed in his Dad’s footsteps and he along with Bubba Blackwell made the jumps that Evel missed and broke all his records. That doesn’t matter because just like Elvis he was an original and we still see him as the quintessential motorcycle daredevil.
Evel was buried in his home town of Butte, Montana. He made the arrangements years ago. His tombstone was ready as he had it made just before the Snake River Canyon jump. It was in storage over 33 years waiting for the day when it was needed. Somewhere Evel is chuckling for having beaten the odds for that long!
Rest easy, Evel, you earned it! MD