30 November 2007: Evel Knievel dies.
On this day in 2007, in Clearwater, a middle-size city on the western coast of Florida, Robert Craig Knievel died after suffering breathing issues following a long bout of pulmonary disease. He was 69 years old.
For most people, the fact that Knievel lived nearly seven whole decades and died in a relatively perfunctory manner was a big surprise because in his heyday, he had gone by the name Evel Knievel (rhyming with ‘Evil’) and he was the greatest stuntman to ever live.
Born in Butte, Montana on 17 October 1938, Knievel was astonished when he was taken to a Joie Chitwood auto daredevil show aged eight. From that day on, he vowed to become a motorcycle daredevil.
Over the following years, Knievel became a bit of a delinquent, and faced a short stint in jail for stealing a Harley-Davidson motorbike. While working in a copper mine, he even caused a local power outage after he crashed an earthmover while attempting to do wheelies.
It wasn’t until he was thinking of ways to promote a motorcycle shop he co-owned in his 20s that he settled on his destiny. Knievel’s first official stunt took place in 1965 as he launched his Honda 305cc Scrambler bike over two 6 metre-long boxes containing rattlesnakes and two mountain lions.
Knievel landed a tad short, his back wheel grazing the box of snakes. He managed to correct the bike and bring it to a stop safely with just a sprained ankle. A new career was born. Over the following decade, Knievel became a global sensation for his increasingly daring stunt jumps. In honour of his life, here are our favourite of those attempts.
Arguably the most famous jump of his career. In 1967, just two years after his rattlesnake and mountain lion jump, Knievel was hot property. He’d been booked to jump in multiple venues and had cleared line-ups of up to 16 cars. Aside from breaking a few ribs and an arm in a jump in Montana, all had gone well and Knievel’s stunts made national television broadcasts.
His biggest and most public stunt to date was set up for New Year’s Eve at the Caesar’s Palace hotel and casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. Knievel was to jump over the hotel’s fountain, a distance of 43 metres.
Filmed by a ragtag group of his mates, Knievel made the approach on his trusty Triumph Bonneville T120 bike. Later, he’d report that he felt a deceleration as he went up the ramp. It would account for his falling short of the target.
Knievel crashed into the safety ramp and came off his bike. He crushed his pelvis and femur, fractured his hip, wrist and both ankles, and gave himself a concussion, landing him in hospital for the next 29 days.
Snake River Canyon
After Knievel’s unsuccessful Caesar’s Palace attempt, he came out swinging. He told the world his plan to jump the Grand Canyon in Nevada. For years, rumours swirled around the incredible feat but it would never come to pass.
Knowing the US government wouldn’t permit him to jump over the Grand Canyon, Knievel instead suggested the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho.
On 8 September 1974, Knievel launched a rocket-propelled bike across the 527 metre canyon. It was a distance far beyond any the stuntman had previously attempted. As with his Caesar’s Palace jump, it didn’t go well.
Knievel’s emergency parachute accidentally deployed on take-off. The resulting drag meant that Knievel and his bike slammed into the side of the canyon instead of clearing it. Despite the high drama of the failure, Knievel walked away with just a broken nose and a few scratches.
14 Greyhound buses
Just over a year after another high-profile unsuccessful jump over 13 single-decker buses in London, Wembley, the intrepid jumper had a new impressive feat in mind. Despite announcing his retirement in London, his next great jump was to be over 14 Greyhound buses.
Performed on 25 October 1975 at Kings Island in Ohio, Knievel made the 41 metre jump… sort of. He actually landed on the 14th bus but because he managed to keep the bike up, it was considered a successful landing.
This would be one of the last of Knievel’s jumps, but it was his greatest successful length. A record that would stand until 1999.