The history of Evel Knievel

By Matt Horvath
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Motorcycle jump
Evel Knievel performed legendary stunts for over 20 years and even though he holds the record for most broken bones, he has inspired some of the death-defying motorcycle jumps we see today in competitions and extreme sports
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He was considered the last of the gladiators.

Blazing past a small crowd in Moses Lake, Washington with one wheel in the air and a cape flowing behind him, Robert Knievel, Jr. dazzled an audience for the first time in 1965.


Triggering nearly 20 years of legendary stunts, this self-organized display was the beginning of Evel Knievel history. He jumped mountain lions and rattlesnakes that day and it was only the beginning for this brave man from Butte, Montana.


Caesar's Palace, 1967


Trumpets rang out and mixed with the cheers of 15,000 people as Knievel prepared to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace. Those cheers soon turned to gasps as the motorcycle extraordinaire was tossed around like a sack of potatoes.


The landing flung Knievel head-over-heels onto his back and his body proceeded to roll several times, his head hitting the ground with each violent turn. According to Knievel's official website, he was hospitalized for 29 days and came close to death.


The site goes on to say that after being released, he announced that his next jump would be across the Grand Canyon. Conflicts kept that from happening; however, there were other canyons without the stiff regulations to choose from.


Snake River Canyon, 1974


After a lengthy promotion Knievel was lifted by a crane over the canyon to a platform. Dressed in his iconic star-spangled suit, Knievel was lowered into a rocket named the X-2 Skycycle. Powered by steam, the rocket took off leaving a thick haze behind. Unfortunately the wind proved to be a hindrance and combined with a premature deployment of the parachute, it caused the renowned stuntman to drift back toward the launch site.


Knievel landed in the canyon near the water where there were no motorboats staged for assistance. From the looks of video footage he made it to the other side before being pulled back by the wind.



Wembley Stadium, 1975


Thirteen buses lined the packed stadium and the fearless daredevil came racing down a ramp. The jump looked glorious but the landing took a turn for the worst. The impact sent Knievel up into the air as he kept hold of the handlebars hoping to remount.


He ended up being thrown forward, his head hitting the front wheel followed shortly after by the ground. His helmet dragged and his body flipped while his motorcycle jumbled close behind.


A rush of people came to his aid and Knievel added more broken bones to his tally. Five months later he successfully jumped 14 buses at Kings Island in Ohio.


Of course, there were many successful jumps that are memorable, but was his dances with death that truly made him astonishing. His last jump took place in 1981 at the Miami-Hollywood Speedway in Florida according to his website.


The Godfather


The site describes the Guinness Book of Records holder for most bones broken as "The Godfather of Extreme Sports."  Knievel survived numerous bone-shattering crashes and lived to be 69. He died recently on November 30, 2007 after a long battle with several health issues.


In his last interview appearing in Vanity Fair, he described how it felt to crash, saying, "That damn asphalt bites back just massacring your body. It just shreds your flesh and shatters your bones." 


Whether dazzling a crowd with a clean landing or horrifying them with a disastrous crash, Evel Knievel was always a spectacle and remains one of the most identifiable American icons. If you know the name but want to learn more about the death-defying man, there's no better way than to see it for yourself. "The Last of the Gladiators" is a documentary narrated by Knievel that tells the story of his incredible and awesome life; it can be rented from different rental stores.

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