A look at the life of Evel Knievel - a true motorcycling legend

Evel Knievel is undoubtedly the most famous motorcycle stuntman ever to take to the air.

His astonishing daredevil feats have shocked audiences all around the globe and Evel soaring through the sky in his white leathers is an image that has burnt itself into the consciousness of fans the world over.

The man is a living legend but, in all fairness, he shouldn't be alive today. There's probably not a bone he hasn't broken or a muscle he hasn't torn in his pursuit to be the best. And that's what makes him the superstar that he is; determination, sheer determination.

Evel Knievel Not many men in this world would rev up their bike and attempt to jump clean across 14 buses only five months after shattering their pelvis attempting to jump across 13. But that sums Evel up. Gutsy. Maybe a little crazy too, but gutsy nonetheless.

Evel Knievel is to motorbike accidents what Valentino Rossi is to racing. He's been there and done it all and has the scars to prove it. At the height of his fame he was said to be worth more than $300 million and forged genuine friendships with stars such as Mohammed Ali and Elvis Presley.

Not bad for a high school dropout from a rough mining town in Montana.

The early years
Born Robert Craig Knievel in October 1938, he was brought up by his grandparents and saw his first motorcycle stunt show at the age of eight. He was hooked.

Ten years later he was sacked from his first job with a local mining company after attempting to wheelie a bulldozer but ending up careering into power lines and knocking out the local town's electricity supply. It seems that the daredevil who would take the world by storm was starting to show his true colours.

Months later the jobless teenager was arrested and thrown into prison on a charge of reckless driving after being involved in a motorcycle accident whilst fleeing from a pursuing police car.

That evening, when the jailer did his rounds he shouted out, "Hey, we got a guy named Knievel in one cell and another named Knofel in the other. Goddamn! Double the guard! We got Evil Knievel and Awful Knofel here tonight."

The name stuck.

Always looking for new thrills and ways to get his adrenaline fix, Evel managed to scrape a living doing a range of jobs and appeared as a rodeo rider, a ski-jumper, an ice hockey player, a poacher and he even did a short stint in the army. Struggling to make enough to support his new wife and son, he turned to crime and it is rumoured that he bought his first motorbike with money he stole from the safe of a local courthouse.

He tried to go straight and attempted to make it big on the motorcross circuit but yet another motorbike crash resulted in a shoulder injury that left him unable to ride for six months. Next came jobs as an insurance salesman and a Honda dealership owner, but attitudes in the US in the early 1960s were profoundly anti-Japanese and his garage was forced to shut down.

A daredevil is born
Evel needed something new and, recalling the daredevil stunt show he'd seen as a kid, decided he could make a living doing a similar thing.

He rented a venue, sold the tickets, badgered the press into covering his event and served as his own master of ceremonies before treating a small but excited crowd to a leap over a twenty foot box of rattlesnakes and two lions. Where he got the lions from nobody knows.

That first show was a mini success but Knievel realised that to make big bucks he needed to hire more performers, a stunt co-ordinator and people who could take care of the show and allow him to get on with the tricks. Just for a change he was broke but managed to talk a Norton Motorcycles distributor into sponsoring him.

The show was a resounding success and the Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils troupe became an instant hit.

A February 1966 jump, however, ended in disaster and Evel was in hospital for a month after suffering serious personal injuries.

His daredevil show broke up while he was injured but, not letting a little thing like a few broken bones deter him, Evel went on tour as a solo act. Other motorcycle daredevils of the time were plying their trade soaring over wild animals and pools of water so he decided to start jumping over cars.

Evel soars to success
He began making his jumps bigger and bigger as more and more cars were added, wowing the crowd and building up a loyal following of fans. Not surprisingly his increasingly daring stunts often ended with a motorcycle accident and one particularly ferocious smash saw him carted off to hospital with a shattered arm and several broken ribs.

The press exposure from the crash and the resultant stay in hospital were publicity windfalls and Evel's popularity went from strength to strength. More jumps and more broken bones helped to elevate him further and it wasn't long before he was becoming a household name.

His stunts began to develop into glitzy affairs packed with showgirls, lights and packed audiences and he even performed at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. That particular jump ended in a whole host of nasty personal injuries including a crushed pelvis, a broken femur, fractured ankles, cracked ribs and a smashed hip and left the 29-year-old in a coma for a month.

The doctors, quite understandably, were worried that if Knievel were to survive his daredevil career, he was unlikely to be able to walk or even ride a bike in the future. Evel being Evel, however, he shunned their advice and announced that he was planning to perform the ultimate stunt - a jump across the Grand Canyon.

The US Government put a stop to this somewhat suicidal proposal and so he continued leaping across cars, earning an estimated $25,000 per performance. He became a regular on TV, a film titled The Evel Knievel Story was produced and a whole range of toys were brought out in his name.

Every rose has its thorn
With fortune came fame and Evel certainly took advantage of all the opportunities that came his way. Despite being married, he enjoyed countless affairs and is thought to have bedded over 2,000 women.

Displaying some of the cockiness that is no doubt needed in someone who made his living the way he did, in the late 1990s Evel revealed his opinion of females to a journalist, saying, "Women are like buses. Good to ride on for 15 minutes. But they forget that if you get off, there will be another one along in 15 minutes. And another one, and another one."

Evel certainly seemed to live by this attitude and it got to the point where he actually consulted a psychiatrist to help find a reason for his womanising. With the women came alcohol, gambling and violence and he once famously had a fight with several Hell's Angels who were in the audience to watch him jump.

That same night he ended up with a broken back and concussion. Not because of his scrap with the bikers, but because a dodgy landing saw him run over by his own Harley Davidson. Just another day in the life of Evel Knievel.

Pushing the limits
As his off-the-bike shenanigans hit the headlines, so Evel continued to test the laws of physics with his death-defying stunts. Not allowed to jump the Grand Canyon, he instead settled for the Snake River Canyon in Idaho and attempted to bridge the mile gap on a specially adapted rocket powered bike.

The jump ended in failure but Evel was lucky to escape with no serious injuries and in May 1975 headed to England to perform in front of 90,000 people at Wembley Stadium. An attempt to clear 13 single decker buses once again resulted in a terrifying motorbike accident and left the stuntman with yet another broken pelvis. Despite being in obvious agony, he still managed to announce to the crowd that his daredevil days were over and that he was retiring.

The retirement was a little short lived, however, and five months later he added another bus to the 13 he had tried to jump in England and successfully cleared the incredible distance at King's Island, Ohio. With the event beamed around the world live on TV, Evel once again announced his retirement and, this time, it was for good.

The twilight years
The years following his retirement weren't so good to Evel and he was declared bankrupt, arrested after attacking a biographer with a baseball bat, charged with soliciting an undercover policewoman, convicted of firearms offences and then diagnosed with hepatitis C. More recently he revealed he has idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and now requires oxygen around the clock.

But whatever the world has thrown at Evel Knievel, he's come out fighting and he's come out with style. He's been blessed with a determination that'll bubble deep within him until he draws his very last breath. It's that determination that saw him, with body broken and battered, climb back onto the saddle numerous times to prove that he really is the very best.

"I knew Elvis. I knew Frank Sinatra, I used to drink with Lee Marvin," he recently told a reporter.

"If you had been asked back then to place your money on who would still be alive today, it wouldn't be the stuntman you put your money on, would it? You wouldn't have put your money on me."

And you wouldn't have done. Which just goes to show what a man Evel Knievel really is. A legend; a true motorcycle legend.

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