October 17 is Evel Knievel’s birthday! Evel Knievel was an American daredevil, best known for his 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps between 1965 and 1980.
Evel Knievel was born Robert “Bobby” Craig Knievel in Butte, Montana in 1938. He received the moniker “Evil Knievel” after being put in jail for stealing hubcaps where there was also a man with the nickname “Awful Knofel.” Years later, he legally changed it to “Evel Knievel” to match his last name and because he did want to be considered “evil.”
He was an avid thrill seeker and his first motorcycle was a Harley-Davidson he stole when he was 13. His grandmother bought him a Triumph when he was 16. As he grew, he began to participate in local rodeos and ski jumping events. In the 1950s, he joined the army where he was a volunteer paratrooper and became a pole vaulter for their track team. When his time in the army was over, he returned to his hometown and met and married Linda Joan Bork. After returning home and getting married, Knievel spent some time playing semi-pro and professional hockey. To try and make money after his first son was born, Knievel spent short amounts of time helping hunters shoot big game with his guide service called Sur-Kill and selling insurance.
When he was denied a promotion at the insurance company, he moved his family to Washington. In Sunnyside, Washington, he began working at a motorcycle shop, and it was here that he learned how to do a “wheelie” and ride while standing on the seat of his bike. While working at the shop and trying to figure out more ways to support his family, he recalled the exploits of famed stunt-car driver, Joie Chitwood, and decided he could do similar stunts on a motorcycle.
To attract visitors, he promoted and set up an event himself where he announced that he would jump his bike over a 20-foot box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. In front of 1,000 people he performed the stunt, but fell short and hit the box of rattlesnakes. Despite his failure to completely clear the jump, the audience was awestruck and Knievel knew he could turn this into something bigger and better.
In 1965, Knievel formed Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils, and they began to tour the West coast performing motorcycle tricks. After retaining a series of injuries, the show broke up and Knievel continued to perform on his own. He performed a jump over the fountains at Ceasar’s Palace in 1968 which was highly publicized, but resulted in Knievel coming short of his landing and fracturing his skull, breaking his hip, several ribs, his wrist and both ankles. He also suffered a concussion and was in a coma for 29 days.
To keep himself in the public eye, Knievel started rumors in 1968 that he would jump across the Grand Canyon, but by 1971, he realized that the U.S. Department of the Interior was never going to allow him to perform such a feat. Since this publicity stunt was foiled, Knievel searched for something just as daring to keep fans interested. He soon discovered Snake River Canyon in Idaho which was wide enough, deep enough, and on private property. He leased 300 acres of land to perform the stunt.
After hiring an aeronautical engineer to build him a rocket-powered cycle he attempted a 1,600 foot jump over the canyon in 1974, but his parachute deployed too early causing him to drift to the canyon floor and sustain some minor injuries. The stunt earned him a whopping $6 million.
Later that year he performed other money-making stunts such as jumping over 13 single-deck AEC Merlin buses at Wembley Stadium in London and an aquarium tank containing 13 sharks in Chicago. Both stunts left him with injuries.
Knievel retired from major stunts after his shark jump and mainly made public appearances to help launch the career of his daredevil son, Robbie Knievel. To this day, Evil Knieval holds a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records as the survivor of “most bones broken in a lifetime,” totaling up to 433.
Over the following years, Knievel went through several lawsuits including one after he assaulted his former press agent and lost many of his sponsorships and another more recent suit with hip hop artist Kanye West who used Knievel’s trademarked image in one of his music videos.
Knievel’s health began declining in the late ’90s due to Hepatitis C, which he contracted after one of his many blood transfusions. In 1999, his liver began failing because of the disease combined with his heavy drinking, and he was only given a few days to live. He received a successful liver transplant, however, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s, when he was diagnosed with diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable lung condition, that his health once again started to decline. In 2007, at the age of 69, he died in Clearwater, Florida.
His life legend as “The Last Gladiator” lives on today, as daredevils around the world try to match his motorcycle feats. Watch the video tribute below with some of Knievel’s most daring motorcycle feats!