FARMINGTON -- The life story of motorcycle stuntman Robert Craig Knievel Jr. spells out unintended ramifications of calling oneself, "Evel," mirrored by regular, heavy dosages of grace.
The irony of the tale seems a contradiction of language even as announcements came out in April that "Evel Knieval Days" a festival held annually 16 years running in Knievel's hometown of Butte, Mont., won't take place this year due to lack of funding.
Still, the world has not forgotten Knievel.
The History Channel aired a 3-hour special Sunday, July 8 billed "Evel Live" recreating three of Knievel's death-defying stunts with American professional motorsports icon and Nitro Circus ring leader Travis Pastrana riding a motorcyle inspired by Knievel's bike.
The 34-year-old freestyle motocross and extreme-sports star honored Knievel's memory by jumping 52 crushed cars, arrayed 13 abreast; 16 busses, and the fountain at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nev. in three separate stunts bringing back memories of knievel's daredevil exploits.
"He's probably the only man in history who's become very wealthy by trying to kill himself," said Johnny Carson, while introducing Knievel on the Tonight Show in the '70s.
A master at public relations, Knievel decided to promote himself as "Evel Knievel," using the spelling "Evel" because he didn't want to be "too evil," and spawning problems from the image, not the least of which were numerous motorcycle crashes and falls. One of the most spectacular occurred on a failed attempt to jump the Snake River at Twin Falls, Idaho, on Sept. 8, 1974, on a one-man rocket dubbed "Skycycle X-2." The parachute deployed on launch and wind drag brought Knievel down after he had cleared the canyon.
The landing occurred on shore near the river bank. Had Knievel landed in the Snake River he would likely have drowned while strapped into the skycycle by a safety harness.
The nickname originated in Knievel's hometown of Butte, Mont., following one of countless police chases. This one ended in a crash of his motorcycle. He was arrested and charged with "reckless driving." Also in jail was a person with the name William Knofel, which when pronounced correctly rhymes with awful.
"We've got this 'Awful Knofel' and 'Evil Knievel' down here," Butte Police are reported to have said.
Impervious To Pain
During his boyhood, Knievel was wrestling cousin Pat Williams, who went on to become a Montana Congressman, when Williams punched Knievel in the mouth momentarily knocking him out. When he came to after landing on the back of his head and realized what happened, Knievel reacted dramatically.
"Instantly, he had these wild eyes cause he knew what had happened," Williams said in the 2015 documentary "Being Evel."
Across the kitchen a pantry door was slightly open, seeing it Knievel ran at that door slamming it shut with his head.
Pointing at Williams, he said, "Did you see that? Nobody can hurt me. You can't hurt me. Nobody can hurt me."
Serious Crash Injuries
The infamous stuntman known as a "motorcyle daredevil" had 75 successful motorcycle jumps in his career, most jumps made on a Harley Davidson XR-750. He never backed down from a jump and crashed while trying to jump the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas on New Year's Eve 1967.
Knievel suffered multiple injuries from the crash; including a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist, and both ankles, plus a concussion. Even this worked to his advantage. Knievel had unsuccessfully tried to get ABC's Wide World of Sports to broadcast the jump live. ABC declined, yet agreed to purchase footage later if the jump was filmed and turned out as spectacular as he claimed.
ABC bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than what Knievel asked for live coverage. He gained more notoriety from the crash eventually amassing a fortune. Knievel enjoyed luxury, owning lear jets, boats, homes, cars and motorcycles, but he lost it all.
In 1977, the book "Evel Knievel on Tour" written by Knievel's promoter for the Snake River Canyon jump, Shelly Saltman, was published. Angered by contents of the book, alleging that he abused his wife and kids and used drugs, Knievel, with both arms still in casts, flew to California to confront Saltman.
Knievel attacked Saltman with an aluminum baseball bat, breaking his arm. He was arrested, convicted of battery, and sentenced to three years probation and six months in county jail.
Losing A Fortune
The crime and conviction effectively ended all of Knievel's endorsement deals from toys manufactured in his image, television appearances, and motorcycle companies. He declared bankruptcy in 1981. While Butte residents were accustomed to settling differences with their fists, they would not condone use of a baseball bat to assault someone.
A quote from Williams in the "Being Evel" documentary illustrates sentiments of Knievel's hometown, "Butte likes people who bounce up against the edges of the envelope. They're forgiving about some criminal activity, but they don't particularly like criminals."
In spite of these black eyes on his reputation, Knievel eventually made his way back into the graces of America. Selling artwork Knievel made money; but in 1997 divorced his wife of 38 years, Linda Joan Bork, who was mother of his children, Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia.
In 1999, Knievel remarried. That too ended in divorce in 2001, but the couple reconciled.
The day he died, writer Chuck Squatriglia posted a tribute titled, "Evel Knievel jumps the River Styx," on wired.com, writing, "He was 69 and had grown frail in recent years, but he will be remembered as the spectacular stuntman who cheated death more times than anyone has a right to. Knievel lost count of the bones he broke and once spent a month in a coma (a misperception according to ex-wife Bork in "Being Evel"), yet he always came back. Everyone thought he'd go out in a blaze of glory attempting some impossible feat. In the end, though, his body, weakened by diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, simply gave out after a life lived far harder, if not more recklessly, than seemed possible."
Interestingly, neither Squatrigilia's tribute nor the documentary "Being Evel" mentions Knievel's personal testimony
On Palm Sunday, April 1, 2007, Knievel appeared as a guest on Robert Schuller's television program "Hour of Power" and declared he "believed in Jesus Christ" after a lifetime of praying to a god he thought, maybe, could answer his prayers.
Among the things Knievel stated were, "I didn't realize that I needed to go through a living God," and requested to be baptized at a televised congregation at the Crystal Cathedral. Christianity Today reported on April 13, 2007, in a tribute article, "Evel Overcome with Good," that Knievel's televised testimony triggered mass baptisms on-the-spot at the Crystal Cathedral.Sports on 07/11/2018
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