Saturday, December 1, 2007
Robert Knievel was born in Butte, Montana, the first of two children born to Robert and Ann Knievel. Robert and Ann divorced in 1940, just after the birth of their second child, Nic. Both parents decided to leave Butte and their two children to get a new start. The children were raised by their paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knievel. At the age of eight, Knievel attended a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show, which he credited for his later career choice to become a motorcycle daredevil.
Knievel dropped out of high school after his sophomore year and got a job with the Anaconda Mining Company as a diamond drill operator in the copper mines. He was promoted to surface duty where his job was driving a large earth mover. Knievel was fired when he made the earth mover pop a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte's main power line, leaving the city without electricity for several hours. With a lot of time on his hands, Knievel began to get into more and more trouble around Butte. After one particular police chase in 1956 in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. When the night jailer came around to check the roll, he noted Robert Knievel in one cell and William Knofel in the other. Knofel was well known as "Awful Knofel" ("Awful" rhyming with "Knofel") so Knievel began to be referred to as Evel Knievel ("Evel" rhyming with "Knievel") (Also intentionally misspelling it both because of his last name and because he didn't want to be looked upon as "evil"). The nickname stuck.
Always looking for new thrills and challenges, Knievel participated in local professional rodeos and ski-jumping events, including winning the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship in 1957. In the late 1950s, Knievel joined the Army. His athletic ability allowed him to join the track team where he was a pole vaulter. After his army stint, Knievel returned to Butte where he met, and married his first wife, Linda Joan Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel left Butte to play minor pro hockey, joining the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959. (hockeydb.com however has no record of this .) Realizing that he wasn't talented enough to make it into the National Hockey League and that the real money in sports, at the time, was in owning a team, Knievel returned to Butte and started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team. To help promote his team and earn some money, he convinced the 1960 Olympic Czechoslovakian hockey team to play his Butte Bombers in a warm-up game to the Olympics. Knievel was ejected from the game minutes into the third period and left the stadium. When the Czechoslovakian officials went to the box office to collect the expense money that the team was promised, workers discovered the game receipts had been stolen. The U.S. Olympic Committee ended up paying the Czechoslovakian team's expenses in order to avoid an international incident.
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family. Using the hunting and fishing skills taught to him by his grandfather, Knievel started the Sur-Kill Guide Service. He guaranteed that if a hunter signed up with his service and paid his fee that they would get the big game animal that they wanted or he would refund their money. Business was very brisk until game wardens realized that he was taking his clients into Yellowstone National Park to find their prey. As a result of this poaching, Knievel had to shut down his new business venture. Having few options, he turned to a life of crime, becoming a burglar. It is rumored that Knievel bought his first bike after breaking into the safe of the Butte courthouse.
In December 1961, Knievel, learning about the culling of elk in Yellowstone Park, decided to hitchhike from Butte to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness and to have the elk relocated to areas open to hunters. He presented his case to Representative Arnold Olsen, Senator Mike Mansfield and Kennedy administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall. As a result of his efforts, the slaughter was stopped, and the animals have since been regularly captured and relocated to areas of Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
Knievel decided to go straight after returning home from Washington. He joined the motocross circuit and had moderate success, but still couldn't make enough money to support his family. In 1962, Knievel broke his collarbone and shoulder in a motocross accident. The doctors said he couldn't race for at least six months. To help support his family, he switched careers and sold insurance for the Combined Insurance Company of America, working for W. Clement Stone. Stone suggested that Knievel read Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, a book that Stone wrote with Napoleon Hill. Knievel credited much of his success to Stone and his book.
Knievel did very well as an insurance salesman (even going as far as to sell insurance policies to several institutionalized mental patients) and wanted to be quickly rewarded for his efforts. When the company refused to promote him to vice-president after a few months on the job, he quit. Needing a fresh start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington. There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. Times were tough in the early 1960s for Japanese imports. People still considered them inferior to American built motorcycles, and there were still lingering resentments stemming from World War II, which had ended fewer than twenty years earlier. At one point, Knievel offered a $100 discount to anybody who could beat him at arm wrestling. Despite his best efforts the store eventually closed.
While in Las Vegas, Nevada, to watch Dick Tiger fight a middleweight title fight, Knievel first saw the fountains at Caesars Palace and decided to jump them. To get an audience with the casino's CEO Jay Sarno, Knievel created a fictitious corporation called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fictitious lawyers to make phone calls to Sarno. Knievel also placed phone calls to Sarno claiming to be from ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated inquiring about the jump. Sarno finally agreed to meet Knievel and the deal was set for Knievel to jump the fountains on December 31, 1967. After the deal was set, Knievel tried to get ABC to air the event live on Wide World of Sports. ABC declined, but said that if Knievel had the jump filmed and it was as spectacular as he said it would be, they would consider using it later.
Knievel used his own money to have actor/director John Derek produce a film of the Caesars' jump. To keep costs low, Derek used his then-wife, Linda Evans, as one of the camera operators. It was Evans who filmed Knievel's famous landing. On the morning of the jump, Knievel stopped in the casino and placed a single $100 dollar bet on the blackjack table (which he lost), stopped by the bar and got a shot of Wild Turkey and then headed outside where he was joined by several members of the Caesars staff, as well as two scantily clad showgirls. After doing his normal pre-jump show and a few warm up approaches, Knievel began his real approach. When he hit the takeoff ramp, he felt the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerate. The sudden loss of power on the takeoff caused Knievel to come up short and land on the safety ramp which was supported by a van. This caused the handlebars to be ripped out of his hands as he tumbled over them onto the pavement where he skidded into the Dunes parking lot. As a result of the crash, Knievel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles and a concussion that kept him in a coma for 29 days.
After his crash and recovery, Knievel was more famous than ever. ABC-TV bought the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than they originally would have, had they televised the original jump live. Ironically, when Knievel finally achieved the fame and possible fortune that he always wanted, his doctors were telling him that he might never walk without the aid of crutches, let alone ride and jump motorcycles. To keep his name in the news, Knievel started describing his biggest stunt ever, a motorcycle jump across the Grand Canyon. Just five months after his near fatal crash, Knievel performed another jump. On May 25, 1968, in Scottsdale, Arizona, Knievel crashed while attempting to jump fifteen Mustangs. Knievel ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result of the crash.
On August 3, 1968, Knievel returned to jumping, making more money than ever before. He was earning approximately $25,000 per performance, and he was making successful jumps almost weekly until October 13, in Carson City, Nevada. While trying to stick the landing, he lost control of the bike and crashed again, breaking his hip once more. During his recovery, Knievel had the X-1 Skycycle built by NASA aeronautical engineer Doug Malewicki to promote his Grand Canyon jump. More showpiece than actual motorcycle, the X-1 had two rocket engines capable of producing thrust of more than 14,000 pounds force (62 kN) bolted to the side of a normal motorcycle. Knievel also had all the trucks he used to go from one jump to the next painted to promote the Grand Canyon jump.
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