Death of a daredevil: The extraordinary, magnificent life of Evel Knievel

The stunt rider had an unrivalled ability to attract trouble. David Randall salutes him
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The Independent US

There will have to be a nominal cause recorded on the death certificate of Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel, who died on Friday aged 69, but it is unlikely to be as complete as it should. There isn't the space. So, unencumbered by the restraints of US form-filling, here is what should be there: diabetes, pulmonary fibrosis, two strokes, hepatitis C, a hip replacement, arthritis, liver transplant, 38 formerly shattered bones, including a seven-times-broken back, twice-crushed pelvis and frequently fractured legs, plus several comas, one lasting 29 days.

It's plain, therefore, that to call Evel Knievel a stuntman is not really correct. He was, in reality, a highly paid accident victim and not just when he was astride, or falling off, a motorcycle. The capacity to attract trouble tracked him like a sniffer dog throughout his days. This, then, is his story, the little boy from Butte, Montana, to whom stuff lucky stuff, unlucky stuff, even weird stuff just kept happening.

Things started to occur to Knievel before he was even out of nappies. He was born in 1938, his parents divorced before his second birthday and he was raised by his paternal grandparents. He dropped out of school and got a job driving an earth mover for the Anaconda Mining Company. Spinning its huge tyres, he lurched forward straight into Butte's main power lines, depriving the town of electricity for a while. He was fired, became a local roustabout, and might have stayed out of jail had he not crashed a motorbike. The officer in charge had a habit of giving inmates a rhyming nicknaming, christened him "Evil" and, spelling apart, the name stuck.

He spent the next few years notching up entries for what has been one of the most extraordinary CVs ever assembled: rodeo rider, ski-jumper, soldier, army pole vaulter, professional hockey player, and ice hockey team owner. Very little of this was without incident, as witness the time he managed to persuade the Czech Olympic team to play his Butte Bombers. The fixture ended with Knievel leaving the stadium with the takings from the game, and the US Olympic Committee had to make good the Communist visitors' losses. The CV went on: founder and main employee of a hunting tour firm called the Sur-Kill Guide Service, which prospered all too well until it was discovered that the happy hunting ground into which he had been leading his customers and their guns was Yellowstone National Park. A little light burglary was followed by a spell as an insurance salesman, at which he reportedly did well, partly because of his gift of the gab, but also because some of his most lucrative policy sales were to inmates of a psychiatric institution. Then he started a motorcycle dealership for Honda, only to find this Japanese product, less than 20 years after the war, was a hard sell. It closed.

But this restless individual had balls and enterprise, and in the mid-Sixties he happened upon the activity that combined the two and defined the rest of his life: stunt riding. In 1965 he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils, and he began riding through fire walls, being towed at 200mph behind dragsters, and his signature stunt for a while jumping over a 20ft-long box of live rattlesnakes, at the end of which were a pair of mountain lions. But leaping animals and pools of water, whether embellished with a circle of flame or not, was not enough to stand out from the crowd. Something more risky was called for, and so he began to jump over cars on his motorbike.

At first it was a pair of them, a stunt for which he charged $500, but gradually the number, size and kind of vehicle grew more outrageous. As did his accidents: a motorbike in the groin in California, a failure to clear 12 cars and a van in Montana (broken arm and ribs), hitting the last of 16 vehicles in Washington State (serious concussion), a repeat at the same venue a month later (broken wrist, knee and two ribs), and a crash landing after leaping 151ft over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas (coma).

There were successes, of course (he cleared 16 cars in 1967), but the pattern was established. What the paying customer was getting at an Evel Knievel show was the chance of seeing an elegantly coiffed, white-jump-suited celebrity quite possibly violently and spectacularly disassembled.

It was quite a draw, and for nearly a decade he could command staggering fees: $1m trying to clear 13 single-decker buses at Wembley Stadium (he failed, breaking his pelvis), and more than $6m for his attempt, on 8 September 1974, to jump over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket-powered "Skycycle". The parachute malfunctioned, deploying after takeoff, and strong winds blew the cycle into the canyon. He landed close to the swirling river below, and damn near drowned.

But, being Knievel, although there were successes (a world record of 19 cars cleared in California in 1971), it was the near-misses and near-death experiences that made him a hero to millions of boys, young and old. And a millionaire Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300m in sales for the Ideal Toy Company and other firms in the Seventies and Eighties.

He was now nearing his forties, and the diminishing chances of a body in its fifth decade surviving the bombardments to which he was subjecting it began to be appreciated, even by Knievel. In 1975, he jumped 14 Greyhound buses in Ohio, but then, in a bid to clear a tank full of live sharks at the Chicago Amphitheater in 1976, he suffered concussion and broke both arms. Save for smaller exhibitions, that was suddenly that. But being Knievel, stuff continued to happen.

He was declared bankrupt in 1981, harried by the Internal Revenue Service for millions, sued by the state of Montana for back taxes, convicted of gun offences, detained for soliciting an undercover policewoman in Kansas City, and acquired a partner whose initials were KKK. For solace, he turned to painting (his work was exhibited across America), then golf, and, finally, religion. Typically, his conversion in April this year at the Crystal Cathedral, Orange County, California was attended by an audience of 4,000, and relayed to millions more watching on television. A draw unto the last.

So what of posterity? Many of his records have subsequently been broken (by men whose inadequate tally of wrecked limbs have kept them in his shadow); he spent most of the money; and his name will probably only live on as a period curio, remembered for his efforts to do nothing more significant than ride a motorbike over buses and cars and casino fountains. Pointless? Yes, but magnificently so.