"Evel Knievel? Is he still alive?"
That's the question I'm almost always asked whenever someone learns that I wrote a biography of the infamous daredevil. Until last Friday, when he died at age 69, my stock answer had always been, "Yeah. Barely."
Evel cheated death for longer than I've been alive. I was born in 1969 and grew up in suburban Kent, Wash., within earshot of Seattle International Raceway, where Evel performed a couple of times in 1970. He often said that his first public motorcycle jump took place five years earlier, a publicity stunt cooked up to promote his Moses Lake, Wash., Honda dealership. He supposedly soared over a pair of mountain lions before crashing into a crate filled with hundreds of rattlesnakes. That sounds plausible, at least for him. But in my years of Knievel research, I have yet to find any film, news clippings, photos, or credible eyewitnesses to confirm that this actually happened.
It's only natural for myths to attach themselves to a man who jumps over stuff on a motorcycle. But Evel never trusted that idea. Driven by his egomaniacal tendencies, he preferred to help the mythmaking process along. Forty years ago this month, he flew over the gaudy fountains in front of the new Caesars Palace casino. Evel cleared the fountains but couldn't quite stick the landing. His body flung over his handlebars and slammed onto the pavement, breaking his pelvis, hip, and several ribs. He spent the next 37 days in the hospital.
In the following decades, he reported spending that lost month in a coma, a claim repeated in his New York Times obituary. When asked in 2002 by Sports Illustrated what a monthlong coma feels like, he shot back, in characteristically profane style: "How the fuck do I know? I was in a coma." But there's a duller reason that Evel didn't know a thing: The coma never happened. Shortly after the crash, Las Vegas Sun columnist Tom Diskin noted that the patient was "alert and restless." Diskin's interview was frequently interrupted by Evel's constant phone calls, as he was busy making plans to jump a canyon.
For lots of the daredevil's fans, the Evel legend took a hit in 1974, when he tried to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Knievel attempted to clear the 1,600-foot-wide chasm not on a flying motorcycle, but in a small rocket. No sooner did Evel's "Sky-Cycle" blast off from the launch ramp than its parachutes deployed, hindering his ascent. The craft drifted to the canyon floor, its pilot unscathed. Those who hoped to see Evel succeed were disappointed, as were those who hoped to see him perish. Most everyone who paid to see the stunt—thousands at the canyon and the pay-per-view spectators at theaters across the country—felt cheated.
The one demographic that Evel didn't disappoint was children under the age of 8. As a 5-year-old watching ABC's Wide World of Sports, I found the whole thing—even the disappointing ending—pretty cool. I received Evel toys as Christmas presents and was inspired to attempt my own foolish bicycle stunts. I even sent Evel fan mail, which he replied to with an autographed photo: "To Steve! Happy Landings! Evel Knievel."