Evel Knievel: The daredevil who jumped and bragged his way to stardom.

Bringing out the dead.
Dec. 4 2007 4:01 PM

Evel Knievel

The daredevil who jumped and bragged his way to stardom.

Evel Knievel. Click image to expand.
Evel Knievel signs an autograph

"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."

Advertisement

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."

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

More Than Scottish Pride

Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself. 

What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

Politics

The GOP’s Focus on Fake Problems

Why candidates like Scott Walker are building campaigns on drug tests for the poor and voter ID laws.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Is It Worth Paying Full Price for the iPhone 6 to Keep Your Unlimited Data Plan? We Crunch the Numbers.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 16 2014 7:03 PM Kansas Secretary of State Loses Battle to Protect Senator From Tough Race
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 4:16 PM The iPhone 6 Marks a Fresh Chance for Wireless Carriers to Kill Your Unlimited Data
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 8:43 PM This 17-Minute Tribute to David Fincher Is the Perfect Preparation for Gone Girl
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 6:40 PM This iPhone 6 Feature Will Change Weather Forecasting
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 4:09 PM It’s All Connected What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.