Robert Craig Knieval was born in 1938 in Butte, Montana, to Robert E. and Ann Keough Knieval. After Robert and Ann divorced in 1940, Robert and his younger sibling Nic were raised by paternal grandparents, Ignatius and Emma Knieval. His career choice as a daredevil came to him at the age of 8, after attending a Joie Chitwood Auto Daredevil Show. Knieval ended his schooling in his sophomore year and obtained a job as a diamond drill operator with the Anaconda Mining Company. After being promoted to drive an earth mover, Knieval was fired after trying to make the earth mover perform a wheelie. Knieval found himself in jail after a 1956 police chase in which he crashed his motorcycle. After being taken to jail, he was placed in a cell with William Knofel. Knieval liked his cellmate’s well-known name “Awful Knofel” and decided to give himself a rhyming name. This is when he became known as “Evel Knieval”. He purposely misspelled the name as he didn’t want to be considered as “evil”.
Knievel’s Daredevil Beginnings
Evel Knievel decided to combine his love of thrill with a stunt that could make the money he needed to provide for his family. Knievel used the Joie Chitwood show he had seen as a young boy as the inspiration for a similar stunt using a motorcycle. He rented a venue, promoted his own show, wrote press releases, and sold the tickets. Knievel performed his first trick in front of a small crowd. He jumped a box 20 ft in length containing a pair of mountain lions and rattlesnakes. Knievel managed to land safely, despite hitting his back wheel on the box of rattlesnakes. To make real money, Knievel knew that he would have to employ other personnel, such as performers and stunt coordinators. With only a small amount of money he found a sponsor, Bob Blair of ZDS Motors, Inc and distributor of Norton Motorcycles. Blaire agreed to supply the motorcycles but wanted the name of the show to be “Evil Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils”. Knievel convinced Blaire to let him go by the name “Evel” instead of “Evil”. Their debut came during the National Date Festival in Indio, California on January 3, 1966. However, his show was short-lived after a stunt in Barstow, California that caused him injuries and he was unable to perform. After recovering, Knievel went from town to town as a solo act. With each jump, the fans wanted more. Knievel successfully cleared sixteen cars while in Gardena, California on May 30, 1967.
Knievel’s Most Famous Jumps
In a mission to stay in the public eye, Knievel came up with the idea to jump the Grand Canyon with a motorcycle. However, he knew the United States government would never allow such a jump. To keep his fans entertained, he decided to perform several other stunts. On January 7 and January 8, 1971, Evel Knievel performed back-to-back performances at the Houston Astrodome. He set the record by selling over 100,000 tickets. On February 28, Knievel set a new record by jumping 19 cars with his motorcycle in Ontario, California. He held this record for 27 years until 20 cars were jumped in 1988 by Bubba Blackwell. After recuperating from the Wembley Jump crash in which Knieval tried to jump 13 single-deck AEC Merlin buses, he decided he would continue jumping. On October 25, 1975, Knievel jumped 14 Greyhound buses at the Kings Island theme park. This event served as the highest viewer rating in ABC’s Wide World of Sports history.
During his lifetime career as a famous daredevil, Evel Knievel obtained many injuries. A near fatal crash came while in Las Vegas. After seeing the fountains at the Caesars Palace, he decided he wanted to jump them. As he hit the takeoff ramp, Knievel felt the motorcycle decelerate, resulting in a power loss. This caused Knievel to come up short on the landing. After hitting a safety ramp, the handlebars ripped from his hands and he tumbled into the pavement. As a result of the crash, he suffered a crushed femur and pelvis, fractures to his wrists, ankles, and hip. He suffered a concussion that caused him to remain in a coma for nearly 29 days. Only 5 months after his nearly fatal crash, Knievel performed another jump in which he attempted to jump 15 Ford Mustangs. He ended up breaking his right leg and foot as a result. On May 10, Knieval crashed once again while trying to jump 13 Pepsi delivery trucks. He skidded 50 feet and was left with a broken collarbone, a compound fracture to his right arm, and two broken legs. Evel Knievel suffered multiple fractures, 14 open-reduction surgeries, and 36 months in the hospital during his daredevil days. While he never broke “every bone in his body”, he holds the Gunniess World Record for the most broken bones at a total of 35.
Declining Health and Death
During the 1990s, Knievel required a liver transplant that would save his life. This was caused by the long-term effects of Hepatitis C that he had contracted during a blood transfusion prior to 1992. In February of 1999, Knievel was told he only had days to live without the transplant. Knievel decided to leave the hospital so that he could die at home. While on his way home, he received a call about a transplant from a motorcycle accident victim. Knievel received the transplant successfully. In 2005, Knievel was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a terminal lung disease that required the past daredevil to be on oxygen at all times. He also suffered two strokes after 2005. Evel Knievel died on November 30, 2007 at the age of 69 in Clearwater, Florida. He had been suffering from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis and diabetes for many years. Knievel was buried in his hometown of Butte, Montana at the Mountain View Cemetery on December 10, 2007. His burial followed a funeral of nearly 7,500 seats, after fireworks exploded in the night sky as the pallbearers carried Knievel’s casket into the Butte Civic Center.
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Written By: AndrewT