Evel Knievel: Soaring Over Snakes And Snake River Canyon

Left: Evel Knievel is helped to his feet after crashing during his attempt to jump thirteen buses inside Wembley Stadium, London, 26th May 1975. Right: The popular Evel Knievel toy manufactured by Rival in the 1970s. Sources: (Photo by Express/Hulton Arch

As the greatest stunt performer of modern times, daredevil Evel Knievel captivated a nation with his death-defying adventures. The list of things he jumped -- cars, canyons, snakes, fountains -- is as long as a list of injuries he sustained. Although he never realized his dream of jumping the Grand Canyon, settling for an attempt at Snake River Canyon, he achieved a remarkable level of fame for a daredevil, transforming what was usually a sideshow or midway act into a dramatic national spectacle.

Evel Knievel was born Robert Craig Knievel on October 17, 1938. Robert was an American daredevil known to the world as Evel Knievel, known around the world for dazzling his audience by performing death-defying motorcycle jumps. During his life span, he made more than 75 jumps, some amazing successes, and some bone cracking failures.

Left: Young Evel Knievel. Right: Knievel in his hockey-playing days. Sources: (theculturecrush.com; celebyoung.com)

Born in Butte, Montana, Knievel developed his persona after a night spent in jail with a cellmate named William Knoful, who the officers rightly called Awful Knoful. Knievel took some inspiration from his mate’s rhyming nickname and branded himself Evel Knievel, and thereby taking the first step to becoming one of the most prolific daredevils the world had ever seen.

Knievel's path took a few twists and turns -- after all, there's no prescribed career path for "Daredevil." He worked at a mine, started a local hockey team (on which he played), sold Honda motorcycles, and even sold insurance. He had always been a risk taker, and occasionally a law-beaker, and had always been attracted to speed and motorcycles. Eventually, he began to see flying through the air on a bike as a valid career.

Evel Knievel's Caesar's Palace attempt on December 31, 1967. Source: Las Vegas Newswire

Robert Knievel became an electric crowd performer suited up in what became his signature leather jumper. In his earliest jumps, he cleared boxes of snakes and cars lined up side-by-side -- impressive feats, but lacking a sense of place. That changed in 1967 when he tried to jump the 141-foot fountains of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Though he didn't complete the jump perfectly, landing on the safety ramp, it was a good spectacle. He went on to bigger, equally memorable stunts, including an attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon, and jumping red Routemaster double-decker buses in London's Wembley Stadium.

Another notable jump was over a tank of sharks in 1977 -- or it would have been, had Knievel been able to attempt it. Unfortunately, he wrecked during a practice session and broke both his arms. Knievel is said to be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most broken and fractured bones, although the exact number of bones he broke isn't certain.

Though he often mentioned he would like to jump the Grand Canyon, that stunt never came to pass.

Knievel in the air and on the ground, wearing two versions of his famous getup. Source: (Reddit.com)

The need to be the first to accomplish these acts of amazingness motivated Knievel to push himself to greatness. When interviewed in 1968, Knievel said “I don’t care if they say, ‘Look, kid, you’re going to drive that thing off the edge of the Canyon and die,’ I’m going to do it. I want to be the first. If they’d let me go to the moon, I’d crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I’d like to go to the moon, but I don’t want to be the second man to go there.” 

His insatiable need to be the pioneer of these stunts is what propelled Knievel to keep trying to outdo himself, even if ended up failing; one of the most notable was the snake river jump, where he was propelled by a powered rocket and attempted to jump the river, but instead the rocket came down in flames and landed in the river.

Evel Knievel jumping Routemaster buses in Wembley Stadium. Source: (Reddit.com)

But failure is nothing new to a daredevil and Evel Knievel knew this, having had more than 10 crash landings and unsuccessful jumps. However, he never stopped, continuously pushing his body to the limit, through broken ribs and other bones, the man just never stopped. His skill, flair, endurance, determination, his ability to conceive those crazy ideas and what some may call hard-headedness is what makes Evel Knievel the most daring daredevil to ever live, even to this day.