Evel Knievel is dead. That sentence probably should have been written in 1968, when the daredevil crashed his motorcycle spectacularly as...
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Evel Knievel is dead.
That sentence probably should have been written in 1968, when the daredevil crashed his motorcycle spectacularly as he jumped the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas and wound up in a coma.
It probably should have been written in 1974, when his rocket-powered cycle failed as he tried to jump Idaho’s Snake River Canyon. Or the numerous other times he battered himself while trying to jump something bigger.
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Instead, it was written Friday. Natural causes. Age 69.
“It’s been coming for years, but you just don’t expect it. Superman just doesn’t die, right?” said longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle.
Rundle said Mr. Knievel had trouble breathing at his Clearwater condominium Friday and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
He had been in failing health for years, with diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs. He had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his many spills. He also had two strokes recently.
Immortalized in the Smithsonian Institution as “America’s Legendary Daredevil,” the red-white-and-blue-spangled showman became an international icon with a variety of sensational jumps and bruising failures. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
“I think he lived 20 years longer than most people would have” after so many injuries, said his son Kelly Knievel, 47. “I think he willed himself into an extra five or six years.”
His death came just two days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Mr. Knievel’s trademarked image in a popular West music video.
Many of his successes were remarkable: riding fast motorcycles up steeply pitched approach ramps and vaulting through the air over 20 cars or 14 Greyhound buses before landing safely on descent ramps as far as 150 feet from the takeoff point.
But it was some of his defeats that won him his greatest fame: slamming to the pavement in the Caesars Palace crash and falling into the Idaho gorge on his specially designed “Skycycle.”
Despite repeated accidents that cost him a total of more than three years in hospitals, Mr. Knievel once told The Wall Street Journal there was only one mishap that prompted him to drop a stunt from his repertoire.
He said he used to stand in front of a motorcycle speeding directly toward him, jumping spread-eagle at the last second as the cycle and its rider flashed beneath him.
In 1965, in Barstow, Calif., he didn’t jump quite high enough. The motorcycle, going about 60 mph, hit him square in the groin.
“A highway patrolman covered my head with a blanket,” Mr. Knievel said. “He thought I was dead. So did I.”
He was laid up for more than a month, but he came back for more.
Glib, shrewd, arrogant and charming, he promoted himself and his dangerous pursuits so successfully that Mr. Knievel emerged as a millionaire and a household name in the 1960s and ’70s.
At a time when the nation was struggling with the effects of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Mr. Knievel became an iconic American hero in his tight-fitting, red-white-and-blue jumpsuit. His image was used to market motorcycles, crash helmets, Halloween costumes and candy. Three movies and several television programs were based on his exploits.
“America … needed somebody who was truthful and honest, somebody who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, someone who wasn’t phony,” he said without a trace of modesty.
Robert Craig Knievel was born to Ann Keaugh Knievel and her husband, car dealer Robert Edward Knievel, in Butte, Mont., on Oct. 17, 1938. His parents separated when he was 6, and he moved a few blocks to the home of his grandparents.
“When I was 8, I saw Joie Chitwood’s Auto Daredevils at Clark Park, in Butte,” Mr. Knievel said in a New Yorker magazine interview. “A guy jumped a motorcycle over a car. That night, I stole a motorcycle from a neighbor.”
The 180-pound 6-footer was a good athlete. After dropping out of school in 1956, he won a regional ski-jumping competition, pole-vaulted more than 14 feet during a short stint in the Army, played briefly with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League and started, managed and starred on his own semipro hockey team in Butte.
He married his high-school sweetheart, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959, and they had four children.
He was employed for a while as a hunting guide and an insurance salesman. And by his own, unsubstantiated accounts, he also worked successfully as a con man, an armed robber, a car thief and a safecracker.
Mr. Knievel opened a Honda motorcycle dealership in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1965, hyping sales by offering a $100 discount to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. That same year, he started Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls, jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed at 200 mph behind race cars.
In 1966, he began touring alone, barnstorming the West and doing everything from driving the trucks to erecting the ramps and promoting the shows.
On Jan. 1, 1968, he attempted to leap 141 feet over the fountains in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
He cleared the fountains, but when he landed, the motorcycle skidded and he tumbled end over end across a parking lot, suffering multiple fractures of the hip, pelvis, legs and one arm. He didn’t regain consciousness for 31 days.
Between the jumps, personal appearances and product endorsements, Mr. Knievel was making pretty good money.
Life was good, but he wanted to jump a canyon. And if officials wouldn’t let him do it on public land, he would do it on private land. To that end, he purchased some property along the 400-foot-deep Snake River Canyon, just outside Twin Falls, Idaho.
On Sept. 8, 1974, as about 40,000 spectators, who had paid $25 apiece, looked on from a nearby bluff and thousands more watched on closed-circuit television in theaters across the nation, Mr. Knievel blasted off a 108-foot-long takeoff ramp on his Skycycle X-2.
A parachute opened prematurely, slowing the cycle on takeoff, and he made it less than halfway across the canyon.
Buoyed by the parachute, he and the cycle sank slowly down onto a brush-covered slope on the near shore. He suffered a few scratches, and the event didn’t make as much money as he had hoped, but newspapers and television stations around the world covered the jump. The publicity helped generate crowds for subsequent stunts.
In 1976, while practicing for a jump over a tank full of live sharks in Chicago, he crashed, suffering a concussion and breaking both arms. For the first time, a bystander was hurt, losing an eye. For Mr. Knievel, that was the beginning of the end.
In 1977, he served five months and 22 days in the Wayside Honor Rancho near Castaic, Calif., for smashing the left arm of TV executive Sheldon Saltman with a baseball bat.
By 1981, Mr. Knievel’s son Robbie had taken over the daredevil act. Mr. Knievel was drinking hard and suffering from depression. His wife divorced him. Saltman won a $12.75 million judgment against him, and most of Mr. Knievel’s financial assets were gone.
He bounced back in the 1990s, sobering up and finding work doing more advertising endorsements.
But time was taking its toll. Hepatitis C, contracted from one of his many blood transfusions, claimed his liver, and he had a transplant. His frequently fractured legs led first to a cane, then to a walker. He was diagnosed with diabetes. He had a hip replacement and his spine was fused. His arms were so crippled that he needed help putting on a belt.
In addition to his partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel — they were married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together — and sons Robbie and Kelly, Mr. Knievel is survived by two daughters, Tracey and Alicia; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandchild.