In an era distinguished by such P.T. Barnum disciples as Muhammad Ali and Kiss, the most boisterous and flamboyant carnival barker of the ’70s was a Montana daredevil named Robert Craig Knievel. Everyone familiar with his star-spangled death-wish stunts, of course, knows him better as Evel.
After a youth of thievery in the Big Sky State, Knievel, who once referred to himself as the ”Bad Boy of Butte,” made his reputation as a suicidal jingoist and shamelessly self-promoting biker in red-white-and-blue motorcycle leathers who leaped over school buses and shark-filled tanks (or wiped out in the effort). By the time the 35-year-old Evel Knievel attempted his most foolhardy flirtation with the hereafter — a soaring ride over Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a custom-built, steam-fueled rocket on Sept. 8, 1974 — he was no longer merely flirting with death, but calling its mother nasty names.
Boasting of a $6 million payday, the hard-living daredevil embarked in high style (carrying a $22,000 diamond-encrusted bourbon-filled gold cane) on a 42-city ”goodbye tour” to hype what he saw as a trip into the pantheon of American folk heroes. Knievel had engineer Robert Truax construct the Sky-Cycle X-2, a bottle-shaped craft that would use 5,000 pounds of thrust to hurtle the stuntman up a 108-foot-long ramp at 350 mph and launch him 2,000 feet in the air over a three-quarter-mile stretch of the canyon. Even Truax gave it 50-50 odds. Knievel was undeterred, declaring that he had three backup systems, as well as a fourth: the Lord’s Prayer. ”If all else fails, I’ll spit at the canyon wall just before I hit it,” he said.
He never got close enough. Seen on closed-circuit TV by millions of paying viewers worldwide, as well as by 15,000 spectators, Knievel didn’t even reach the water, crashing instead, seconds after takeoff, on the rocks 413 feet below due to a parachute malfunction. Aside from cuts and scrapes, he emerged unscathed. In the end, the $6 million fell to pieces too — Knievel’s payday brag had been a gimmick all along, but he still hauled in more than $250,000. He kept jumping (and crashing) until he traded in his jumpsuit for a life of golf and painting in the late ’70s. But his legacy lives on through son Robbie, 32, who in 1989 jumped his cycle over the Caesar’s Palace fountain in Las Vegas — proving that fearlessness (or is it recklessness?) must be hereditary.
Time Capsule / Sept. 8, 1974
Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men was big news; Paul Anka and Odia Coates teamed up for ”(You’re) Having My Baby”; moviegoers flocked to Chinatown; and TV viewers visited Maude.