Evel Knievel died Friday after 69 years, which is more than twice as long as it by all rights should have taken him. Knievel, who had been in poor health for years from conditions including diabetes and hepatitis C, was best known for his death-defying jumps on motorcycles (and other vehicles) in the 1960s and '70s. But really the stuntman, born Robert Craig Knievel Jr., was best known, and loved, for his crashes. After a number of successful jumps over cars, trucks, live animals Knievel shot to national fame after ABC Wide World of Sports aired footage of him spectacularly crashing, and crushing his pelvis, while trying to clear the fountains at Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas.
To kids of a certain period the heyday and then the decline of the moon-landing program the star-spangle-wearing Knievel was like an astronaut, but more exciting for how briefly and dangerously he broke the bonds of the Earth. With every boast, promise, world record and broken bone, he became a bigger figure and graced more lunchboxes. Driven to top himself, he pushed motorcycle design, and his luck, by commissioning the Skycycle, a rocket-boosted cycle he would use for his most famous jump. Trying to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in 1974, he was blown into the chasm when a malfunctioning parachute deployed. That the chute also saved his life he escaped with minor injuries was only some consolation.
Knievel attempted a few more spectacular jumps after Snake River but retired a few years later. Butte architect, and Knievel's graphic design artist, Bob Corbett recalls that Knievel wanted to attempt one last, record jump with his motorcycle. But Corbett did a graphic rendering of several views of the proposed 320-foot, ramp-to-ramp jump, including side views and helmet views. "After you see this," he told Knievel, "you will quit talking about making this jump." Knievel, he says, looked at the renderings and simply exclaimed, "Holy s---!"
Corbett, who did all the promotional posters and pins for Butte's annual Evel Knievel Days each summer, said Knievel was suffering from pulmonary fibrosis that hardened the lungs. "When you spoke with him, it was an effort for him to finish a sentence without taking another breath. But he faithfully came to Evel Knievel Days, even though the severe altitude change, from sea level to mile-high, was especially hard on him. But he was tough."
Even after his daredevil jumping days were over, his memory lived on in pop culture, and in the lingering scars of formerly impressionable bike-riding boys. In the end, maybe "death-defying" is the wrong term to describe him. All death could do, after all, was make him stop living; in his outlook, fear was the only thing that could truly kill him. That which didn't kill Evel Knievel, as he proved more literally than most, made him stronger. With reporting by Pat Dawson/Butte