Chapter 1: The Last Gladiator
Robert "Evel" Knievel
Photo Credit: ABC/Getty
"Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it."
- Robert "Evel" Knievel
Born Robert Craig Knievel on October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana, Knievel's entry into the world of motorcycle stunt riding came after stints in the US Army as a paratrooper, working in a mine, playing semi-pro hockey, running a motorcycle dealership and racing motorcycles.
In the mid-1960's, Knievel formed the troupe, "Evel Knievel and his Motorcycle Daredevils". After making their debut at the California Date Festival, the group took the county fair circuit by storm by performing wheelies, blasting through walls of burning plywood and jumping over rows of vehicles.
After an injury at a show in Barstow, California forced Knievel to take a break for several months, the team split up and after recovery, Evel started performing as a solo act. There were more jumps, more crashes and more injuries.
And then came Vegas.
Evel Knievel in front of the fountains at Caesars Palace
Photo Credit: VegasNews.com
Knievel was just 29 years old when he was in Las Vegas to watch boxing legend Dick Tiger defend his WBA and WBC titles at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It was on this trip that Evel Knievel first laid eyes on the fountains at Caesars Palace and made a decision:
He was going to jump them on his motorcycle.
The fountains at Caesars Palace, 1967
Photo Credit: Las Vegas News Bureau
To make it happen, Knievel needed to talk with Caesars Palace CEO, Jay Sarno - a Vegas legend in his own right - and to get that audience, Knievel knew he'd have to get "creative".
He formed the fictitious corporation, "Evel Knievel Enterprises" and had his friends phone Sarno, claiming to be his lawyers wanting to set up the stunt. Knievel even called Sarno himself, claiming to be a reporter with ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated, asking about coming to Vegas to cover the jump.
Sarno finally agreed to meet with Evel Knievel and the date for the jump was set:
December 31, 1967...New Year's Eve.
Caesars Palace CEO, Jay Sarno in the Bacchanal Room at Caesars Palace
Photo Credit: Las Vegas News Bureau
After the deal was done, Knievel tried to convince ABC-TV to air the event live on "Wide World of Sports", but they declined to do so. They did, however, tell Knievel that if he filmed the jump and it was as spectacular as he was claiming it would be, they'd consider using the film later.
Legend has it that on the morning of the jump, Knievel headed into the casino at Caesars Palace & lost his last $100 on Blackjack, had a shot of Wild Turkey at the bar and then headed outside to the jump site where he was joined by two Las Vegas Showgirls.
Wearing the red, white & blue jumpsuit he'd eventually become famous for, Knievel climbed onto his motorcycle and rode into position. He took a few warm-up runs to ensure everything was set and in place.
Knievel revved his engine, released the brakes and accelerated along the lengthy take-off ramp, gaining the speed he'd need to clear the 141-foot span over the fountains. The rest, as they say, is history...
According to Knievel, his motorcycle unexpectedly lost power as he hit the end of the take-off ramp. As such, he didn't have the necessary speed to completely clear the gap. So, as he touched down, the rear wheel of his motorcycle snagged the edge of the landing ramp, causing him to lose control of the bike. Knievel went head-first over the handlebars, slamming into the pavement of the Caesars Palace parking lot, rolling several times and sliding 165 feet before coming to stop.
Knievel was taken to hospital by medical personnel where his extensive injuries were diagnosed: he'd suffered a concussion, crushed pelvis, shattered femur and fractures to his hip, wrist and both ankles. Doctors warned him that he may never walk on his own again.
The helmet Evel Knievel wore during his Caesars Palace Jump
Photo Credit: Evel Knievel Museum
Although he'd never attempt the Caesars Palace jump again, the spectacular failure of the stunt might have been the best thing that ever happened to Evel Knievel.
ABC ended up purchasing the rights to the film of the jump, paying far more than they would have if they'd just televised the jump live. And after recovering the following year, Knievel began jumping again - first making $25,000 per jump and as the stunts & crowds grew larger, he was pulling in MILLIONS of dollars for jumps.
In the 1970's toymaker "Ideal" licensed Evel Knievel's likeness & created several toy-lines, raking in over $350 Million. Knievel also went on to be the subject of multiple feature films including a 1971 biopic starring George Hamilton & 1977's "Viva Knievel" starring Gene Kelly and Lauren Hutton.
And although he stopped performing in the 1980's, the allure of Evel Knievel never really faded. In 2003, a rock opera based on his life was written, produced and staged; in 2008, Six Flags St. Louis Amusement Park opened "The Evel Knievel Roller Coaster"; and in 2016, Evel Knievel's son, Kelly Knievel, opened "Evel Pie", a pizza joint in downtown Las Vegas full of Evel Knievel memorabilia, most of which comes from the Knievel family collection.
After suffering from diabetes & pulmonary fibrosis for many years, Knievel passed away in Clearwater, Florida on November 30, 2007 at the age of 69. Following a large funeral at the arena in his hometown, Evel Knievel was buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Butte, Montana.