On New Year's Eve 1967, professional daredevil/badass Evel Knievel revved the angry-sounding engines of his Triumph motorcycle, tore ass down a makeshift ramp at the vehicle's maximum speed without even blinking, and sailed the 300-pound hog 151 feet over the massive, iconic fountains outside Caesar's Palace as astonished onlookers and camera crews from ABC's Wide World of Sports looked on. He hurtled majestically through the air in a completely face-meltingly awesome mid-air wheelie, clearing the fountain in an impressive fashion, before unceremoniously smashing dome-first into the unforgiving Las Vegas asphalt, brutally fracturing his skull, then skidding fourteen feet across the sidewalk and crashing head-on into an immovable brick wall. The daring adventurer was knocked unconscious and hospitalized for twenty-nine days, but his audacious, completely balls-out attitude had already captured the hearts of viewers across the world. The Legend of Evel Knievel was born.
While becoming a bloody smear across the hot Nevada blacktop might have convinced most people with even a shred of sanity or self-preservation instinct to take up a profession that perhaps didn't involve routinely suffering catastrophic injuries on a regular basis, the fearless, near-mythical iron man Evel Knievel instead just checked himself out of the hospital, strapped on another red, white, and blue leather jumpsuit, and got right back on his bike. A little over a month later, he hauled ass up a wooden ramp at a hundred miles an hour and jumped over a pile of fifty-two wrecked cars in front of a roaring crowd at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
This guy just didn't give a crap.
The Original Gangsta of Crazy Shit and the Godfather of Being Totally Xtreme to the Max stole his first motorcycle at the age of thirteen, and thus began a long and illustrious career in fiery carnage. As a young man growing up in Butte, Montana, Knievel was routinely busted for speeding, stealing hubcaps, fighting, kidnapping the woman who became his wife (twice), and doing a bunch of other insane, ridiculous things all of the damn time. Eventually, this guy decided that he needed to calm down and stop getting arrested all the time, so he became an all-state caliber sprinter, pole vaulter, and ski jumper. That wasn't physically taxing enough for Knievel, though, so he dropped out of school, volunteered for the US Army Paratroopers (he completed 30 jumps during his military career), raced motorcycles professionally, and founded and starred on a semi-pro hockey team. His team, the Butte Bombers (which is an awesome name BTW), eventually folded, but they did play the Czech National Hockey Team once, which is pretty sweet if you ask me. Knievel also once lobbied to save 5,000 Yellowstone elk from slaughter by hitchhiking from rural Montana to Washington, DC and personally arguing his case to John F. Kennedy's administrative assistant. So yeah, he was pretty nuts.
Well apparently none of that ridiculous shit was dangerous or life-threatening enough, however, so eventually Evel got involved in the lucrative and painful business of jumping over crazy things on a Harley and horrifically injuring himself in flaming, twisted wreckage for the entertainment of others. The Caesar's Palace jump was his big break, but during his mind-shatteringly insane career as a professional crazy person, he jumped over everything from seemingly-endless strings of parked cars to giant towering fireballs to cardboard boxes full of rattlesnakes. He jumped 19 cars in a single row, 14 Greyhound busses, a cage full of mountain lions, and once broke his collarbone trying to jump an aquarium filled with man-eating sharks for some bizarre reason. On another occasion he successfully cleared 13 London busses in a single jump, lost control on the landing, and subsequently walked out of Wembley Stadium on a shattered pelvis solely on principle and force of will alone, saying, "I walked in, and I want to walk out."
Sure, this sort of work is completely effing insane, but the man dubbed "The Last of the Gladiators" also happened to be a marketing genius who was able to turn his painful agony into a life of wealth, sex, and power. During his career, Knievel sold nearly $300 million worth of toys and merchandise to a planet full of adoring fans, and turned that money into a pretty decadent/awesome lifestyle. The guy partied hard, drank a half a fifth of whisky a day, chased it with beer, and then went out to chill on one of his many homes and/or pleasure yachts with cooing throngs of hot, drunk 1970s bikini babes. Almost every kid growing up in the States idolized his unwavering bravery, every man respected the fact that he didn't give a crap about anything, and every woman wanted to jump on his bozack. If you could just get past all the hospital stays, broken bones, and permanent physical disfigurement, it was a pretty sweet life.
Well, since there was no stunt too foolhardy for this intrepid daredevil to attempt, Knievel eventually went out and applied for a permit to jump the goddamned Grand Canyon in a crazy homemade rocket-powered motorcycle, which, in my opinion at least, is probably one of the most over-the-top things you could possibly petition for. His application was denied by the Feds, so, never one to back down from anything in his life, in 1974 Evel instead went out to Snake River, Idaho, and made six million dollars by strapping himself into a giant-ass rocket, taking it up a 158-foot ramp at 350 mph, and trying to fly across a 2,000-foot wide canyon. He didn't make it – his parachute opened prematurely, sending him floating harmlessly down to the riverbed below – but you really have to respect the giant, surgical steel nuts required to voluntarily attempt such a borderline-suicidal undertaking.
Of course, it's not like Evel Knievel was ever afraid of injuring himself or anything – the ultimate daredevil, this guy routinely gave the Grim Reaper the finger and lived to tell the tale. This guy looked at death-defying stunts the same way you and I think about backing our cars out of the driveway, and if "almost dying in a fire" was a Facebook status update, he would have "Liked" it. During his wild career, Evel broke 37 bones, went through 15 major operations to put steel plates and/or pins in his body, and then went out and got in wrecks that broke the steel plates. He fractured his nose, skull, pelvis, ribs, legs, collarbones, shoulders, and hips – any one of those injuries is enough material for most old people to incessantly complain about for their entire lives – and spent nearly three years of his life lying in hospital beds. By the time he retired in 1980, Knievel was quoted as saying that at this point he was, "nothing but scar tissue and surgical steel." He still holds the Guinness record for "Most Bones Broken in a Lifetime." He never whined about it once.
Evel's retirement was hastened by the fact that he spent six months in prison in 1977 for taking an aluminum baseball bat to some douchebag who talked smack about him in a book. Knievel and only got into more trouble in prison when he started paying for chauffeured limos to take prison inmates to and from their work-release jobs. While this is pretty sweet/awesome/ridiculous, Evel still lost his endorsements, and when no one was willing to pay him money to injure himself any more he decided to settle down to a life that involved slightly less blunt force trauma and road rash-induced third degree burns. He spent his later years traveling around with his son Robbie, helping his kid become a well-known daredevil in his own right. Evel Knievel died of pulmonary fibrosis in 2007 at the age of 69 – not bad, considering that few people thought he could have possibly survived that horrific wreckage outside Caesar's Palace forty years earlier.
Barker, Stuart. Life of Evel. Macmillan, 2008.
New York Times