Evel Knievel: An Illustrated History

Motorcycle Daredevil

It might be hard for people who have grown up in today’s extreme world of freestyle motocross antics to truly appreciate exactly what Evel Knievel achieved in his day.

By comparison to today’s pro motocross and supercross events, where racers consistently nail 80-foot triples while whipping it sideways, lap after lap, or the freestylers who have mastered multi-trick back flips and distance jumps in excess of 300 feet, Knievel’s accomplishments may seem trite.

After all, his longest jump, in a straight line, with ramps, run-up and landing areas, was just 141 feet (the leap, an attempt to clear the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1967 resulted in one of the most surreal pieces of high-speed film to ever capture a motorcycle crash).

With all this in mind, it’s refreshing to see the immense respect and awe that today’s young freestylers and racers have for "the man."

They understand that Knievel was the original, the first fearless motorcycle daredevil. But he was also a consummate self-promoter. His clever handling of the Caesar’s Palace jump is legendary.

Evidently, Knievel invented a fictitious promotion firm and called the owner of the casino in the guise of a lawyer representing Mr. Knievel. He then followed those calls with ones pretending to be from major networks and newspapers inquiring about "the jump." The invented hype worked.

Knievel got the booking and made the jump-which ended badly, coming up short on the landing. However, Evel had the foresight to hire a director to film the event (none other than John Derek, married to Bo Derek) and became a household name when the horrifying footage, depicting Knievel getting spiked into the pavement like a rag doll (all at 135 frames per second) went out over television sets worldwide.

Personally, what never ceases to amaze me is that Knievel, unlike the bikes we have today, undertook his fifty-nine public jumps on an array of heavy, ill-handling, underpowered motorcycles with virtually no suspension.

The majority of his jumps ("Leaps" if you want to enjoy the parlance of the promotions of the day) were aboard a Harley-Davidson XR-750.

I’ve often thought how frightening it would be just to get one of those vintage beasts up to jump speed, let alone then catapulting myself off a ramp and into thin air over a row of buses, or cars, or semis (Knievel jumped a lot of various things, including snakes and, in 1974, the Snake River Canyon-well, attempted to jump).

In this time of freestylers continually breaking each other’s world record jumps, taking their stunts to unimaginable heights, there remains a general, deep respect among them for Knievel.

Riders that weren’t even born when Evel retired look up to him with absolute reverence. Despite their contemporary stats literally smashing Knievel’s figures on paper, they all possess an understanding that he was the first, a true original, the man who invented the art of jumping a motorcycle into the air with an unmatched flair for showmanship-in white leathers and cape no less. And that’s something that can never be taken away from Evel Knievel.

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One of the few moto journalists based on the East Coast, Ron Lieback joined the motorcycle industry as a freelancer in 2007 and is currently Editor at Large at Ultimate Motorcycling. He is also the author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer's Guide (How to Produce More Quality Writing in Less Time).