Often bruised, always brash

daredevil Evel Knievel dies

Iconic stuntman, 69, captured and defied public's imagination

December 01, 2007|By Eric Malnic | Eric Malnic,Special to the Los Angeles Times

Evel Knievel, the flamboyant motorcycle stuntman whose thrilling triumphs and spectacular failures enshrined him as America's consummate daredevil, died yesterday in Clearwater, Fla. He was 69.

Mr. Knievel, who survived at least 38 broken bones, multiple concussions and countless abrasions acquired in daring jumps that ended in unplanned crashes, had been in failing health for years, including suffering from diabetes and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.

Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle told the Associated Press yesterday that Mr. Knievel had difficulty breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.

"It's been coming for years, but you just don't expect it," Mr. Rundle said. "Superman just doesn't die, right?"

Many of Mr. Knievel's successes were remarkable - riding fast motorcycles up steep approach ramps and vaulting through the air over as many as 20 cars or 14 Greyhound buses before landing safely on descent ramps as far as 150 feet from the takeoff point.

But it was some of his defeats that won him his greatest fame - slamming to the pavement in a Caesars Palace crash that left him in a coma for a month and falling into an Idaho gorge in a failed attempt to leap across the 1,700-foot-wide Snake River Canyon on a specially designed "skycycle."

Mr. Knievel was laid up for more than a month, but he came back for more. Glib, shrewd, arrogant and charming, he promoted himself and his pursuits so successfully that Mr. Knievel emerged as a millionaire and a household name in the 1960s and '70s.

At a time when the nation was still struggling with the effects of the Vietnam War and Watergate, Mr. Knievel became an iconic American hero in his tight-fitting, red-white-and-blue jumpsuit. His image was used to market motorcycles, crash helmets, Halloween costumes and candy. Two movies and several TV programs were based on his exploits.

"America ... needed somebody who was truthful and honest, somebody who would spill blood and break bones and suffer brain concussions, someone who wasn't phony," he said without a trace of modesty.

Robert Craig Knievel was born to Ann Keaugh Knievel and her husband, car dealer Robert Edward Knievel, in Butte, Mont., on Oct. 17, 1938. His parents separated when he was 6, and he moved to his grandparents' home.

Mr. Knievel married his high school sweetheart, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959.

He worked as a hunting guide and an insurance salesman. And by his own, unsubstantiated accounts, he also was a con man, an armed robber, a car thief and a safecracker.

Mr. Knievel opened a Honda motorcycle dealership in Moses Lake, Wash., in 1965, hyping sales by offering a $100 discount to anyone who could beat him at arm wrestling. That same year, he started Evel Knievel's Motorcycle Daredevils.

"We had a traveling show," he told The New Yorker. "I'd do five or six stunts - ride through fire walls, jump over boxes of live rattlesnakes and land between two chained mountain lions, get towed down a drag strip at 200 mph."

He wrote Stuart Udall, then secretary of the Interior, asking permission to leap the Grand Canyon on a winged, jet-powered motorcycle. Mr. Udall "did not share my enthusiasm," Mr. Knievel said.

Mr. Knievel kept mounting high-powered motorcycles and jumping over things - 10 cars, then 12, then 16. On Jan. 1, 1968, he attempted to leap 141 feet over the fountains in front of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

The takeoff was fine, and he cleared the fountains, but when he landed, the motorcycle skidded and he tumbled across a parking lot, suffering multiple fractures. He didn't regain consciousness for 31 days.

"Broken legs and arms mean nothing to me anymore," he later told The Wall Street Journal. "It only hurts for a while."

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