Meet it is, in this age of waning valor, to visit betimes with heroes. And meeter still to revisit them. Heroism, after all, is like the heavier metals: it tends to wear away with use. The last time we saw Evel Knievel, self-styled "conservative wild man," motorcycle jumper and most fractured star in sports, he was flat on his back in a Las Vegas hospital, having leaped the World's Largest Privately Owned Fountain at Caesars Palace, fallen off his bike at 80 mph and rolled 165 feet (SI, Feb. 5, 1968).
That mishap cost Evel a lot in both time and pain. A broken hip, pushed up through a crushed pelvis. A plenitude of metal pins and plates installed to hold his nether parts together. A month in the hospital, followed by a year on crutches.
"After that it was a cane," said Evel last week, recalling the past with scarcely a wince. His metal seemed to be in fine fettle. He was wrapped loosely around a beer in a midtown Manhattan saloon, gaudy as all get-out in blood-red bell-bottoms, a flag-striped shirt and a look of petulant contempt that went well with his slightly puffy, Elvis Presley features. "Yeah, a black ebony cane with a gold head. I picked it up for $35 in a hock shop in Spokane. The shop had a sign that said: WE BUY JUNK AND SELL ANTIQUES. It was a helluva cane. A lot of people fell in love with it. Liberace offered me $35,000 for it but I turned him down, not that I don't like Liberace—he's O.K., he knows what he's doing and he does it well, sort of like me—but I wanted to give the cane to my grandmother, who raised me, for her 60th wedding anniversary, so I gave it to her two Sundays ago, in Butte, Mont., where we all come from. Anyway...."
And there he is, fans: The Authentic American Hero, at least in the run-on sentence department. He brings to mind Casper Gutman's accolade to Sam Spade in the closing passages of The Maltese Falcon: "By gad, sir, you're a character, that you are! Yes, sir, there's never any telling what you'll do or say next, except that it's bound to be something astonishing." In Evel's case, however, the astonishing is often linked with the self-destructive. While recuperating from the Vegas fall, he kept right on jumping whenever his sutures and surgeons would permit. Vegas was his fifth major accident. Since then, he has had four more. "I can't keep track of my hospital time," he confesses. "It all sort of blurs together."
July 4, 1971
In Yakima, Wash. early last year, Evel "lost it" during a jump of 13 cars and smashed his collarbone for the second time. "It laid me up for about two months," he says, "but I only spent a couple of days in the hospital." Then, on July 4, in Seattle, he attempted a world record leap of 19 cars. "Too slow," he recalls. The result: compound fractures of the fourth and fifth vertebrae, the first of a matched pair of spinal fractures he would suffer during 1970. "Two days in the hospital," he says, "but it forced me to cancel two weeks' worth of performances."
Back on the ramps by the end of August, he tried a 13-car jump at Mount Pocono, Pa. and cracked his upper back, along with a limb or three. "My chest was also stove in considerable," he adds. Then came Buffalo and an appearance on Dialing for Dollars, a television show. It sounded safe enough, but Evel attracts bodily harm in even the most peaceful of situations.
"They wanted me to vroom into the studio on my jumping bike—all neat and trim in my red, white and blue leathers with the diamond cuff links. It would have made a nice shot but, as I was doing a wheelie in the parking lot, the bike got away from me—its brakes hadn't been set—and I got run over by a car. How do you like that? Didn't break anything important, but, man, it sure hurt. I couldn't walk for a month."
Back in the saddle, Evel finally cleared 19 cars at the Ontario (Calif.) Motor Speedway last February, thus beating his own world mark by the width of a single Dodge. "All told, the jump came to about 50 yards through the air," he says offhandedly. "Maybe a hair more. It's not really that far. I knew I could do it, because I'll sure as hell have to do a lot better than that when I jump the Snake River Canyon."
The which canyon? What ever happened to that Grand Canyon jump Evel had planned back in '68? "The Government put the stops to it," says Evel, waxing wroth. "What I proposed to do was legit, but they wouldn't give me permission. Too many laughs from the sportswriters and the so-called sporting public. They figured I was conning them. Well, the public is stupid. The sports-casters and the writers are stupid. And when I roar up to the edge of the Snake River Canyon on Labor Day 1972, they'll know they're stupid."
Having vented his spleen and ordered another beer, Evel explained the new setup. He has leased the south rim of the Snake River Canyon for three years for $25,000. The canyon at that point is three-quarters of a mile wide and 1,300 feet deep—versus the 1.1-mile and 6,000-foot dimensions of the Grand Canyon at the point he had planned to jump. "The public will still get its money's worth," he contends. "I'm going to jump a mile anyway."
To do so, Evel is building a quarter-mile approach road that will culminate in a 100-foot-high ramp. "I'm going to build them out of 100,000 tons of salt from the Bonneville Flats," says Knievel. Mounted on a streamlined Harley-Davidson-equipped Olympia X-2 Sky-Cycle with a water-jet booster system, he will wind up to 200 mph by the time he reaches the base of the ramp, hit 250 mph during his jet-assisted takeoff, and—one hopes—350 mph in mid-flight. "My tracking team will buzz me by radio at the halfway point if I've got the right trajectory to complete the mission," says Evel. "If not, I'll scrub." To do so, he will deploy a parachute landing system. If not used in mid-flight, the parachute will be fired to drop him safely on the far edge of the canyon, handlebars up, for a perfect wheelie landing.
Three years ago, when the Government first began indicating its reluctance to let Evel jump the Grand Canyon, he was adamant. "You can't say you're going to jump the Grand Canyon and then jump some other canyon," he said. There is, indeed, a letdown with the switch in sites. What made the Grand Canyon idea so attractive was the comicbook surrealism of the concept: the world's craziest motorcyclist jumping up, up and away across the world's biggest hole in the ground. The first element in the equation still obtains—Evel is still Superfreak, despite all the eruptions of individual insanity that have occurred in the Western world since 1968—but the Snake River Canyon?
"It's mighty rugged real estate," argues Evel stoutly. "This is your original Mountain Man country. Lewis and Clark tried to hike through that canyon back in 1805 and couldn't make it. There are stretches of it that still have to be explored on foot. Just developing it for the crowds that will come to see me jump has been plenty tough work. I'm pumping in $171,000 in improvements."
Sure, Evel, big numbers make for big excitement in this America of ours. Go on. "I'm right now negotiating with a TV network—can't tell you which one—for over $1 million in TV rights. This jump will outdraw the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl combined—live gate! Canyonside seats for three days of motorcycle racing and the jump itself will sell for $25 minimum, and the really good seats will go for a hundred smackers. Gotta do it that way. I'm already into the jet for a quarter of a million."
The jet will generate 1,400 pounds of pressure at 240°, and there is a secret weapon, says Evel. It's The Water. Always commercial, he counts among his sponsors the Olympia Brewing Company, and the jet will boil along on the same pure H[Sub 2]O from Tumwater, Wash. that goes into Olympia beer. His own beer depleted, his own tum expanding, Evel decides to take a walk down the block and "have a look at the truck." He is in New York for a jumping engagement at Madison Square Garden—not to mention the opening of his film biography, Evel Knievel, starring George Hamilton—and has traveled here, as he does everywhere, in his 60-foot, fire-engine-red rig composed of a Kenworth custom cab-over tractor, Post custom coach and Trailmobile trailer, in which he traverses 40,000 miles of America each year. Like everything Knievellian, it combines the 20th century fantasies of both the working class and the affluent elite.
The vehicle is a small boy's dream of the truck driver's life, plus a large boy's image of a rolling Playboy Club. Air-conditioned; replete with a paneled bar stocked with the best hooch, the most exotic mixes and Olympia beer on draught; carpeted in thick-piled, zebra-striped wool; closets resplendent with patriotic jumping leathers and, easily, 100 expensive, eye-dazzling shirts. It is the sort of vessel any man would like to voyage in—particularly with a chick or two. But Evel has his wife, Linda, and his three kids along. In fact, Linda is out right now getting 65 pairs of newly purchased trousers altered for Evel. "My left leg is an inch shorter than my right on account of the fall at Caesars Palace," he explains. "Takes a bit of tailoring."
Ah, yes, the Authentic American Hero. A lesser man would send his wife out to have five pairs of trousers altered. A lesser man would crisscross America in a Cadillac. A lesser man would ride British motorcycles, rather than big, ol' American Harleys. A lesser man might well admit to hyperbole when the Government denied him permission to jump the Grand Canyon for fun and profit, or else drop out altogether. To the extent that America is a composite of dreams and desperation, Robert Craig Knievel fills the bill.
Curious it was to spot the quotation that dangles from a nail in the truck's cab. "The people I want to hear about are the people who take risks." The quote was signed "Robert Frost."
Evel hauled himself up to his full six feet, exuded far more energy than could be contained in his mere 180 pounds, focused his eyes so that their intense beams seemed fraught with much more than 32 years of crushed bones and painfully gained wisdom. "I got a better quote," he said. "It's being set up right now, etched in gold. It's from Theodore Roosevelt, and I can recite it verbatim:
'Far better it is to take a chance to win glorious victory and triumph even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who know no victory nor defeat because they live in the grey twilight and have tried neither.' "
Listen, America! There are few heroes talking nowadays.