It has been nearly a dozen years since Evel Knievel went down in history—literally—trying to jump Idaho's Snake River Canyon. Thousands of Evel worshipers had gathered on the crumbling rim to give the daredevil his due. Hundreds of thousands crowded arenas and theaters on the chance that he would splatter onto rocks 2,500 feet below. No doubt many felt cheated when a parachute on Knievel's Sky-Cycle deployed prematurely and he wigwagged to a gentle landing on the river's edge.
This is an article from the March 17, 1986 issue
Knievel, who gave up stunt jumping for painting in 1980, reached his apogee over the Snake River. For years before that, his bravado on a motorcycle had carried him over a zillion cars, trucks and buses tidily arranged in groups of 10, 12 or 14. But if the Evel era already seems remote, his exploits and harebrained heroics faint, 23-year-old Robbie Knievel says of his father: "Hardly a day goes by that someone doesn't ask me about the Snake River. When Dad went up I thought I'd never see him again."
Today Robbie rides in his father's trajectory, sailing over various vehicles as a headliner on the tractor-pull/mud-racer circuit. He is sometimes billed as Evel Knievel II. The lesser of the two Evels has even added a twist to the old man's routine by jumping his bike no hands. Since his retirement, Evel I has watched Evel II only once. "Robbie scares the hell out of me," mutters Pop Evel, the words rising like a growl from the belly of a Harley hog.
"I guess I'm like any other concerned father, except that nobody else's son guns a cycle over 17 pickups without holding on to the handlebars. The greatest competitor in life is death, and here's a kid giving death the bird every time. He'll only miss real hard once. I think the little booger's nuts!"
This comes from a former safecracker who hurtled over a box of live rattlesnakes with two mountain lions staked at the near end of the takeoff ramp, kidnapped his wife before marrying her, shared a jail cell with Awful Knofel, had to be talked out of free-falling 40,000 feet into a haystack and took a baseball bat to a biographer who wasn't sufficiently respectful of the Evel gospel.
Old Evel had a search-and-destroy exuberance so electric he seemed to have jumper cables hooked to his chest. Robbie's style is more restrained. He beams a big country grin at the world and rides a 250 Honda. Dad straddled a big 750 Harley. But Jim Dick, one of Robbie's two crewmen, says, "He's a much better rider than his father. He just don't have the showmanship."
Evel broke enough bones to make him the American Orthopaedic Association's Man of the Century—433, according to the 1984 Guinness Book of World Records. (Evel insists it's no more than 60.) Robbie has broken only two wrist bones jumping, and those were during practice runs. Once, in Fremont, Calif. he lost control on landing after clearing 14 cars in a high wind. He hit a guardrail at 90 mph, flipped over the handlebars and skidded 40 yards through the grass. He walked away with only a sprained wrist and a torn knee ligament. "I've had just one other break in my life," he says, "and that was from my father kicking me in the nose."
Robbie came home one night slightly ahead of a couple of cops—he had just robbed a music store for the second time in two years—and carrying a six-pack of beer. He took a swing at his old man and landed on the floor, where Evel kicked him in the nose. "Stand up and fight like a man," Evel told him. Robbie, then a juvenile, spent only one night in jail. The next morning Dad wheeled up in a $125,000 convertible and drove him to a plastic surgeon, who repaired the schnozz. "The doctor definitely improved on it," says Evel. "Even Robbie says he's got a great-looking nose now. I may break it again if he don't listen to me."
"Me and him had a lot of fistfights," says Robbie, "but we always had a great father-son relationship as far as fishing and hunting." Knievel fils rode his first chopper as a 2-year-old passenger, while Dad popped wheelies on the streets of Butte, Mont. "It scared the crap out of me," Robbie recalls. "I clutched the crossbar real tight and cried." At five, he had his own minibike, which Evel kept on a leash. Robbie leaped into show business at eight, with Evel's revue, brandishing an American flag. Back home on their ranch he showed a certain enterprise by billing himself as Evel Jr. and charging tourists 50¢ to see him jump 10 10-speeds on his minibike. He made his first major jump at 13, clearing five vans in Worcester, Mass. That same night Evel jumped 12.
When the Ideal Toy Corp. put out an Evel Knievel doll, Robbie was the first kid on his block to have one. Ideal later added Robbie, The Teen-Age Stuntman, to its Knievel line. But Barbie's mom would never let her go out with him. Robbie's own girlfriend, Jamie, hung her Robbie doll from the rearview mirror of her Vega. On a noose. "I got a couple of $500 royalty checks," says Robbie, "and then we hit that baseball bat thing."
Clobbering his biographer in 1977 landed Evel in jail for six months. Within two years Robbie, who had dropped out of high school in 1978, was outjumping him and starting to perfect his look-Pa-no-hands act. He quit Evel's act for good in 1980. "I left Dad because I couldn't stand watching him go down the strip on one wheel at 100 miles an hour," says Robbie. "If he'd gotten into a crash, he'd have broken into a million pieces."
Robbie didn't talk much to Evel over the next few years, but he didn't give up the Knievel trademark. He wore Evel's emblematic red, white and blue leathers, took the somewhat dented Sky-Cycle with him on the road and adopted Dad's high-speed philosophy. "Only a lunatic would want to be an English teacher," Robbie says. "An accountant? Pure insanity."
"A lot of kids look up to Robbie," says Evel. "He's got a chance to make a real contribution to society. Just like me and my artwork."
Robbie floats so free that all he needs before a jump is an occasional shot of tequila. Evel used to knock back a fifth of Wild Turkey a day, but he gave up booze and refined sugar a few years back. Maybe that's why he claims he no longer thinks with his fists. He does look pretty good for a man who's held together mostly by steel pins and epoxy.
Evel is paying off the $5 million he says he owes the IRS partly by hawking his paintings in department stores. But he's got a long way to go because his prices start at $19.95. Evel also picks up extra change on golf courses. "I don't play for fun," he says. He keeps a certified check for $50,000 at the center of a roll of $20 bills in his pocket, in the event of an emergency that hasn't yet come up. "I play golf five days a week," Evel says. "I find that if I play seven days a week I get stale."
Evel travels from course to course in a custom bus only slightly smaller than Iowa. It has a trailer hitched in back rigged with video surveillance equipment that's backed up by a magnum with a barrel the size of a vacuum-cleaner nozzle. Inside, Evel keeps a bronze bust of John Wayne and his limited-edition prints—just about everything from Chief Teal Duck to Mother Teresa to Bambi.
A few months ago Evel's caravan stopped in Los Angeles to see Robbie break his own no-hands bus-jumping record before 35,000 at the Coliseum. Evel holed up in his rig, worrying. He worried about Robbie's hands-off technique. He worried about Robbie's approach. He worried about the number of buses—13. When Evel tried to clear 13 buses in 1975, he crushed a vertebra, fractured his pelvis and broke his right hand.
His fears were not eased when Robbie barely made a practice jump over 11 buses, landing on the near side of the safety ramp and bouncing up in a dangerous front-end wheelie. "What's he trying to prove?" Evel asked.
Robbie announced his presence to the crowd with a nod toward responsibility: "I'm proud to carry on the great name and great legend of my father, Mr. Evel Knievel. I hope you'll all do what my father taught me: Wear your helmet."
Then he jerked the front end of his cycle in the air and tore around the arena on the back wheel. Van Halen's Jump poured from the P.A. Again and again Robbie zoomed past the takeoff ramp. Finally he hit the throttle and howled up the 40-foot finger of plywood. Spreading his arms like gull wings, he arced gracefully over 13 school buses, landed halfway down the far ramp, took control of the bike again with his fists and disappeared beneath the stands. A proud Evel watched his son roll back into the arena like a triumphant Roman charioteer.
"I didn't pray to God to help me make it," said Robbie. "I just asked Him to watch."