Evel Knievel certainly wasn’t the first person to become a superstar by risking life and limb to entertain the masses. Harry Houdini made his name in a similar way forty years before Knievel’s 1938 birth, in Butte, Montana. Last week, the most famous motorcycle daredevil of all time pulled off his final and most surprising achievement: Evel Knievel died in his bed, something that other professional death-taunters, like Houdini, Steve Irwin, Dale Earnhardt, and Karl Wallenda (or any of the other Wallenda aerialists who fell to their fates) never managed.
Rather than detailing the diabetes, the two strokes, and the pulmonary fibrosis that eventually felled him, let's catalog a few of Knievel’s closest calls. Here are some career “highlights” from a man who gave up his body for our amusement, usually on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. He was, with apologies to Steven Seagal, hard to kill.
FEBRUARY 1966 | BARSTOW, CALIFORNIA As part of his nascent daredevil stunt show, Knievel tried to leap over a speeding, oncoming motorcycle. He was thrown 15 feet into the air after being struck in the groin by the bike, requiring hospitalization. Taking a motorcycle to the doo-dads; that had to hurt.
JUNE 1966 | MISSOULA, MONTANA While jumping 12 cars and a cargo van, Knievel crashed, severely breaking an arm and several ribs.
JULY 1967 | GRAHAM, WASHINGTON Thrown from his motorcycle after landing a jump over 16 cars, Knievel suffered a serious concussion. Returning to Graham the following month to try again, Knievel failed again, smashing his left wrist, right knee, and two ribs.
JANUARY 1968 | LAS VEGAS Coming up short in his attempt to jump the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, Knievel skidded into the parking lot of the casino next door, receiving a crushed pelvis, and breaking his femur, both ankles, and a wrist for his troubles. A clip of the crash, shot by future Dynasty star Linda Evans, remains a staggering piece of film. Watch it on YouTube, and marvel at how Evel skips across the pavement without losing his life, although he was in a coma for 29 days.
MAY 1968 | SCOTTSDALE, ARIZONA Evel crashed after jumping 15 Mustangs, breaking his right leg and foot.
OCTOBER 1968 | CARSON CITY, NEVADA Knievel shattered his hip attempting a similar stunt.
MAY 1971 | YAKIMA, WASHINGTON While jumping 13 Pepsi delivery trucks, Evel crashed, breaking his collarbone, both legs, and suffering a compound fracture of his right arm. Still, he survived. It was beginning to look like Evel Knievel could not die, like the cheerleader on Heroes.
MARCH 1972 | DALY CITY, CALIFORNIA After scuffling with some Hell’s Angels before the show, Knievel’s back was broken when he was again thrown during a landing, and then run over by his own Harley-Davidson.
SEPTEMBER 1974 | SNAKE RIVER CANYON, UTAH In a failure that was somehow still his greatest moment, Knievel tried to traverse a 500-foot-deep, quarter-mile-wide Utah canyon in his steam-powered, rocket-like X-2 Skycycle, but when a parachute deployed early, the Skycycle plummeted into the gorge, nearly landing in the river. Knievel suffered only minor injuries, once again flipping the Grim Reaper the bird.
MAY 1975 | LONDON Evel crushed his pelvis while jumping 13 buses.
JANUARY 1977 | CHICAGO He crashed while rehearsing a CBS special, breaking both arms and that pesky collarbone.
I hope he is buried in that iconic red, white, and blue leather suit, complete with the cape. Sleep well, Mr. Knievel. You earned the rest.
Rick Wormwood can be reached at email@example.com.