Saturday, December 1, 2007
Robert Craig Knievel Jr., 1938-2007
Robert Craig "Evel" Knievel has made that great bus-jump to heaven, dying last week at his home in Clearwater, Florida. He was 69. In addition to having one of the most oddly spelled first names in America, Knievel was known for jumping his motorcycle over anything people would lay in front of him, and for breaking his pelvis while doing so. Knievel's daredeviltry eventually elevated him to the highest plateau of 1970s American culture: He got his own pinball machine.
The signal event of Knievel's career was his plan to jump over the Snake River canyon in 1974. I say "plan" rather than the jump itself because this thing received the kind of hype associated with the last episode of Seinfeld or Google's IPO. Knievel was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and the entire country waited to watch him attempt to leap over not just a river but a substantial chasm of land as well.
The jump itself, on the other hand, was a disaster. The Snake River canyon, located in Idaho near Knievel's home in Butte, Montana, was too wide to be jumped on a motorcycle, so Evel undertook to clear it in a special rocket-fueled sled, the X1 Skycycle, designed by NASA. Well, pardon me, but jumping a canyon in a rocket is much different from jumping it on a motorcycle; why not just use a Piper Cub? Or why not just choose a river that was jumpable on a regular motorcycle? We've got plenty of those here in the U.S. of A.
At any rate, even in his rocket, Evel couldn't jump the Snake River canyon; his parachute deployed too soon (funny, he never needed a parachute when he was doing regular motorcycle jumps) and he crash-landed on the far bank of the Snake River. The whole thing ended up as a big joke, and the demand for Knievel to do his normal motorcycle thing started to slack off; after prematurely announcing his retirement several times, Knievel made his last jump in 1981 at the age of 42. In the end, he had found success but then tried to do too much, forcing him to change his way of succeeding, then failed anyway. Sounds like half the people I know.
There are two films that chronicle Knievel's career: 1977's Viva Knievel!, starring Evel as himself (plus Gene Kelly, Lauren Hutton, Red Buttons, and Leslie Nielsen), and 1971's Evel Knievel, with George Hamilton in the title role. I honestly don't know which one to recommend. You're probably better off sticking with the pinball machine.