The Last Great Leap Forward for Evel Knievel

Evel Knievel, the hard-living, booze swilling motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over Greyhound buses, tanks of live sharks and the Snake River Canyon in Idaho made him an international celebrity in the 1970s, died at the relatively ripe old age (at least for a man seemingly bent on spectacular, very public self-destruction) of 69 years old back in 2007.

During his colorful life, Knievel achieved his career apex on Oct 25, 1975 when he leaped his hopped-up custom Harley-Davidson over 14 buses at Kings Island in Ohio. According to the Knievel legend, more than half of all television viewers with their boxes turned on that day were tuned in to watch Knievel arc through the chilly afternoon air to glory.

The longest successful jump of Knievel’s career, the Kings Island leap came off without a hitch. That stunt aired on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” and it resulted in the highest-ever rating for that venerable sporting program.

But the genesis of the Kings Island jump began a year before in London when Knievel attempted a jump over 13 buses, blew the landing, took a nasty bounce which flipped him over the bars, shattered his pelvis and left him crumpled like a rag doll at the bottom of the ramp. Despite being immediately immobilized by medical staff and placed on a stretcher, Knievel somehow managed to right the ship, latch on to a microphone, and address the stunned crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen of this wonderful country, I’ve got to tell you that you are the last people in the world who will see me jump. Because I will never, ever, ever jump again. I am through.”

It made him an instant hero in a country not given to hyperbolic reactions to insane spectacle.

And he was a long way from done.

No, Knievel, the man decked head-to-toe in red, white and blue leather and a cape no less, could hardly let his career come to a skidding halt in England. He would jump again. This time at Kings Island. And the jump would span 14 Greyhound buses.

And on that October day with the specter of his earlier and painful failure riding on his shoulder, he nailed the jump. As the rear wheel of his Harley-Davidson touched down first, then the front, the crowd rose as one and let out an explosive cheer. Knievel let that outpouring of relief and admiration serve as the coda to a career which was cobbled together from equal parts carnival sideshow and balls-out, death-defying brass. Then he retired. Again. A he meant it. He was done, at least with the big shows.

Knievel’s most outlandish claim to fame, an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for having broken more bones in his body than any living human being, was outstripped later in his life by claims that he was willing, given the proper monetary motivation, to break other people’s bones to collect on wagers. An FBI file compiled on Knievel which ran to an impressive 300 pages alleged that agents believed he was involved in a rash of beatings in Phoenix, Kansas City and San Francisco. FBI files released following Knievel’s death note that in 1970 that agency was on the brink of charging Knievel for his alleged involvement in the beatings he delivered to those who got on his bad side. Knievel, still near the peak of his fame, threatened to sue the government, and the Feds backed off.

Knievel’s resume was colorful outside his stunt work as well.

Knievel, long before he cloaked himself in the stars and stripes and took to the skies on a Harley, claimed to have been a hold-up man, a swindler and a safe cracker. Could all those claims have been manufactured from whole cloth to pad th legend? Sure. But Knievel did sport a record of violent incidents. One of those violent outbursts – a blowup with a former business partner –  alleged that Knievel set on the man with a baseball bat in a parking lot. That incident led to Knievel paying a six month long visit to prison.

After his leap at Kings Island, Knievel did take on a few more jumps (a few vans in Worcester, Massachusetts., a modest seven buses in Seattle) but none of those stunts captured the imagination of the public like the Ohio jump. The Kings Island jump well an truly marked the end of a mad and outrageous career and made the man an American legend.

Evel Knievel Wembley Stadium Jump

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