Evel Knievel, possibly the maddest motorcycle stunt rider ever, wasn't an energy drink-sponsored 'athlete.' He was a hard-drinking, wild-living, old school showman...
“The water is very important because you’ve got to get the maximum amount of pressure and the maximum amount of thrust for the jump. A steam rocket needs the best there is. I heat it at 500 degrees and let it drop off at 420. I open the valve, let the water from the heater into the rocket and when it drops from 500 to 420, the engineer, Bob Truax, points at me. I’m looking right up the ramp over the Canyon,” said Evel Knievel, talking to Overdrive magazine for their February 1973 issue. Evel was talking to them about preparing for his Snake River Canyon jump, which he went on to perform in September 1974, aboard his custom-built steam rocket-powered Skycycle X2.
“I go at 350 miles an hour in 8 seconds and hope like hell I get there. If I do, I drop down to both knees, grab a handful of dirt and thank God Almighty that I’m still alive. If I splat against the wall, I just get somewhere quicker where you’re going someday, and I’ll wait for you. Dying is part of living,” said Knievel back then, every bit the swaggering American motorcycle daredevil that he was. “You can’t practice it. It’s a one-shot deal. The Skycycle must go up 1,000 feet up at 350 miles an hour in eight seconds, or it’s all over for me,” he added.
Even in this day and age of various Red Bull-sponsored ‘athletes’ who pull off unbelievably spectacular stunts on an assortment of motorcycles, the late, great, Evel Knievel stands in a league of his own. In an era when motorcycles were still very simple and Photoshop and computer graphics hadn’t been invented, Evel jumped across cars and buses and Canyons on his bikes, often with little or no regard for his own personal well-being. Oh, sure, he earned big money and enjoyed spending it too. “I spend it all. I don’t believe in saving it. I’m risking my life for it and I’m going to blow every goddamn dime of it! You know, I love this life I lead. I play golf every day and I bet big money on it. I bet three or four thousand a day on a golf game. These guys I play with think that there’s a lot of pressure on me when I play a golf game because of the money. Hell, they don’t know what pressure is. They should see me face those 16 semis off of that takeoff ramp,” he said in that interview that he gave to Overdrive.
But for Evel, his motorcycles and stunt riding were probably about more than just big money. “I get to the other side the way I want to go. You know, we’ve got a choice about how we die, unless we meet with an accident. I figure that God put me here to be the best and do the best and live the best that I could. I’m going to try to do that. When he’s ready, he’ll take me away. I don’t think that a human being could ask for more than that,” said Knievel in the Overdrive interview.
Knievel was an American icon who loved spending money and when he could afford to, he lived the good life. He certainly wasn't afraid of taking risks...
More recently, almost 35 years after that interview which he gave to Overdrive, Evel also spoke to Tony Carter of Motorcycle Sport & Leisure. This interview, which happened a few months before Evel passed away (he died in November 2007), also provides some interesting insights into the psyche of the man who was, possibly, the bravest, maddest motorcycle stunt rider who ever lived. “I only ever wanted to be remembered as a gentleman. For me, a handshake and your word was everything. I also didn’t want to wear black leathers. That’s where the white suits came from. I wanted to be the anti-bad biker, I wanted to be the type of biker that kids could look up to,” said Knievel, talking to Carter.
“I started jumping on a 500 Triumph Bonneville and it was a great motorcycle. It was the best handling bike in the world. It was so good on power too that I didn’t do anything to the engine, I just wound up the suspension. The rest of the bike I left pretty much as standard. That Bonneville was the easiest bike in the world to wheelie – I just loved that bike,” said Knievel, in the MS&L interview, after which he goes on to talk about another bike that he later used in the 1970s – the Harley-Davidson XR750. “That bike handled nearly as well as the Triumph but the problem was that it had too much torque. When I was flying through the air, the bike would pull to the side because of the torque going through it. It would twist as it went through the air. Despite all the time I spent on the Harley, it was the Triumph I found to be the very best motorcycle,” said Knievel.
“People might have thought that there was a lot of measuring and science going on, but there wasn’t, really. The only thing we did was make sure we had the right gearing so that on take-off I had as much acceleration as I needed. Sometimes we couldn’t get the right gearing though, like when I jumped at Wembley. We couldn’t get the right gearing for that jump at all. And I knew I wouldn’t make a clean landing on the other side. But I had no choice – I knew I was going to make the jump because so many people had turned out to see my do it. They deserved a show and I’d promised them one. I was always a man of my word. So I just jumped as best I could with what I had,” says Evel, talking about his failed attempt to jump his bike across 13 buses, in May 1975, at the Wembley Stadium in London. EK broke his pelvis in that crash and announced his retirement, though he did make a comeback and continued performing until 1981.
Whatever you say about him, Evel Knievel certainly wasn’t a carefully cultivated, energy drink-sponsored, PR-savvy X-games athlete. He was a hard-drinking, wild-living, old-school daredevil who basically just didn’t give a fuck. Oh, and he could ride a motorcycle like nobody else ever could. And we love him for that. R.I.P.
Sources: Overdrive, Motorcycle Sport & Leisure