Daredevil – someone who performs dangerous stunts, often as a career.
In the 1970s, the daredevil we watched was Robert Craig Knievel, popularly known as Evil Knievel. This motorcycle performer, who turned to the life of a daredevil to feed his family, became the one of the most watched people in the 1970s.
After a short stint in the Army, Knievel worked at a mine, played hockey and became a hunting and fishing guide. His love of the thrills led him to be arrested for reckless driving, earning him the nickname Evil by the local police. He continued to try and make money by selling insurance and selling Japanese import motorcycles.
In the 1960s, Knievel working for another motorcycle dealership met racer Jim Pomeroy and started to learn motorcycle tricks.
Deciding he could make some money by becoming a daredevil, Knievel’s first attempt was to jump a 20 foot long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Handling all promotion and marketing, Knievel succeeded in his first daredevil exhibition. Upping the stakes, Knievel planned harder and more complex jumps, attracting the attention of of festivals and fairs, and incurring several injuries along the way. Knievel broke 37 bones in his body during his career.
In January 1971, Knievel set the record by selling 100,000 tickets to back to back performances of his daring skill at the Houston Astrodome; in February he set the record for jumping 19 cars , which he held for 27 years. In 1973, Knievel set the record for jumping 50 stacked cars at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, a record he held for 35 years.
Despite the constant injuries and failures, his successes encouraged him to set the stage for his premiere jump, over Idaho’s Snake Falls Canyon. One of the four most watched shows on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, Knievel almost made the jump, but the force of the propelled rocket motorcycle caused his parachute to deploy and dragged him back into the canyon.
In 1975, Knievel went to Wembley Stadium in England, and to a crowd of 90,000 fans planned to jump 13 buses. Shown on Wide World of Sports (and one of the most watched shows ever), Knievel crashed, breaking his pelvis. Despite this injury, Knievel walked off the field, telling ABC Sports host Frank Gifford “I came in walking, I went out walking.”
Although Knievel claimed to be retiring, in 1976 he set the stage to jump 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island theme park in Ohio. Successfully completing the jump, Knievel set the world’s record which he held for 24 years and set ratings afire, with the most-watched program ever for ABC Wide World of Sports.
Knievel said he would retire, but instead did many smaller jumps, all of which he completed. In late 1976, he was to jump a shark tank, in tribute to the film Jaws, and in practise crashed, breaking his arms, but also seriously injuring a cameraman, who lost his eye. Knievel removed himself from the public eye.
I remember hearing about Evil Knievel and seeing his jumps shown over and over on television. I marvelled that someone’s desire to do something so crazy, risking life and limb, was a compulsion for him. I couldn’t quite understand it, but the circus-like quality of his performances were alluring to any tv viewer, young or old.
Knievel died in 2007, well removed from the public eye. The consequent decades weren’t kind to the daredevil, but his lasting legacy as a motorcycle performer will always be remembered, as Knievel’s nickname The Last Gladiator, so aptly describes.