During the 1950s through the 80s a familiar sight were boys and girls riding their bikes.
Everywhere you went there they were, out and about enjoying the fresh air and the thrill of freedom. When you are too young to have a driver’s license, riding your favorite bike was the next best thing.
Schwinn Varsity 10-speeds and Stingrays were very popular at the time. Boys pretended their Stingray was a chopper motorcycle. I had a Stingray and to make it sound like a motorcycle we would attach a clothespin and a playing card to one of the wheels. It didn’t matter what type of bike you had, it seemed everyone wanted that motorcycle sound. Clothespin and Playing Card
For many of us riding our bikes also was a way to test our riding skills. For instance we would find an undeveloped lot and build ramps to fly off of. A big sheet of wood positioned on a mound of dirt was the perfect answer for a ramp. Riding as fast as we could we would launch into the air and measure our distance. Just think … none of us wore bike helmets in those days.
Another thing we would all attempt to do was a wheelie. Grabbing the handlebars at just the right time and balancing on the back wheel was really fun. Doing wheelies wasn’t too hard to learn. Doing that same stunt on a real motorcycle requires intense technical skill. Not many people can do that on a motorcycle.
Where did a whole generation of kids get the idea to do all these stunts. The one person that influenced myself and most kids around the world during those years was Evel Knievel. We all pretended to be Evel when doing stunts.
Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel Jr. was born on October 17, 1938 in Butte, Montana, the first of two children of Robert E. and Ann Marie Keough Knievel.
Knievel left Butte High School after his sophomore year and got a job in the copper mines as a diamond drill operator with the Anaconda Mining Company. He was promoted to surface duty, where he drove a large earth mover. Knievel was soon fired when he made the earth mover do a motorcycle-type wheelie and drove it into Butte’s main power line. After that he was out of work with plenty of free time on his hands, which for Evel meant getting into trouble around Butte.
After a police chase in 1956, in which he crashed his motorcycle, Knievel was taken to jail on a charge of reckless driving. While in jail he got his nickname. His cellmate was known as “awful Knofel” (last name Knofel rhyming with awful). It didn’t take long before guards began calling them “awful Knofel” and “Evil Knievel”. Knievel took to the nickname but didn’t want people to think he was “evil” so he changed the spelling to “Evel” (ending in -el like his surname).
Always looking for new thrills and challenges, Knievel participated in local professional rodeos and ski jumping events, including winning the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men’s ski jumping championship in 1959.
Knievel then joined the United States Army. His athletic ability allowed him to join the track team, where he was a pole vaulter. After his army stint, Knievel returned to Butte, where he met and married his first wife, Linda Joan Bork. Shortly after getting married, Knievel then started the Butte Bombers, a semi-pro hockey team.
After the birth of his first son, Kelly, Knievel realized that he needed to come up with a new way to support his family financially.
He decided to join the motocross circuit and had some success but not much money. Wanting a new start away from Butte, Knievel moved his family to Moses Lake, Washington.
There, he opened a Honda motorcycle dealership and promoted motocross racing. During the early 1960s, he and other dealers had trouble promoting and selling Japanese imports. His Moses Lake Honda dealership eventually closed. After the closure, Knievel went to work for Don Pomeroy at his motorcycle shop in Sunnyside, Washington. Pomeroy’s son, Jim Pomeroy, who went on to compete in the Motocross World Championship, taught Knievel how to do a “wheelie” and ride while standing on the seat of the bike. After that Knievel got an idea. Put together a stunt show like the one he say as a kid.
Knievel recalled the Joie Chitwood show he saw as a boy and decided that he could do something similar using a motorcycle. Joie Chitwood was an auto stunt driver who put on the “Joie Chitwood Thrill Show”, an exhibition of auto and motorcycle stunt driving. After seeing a stunt driver jump a motorcycle over one car during the Joie Chitwood show, 8 year old Evel was hooked. Pretty soon he said in one interview, ” I was jumping my bicycle after seeing the Joie Chitwood show. I’d make a pile of dry baby’s-breath (flowers), light it, and jump over it.”
Promoting the show himself, Knievel rented the venue, wrote the press releases, set up the show, sold the tickets and served as his own master of ceremonies. After performing to the small crowd with a few wheelies, he proceeded to jump a twenty-foot-long box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. Despite landing short and having his back wheel hit the box containing the rattlesnakes, Knievel managed to land safely.
Knievel realized to make any amount of real money he would need to hire more performers, stunt coordinators and other personnel so that he could concentrate on the jumps. Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils became the name of his show.
The debut of Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils was on January 3, 1966, at the National Date Festival in Indio, California. The show was a huge success.
After each successful stunt the public wanted something more and more thrilling and dangerous.
From 1966 to 1977 Evel Knievel captivated audiences. During those years this daredevil on a motorcycle rode through fire walls, jumped over rattlesnakes, Greyhound buses, cars and sharks. His longest jump nearly killed him after jumping over the fountains of Caesar’s Palace in 1967. The majority of his jumps were made on his Harley-Davidson XR-750 motorcycle. Caesar’s Palace Jump L.A. Coliseum 1973 Jump
Most stunts were successful. Some stunts such as his jump over the Snake River Canyon were not. On September 8, 1974, Knievel attempted to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket propelled motorcycle designed by former NASA engineer Robert Truax dubbed the Skycycle X-2. After taking off half way over the canyon the Skycycle stopped and down he went, barely missing the river. Snake River Jump
After Evel Knievel became a household name he entered into many business ventures. In 1971 “Evel Knievel” the motion picture starring George Hamilton came out. Between 1972 and 1977, Ideal Toy Company released a series of Evel Knievel-related merchandise. During the six years the toys were made, Ideal sold more than $125 million worth of Knievel toys. Lunch boxes of Evel were also very popular. Evel Knievel Toy Commercial