In less than a decade, Evel Knievel went from a hardscrabble existence in Butte, Montana to the subject of the highest rated episode of Wide World of Sports on record. On June 30, you can watch the whole story unfold with the DVD release of Virgil Films’ I Am Evel Knievel, the first documentary on the world-famous stuntman that enjoyed his family’s full support. BestRide talked with Evel Knievel’s eldest son Kelly about what it was like growing up with a real-life superhero.
“He did his first jump in 1966,” said Kelly from his office in Las Vegas. “In the span of six or seven years, he became the most famous person in the world. We were on the road constantly. We were just so busy I don’t really think we even had time to consider it. I remember walking with my mom one time and I was having a hard time keeping up with her. I asked her, ‘Why are you walking so fast?’ She said ‘I’m trying to keep up with your father.'”
I Am Evel Knievel does a spectacular job laying out what it was like for the Knievel family in the early days in Montana, from where Knievel got his famous name to the very first jumps Knievel performed. There’s no end of myth and urban legend surrounding the world’s most famous daredevil, and the documentary either dispels or confirms a lot of it.
If you think you’ve seen everything there is to see about Evel Knievel, there are some rare photographs from the Knievel family that haven’t seen the light of day in decades. Along with his construction business, Kelly Knievel manages all the rights and licensing for Evel Knievel’s estate, and there were photographs and video clips in the documentary that came from that incredible archive.
Early in his ascent to fame, Knievel wasn’t wearing the red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit he became famous for. He wore black and yellow leathers, still studded with stars. There’s a set of photographs in I Am Evel Knievel showing the stuntman crashing through what looks like an outhouse set on fire. “Yeah,” said Kelly, “early on, he’d watched a lot of Joie Chitwood’s shows. That came out of seeing those stunt shows.”
Before Evel Knievel jumped his first crate of snakes — a story confirmed in the documentary, and by Kelly Knievel in our talk — Joie Chitwood was about as famous as a stuntman could get. He was a successful race car driver, competing at the Indianapolis 500 seven times. Ironically, Chitwood was the first man to ever wear a safety belt at the Indy 500.
Chitwood’s fame was never as a race car driver, though. It was as a stuntman. Joie Chitwood’s Thrill Show sent five troupes of “Hell Drivers” around the country for 40 years. In January 1967 — just 10 months before Knievel would jump the fountain at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, Chitwood’s Thrill Show from Islip Speedway in New York hit the bigtime on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. The prototype for stunt shows on national television — when only three networks existed — had been set, and Evel Knievel was paying attention.
While Chitwood was famous for his car stunts, the documentary is careful to point out that nobody was doing those kinds of stunts on two wheels. Between his first jump in January of 1966 at the National Date Festival in Indio, California, and his wildly ambitious jump of the fountain in Vegas, Knievel put a bike in the air 24 times, leaping over as many as 16 cars, and crashing only three times.
I Am Evel Knievel documents all of the major jumps: the crash at Caesar’s Palace, the battle with the Hell’s Angels at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, his introduction to England, and his return, culminating in a crash when he jumped 13 double-decker buses at Wembley Stadium.
“It’s amazing,” said Kelly, “I went on a PR tour for the documentary in London recently. Forty years later, those people are still enthralled with him. I got in a taxi and the driver looked at his log and saw my last name. ‘Knievel,’ he said. ‘You have to be related.’ Then he went on to recite — word for word — the entire speech my dad gave to the crowd after he crashed. Incredible.”
Finally, we talked about the last major jump: Snake River Canyon. “My favorite picture of my father is when he first started thinking about jumping the canyon,” he laughs. “He’s sitting on a motorcycle with these two triangular wings and two propane tanks. He’s pointing across the canyon, standing with these two Navajo chiefs, and they’re looking at him like ‘You must be out of your mind.’ His attitude was ‘If they can put a guy on the moon, I can get over there.'”
The rocket famously never made it across the canyon, but there was a question that had been bugging me for years that I finally got an answer to talking to Kelly: There was certainly a plan for the rocket to take off, but I never understood what the plan was if the rocket ever made it to the other side. “Well, both of the test rockets both went in the middle of the canyon,” Kelly said. “All the time he was making those jumps, my dad never gave any indication that he was worried about anything. He was worried about that rocket.”
Had the rocket flown to the other side of the canyon, the only plan was that it would crash-land on the other side, slowed by parachutes. “There was this big shock absorber on the original rocket that’s missing now,” Kelly says. “I guess that was supposed to absorb some of the impact of the crash on the other side, but who knows if that would’ve worked.”
For fans that grew up in the 1990s and 2000s, Kelly says “They know who Evel Knievel is, but I don’t think they know just how famous he was in the 1970s.” In order to set the tone for that period, I Am Evel Knievel features interviews with a lot of modern celebrities like Matthew McConnaghy, Michelle Rodriguez from the Fast and the Furious franchise, and modern-day daredevil Travis Pastrana, all of whom were influenced by Evel Knievel in some way.