The legendary stuntman holds a unique position in the pantheon of motorcycling as he must be the only member of that exclusive club who gained more notoriety for failing than succeeding. Unlike motorcycle racers, whose lasting fame is judged almost entirely on their race results and championship success, Knievel was arguably more famous for his failures than his successes.
He shot to worldwide fame in the early days of 1968 after a failed attempt to leap over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas left him with serious injuries but, crucially, great film footage of the wipeout.
He again made worldwide news and pushed the Watergate Scandal off the front pages when he tried to jump the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered ‘Rocket Cycle’ in 1974. Again, he failed, but again, footage of the event was broadcast around the world. When he came to London forty years ago and tried to jump those London buses, he once more landed badly, crashed heavily, and suffered further brutal injuries.
Do we see a pattern beginning to emerge here? On all of his most famous jumps, Knievel failed to cut the mustard. So one can’t help but ask the question ‘Was Evel Knievel actually any good as a motorcycle jumper?’
The furthest distance Knievel ever managed to successfully clear was 133 feet over 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Mills, Ohio, in 1975. The current world record for a motorcycle ramp jump is over twice that distance. In 2008, Australia’s Robbie Maddison successfully cleared a distance of 351 feet at the Calder Park Raceway in Melbourne. That’s 218 feet more than Knievel ever managed.
So what are we to deduce from these hard facts? That Evel Knievel was pretty rubbish at jumping motorcycles? That he was all hype and no substance? All star-spangled gloss and no skill? Far from it. To truly understand what made the former Montana copper miner a legend, there are some other facts that need to be taken into consideration.
For starters, Knievel made over 300 jumps in his professional career and at least 276 of those were successful. The fact that we only ever tended to hear about the unsuccessful ones is more a reflection of the media’s fascination for drama and disaster than it is a reflection of Knievel’s skills on a motorcycle. The other salient point here is that many of his jumps at county fairs and race meetings were over fairly short distances (some as little as 40 feet) while his major jumps – the ones he so often wiped out on – were far more challenging and carried a far higher risk of failure. But then, that’s what sold tickets, and that’s what people came to see.
The other major difference between Knievel and modern-day motorcycle jumpers was the bike he rode. Harley-Davidson‘s XR750 was designed as a flat-track racer, not a motocross bike, and certainly not a jump bike. It weighed in at almost 300lb and had practically no suspension travel to absorb the terrific impact of landing from a great height at great speed. The real wonder was how Knievel ever managed to land one of those bikes successfully.
Modern jumpers use purpose-built motocross bike like Honda‘s CR500 which weighs just 222lb and has a massive 12.2 inches of front fork travel and 12.6 inches of rear shock travel to absorb landings. On his Harley-Davidson XR750, Knievel only had 3-4 inches of suspension travel to play with, front and rear. He might as well have had none.
Modern-day jumpers are also far more scientific in their approach to jumping and accurately work out trajectories, speed, power, and every other factor into their jumps before attempting them. Knievel’s approach was slightly more old skool: he’d have a swig of Wild Turkey bourbon, mutter a quick prayer (‘God take care of me – here I come’) and simply pull the trigger. If it worked, it worked, if it didn’t, it didn’t. He’d still get paid either way.
It’s worth noting that there is one man who has actually bettered Knievel’s jump distances using the same Harley-Davidson XR750 and that’s Alabama’s Bubba Blackwell. A massive fan of Knievel, Blackwell performed the longest ever jump on an XR750 in 1999 when he cleared 157 feet. One can only assume he approached the task in a slightly more scientific manner and by benefiting and learning from all the mistakes Knievel had made.
The greatest testimony to Evel Knievel’s abilities on a motorcycle come from those who have beaten all his records; people like Blackwell, and like former world record holder, Seth Enslow, and current holder Robbie Maddison. Far from belittling Knievel’s efforts, these men clearly remain in awe of him. ‘He was definitely one of the finest showman of his era’ Blackwell says. ‘Not just with motorcycles, but with drawing in the general public’s interest. No matter how crazy people thought his stunts were, I think that deep down inside everyone admired his courage and his unique presentation.’
Enslow too is full of respect. ‘He’s the man’ he says. ‘He’s the greatest. He was out there going for it us on his old piece-of-$#!% bike and paving the way for us guys. He’s got all my respect and the respect of everyone in this business.’
Perhaps most fitting of all was Robbie Maddison‘s tribute in 2008 after setting that new world record of 351 feet in Australia. He dedicated the jump, and the record, to his hero Evel Knievel, whose family were, very fittingly, in the audience. Respect between peers doesn’t get much better than that and Maddison’s dedication means that, in one sense at least, the world motorcycle jump record still belongs to Evel Knievel – the man who single-handedly created the phenomenon in the first place.
Stuart Barker is a freelance motorcycle journalist and author. A former MCN reporter and features writer, he is now editor of the Official Isle of Man TT and Classic TT programmes and has contributed to most major UK motorcycling titles including MCN, Bike, Ride, Superbike, Two Wheels Only, Fast Bikes, Classic Bike and Classic Racer. His books include biographies of Barry Sheene, Steve Hislop, Niall Mackenzie, David Jefferies and Evel Knievel as well as a centennial history of the TT races.