At 34, Robert Craig (Evel) Knievel is an uncouth, ornery and daring man, famous for drawing huge audiences to watch him jump motorcycles over long rows of parked trucks. The people come, of course, to watch Knievel crash, which he has done 11 times in his 8-year career. This weekend he will try his grandest stunt, which possibly will be followed by his most spectacular crash. Inside a rocketlike motorcycle, Knievel hopes to fire himself one mile across the Snake River Canyon at Twin Falls, Idaho. At his apogee he will be about 2,500 feet above the river.
“Now why would a man risk his life when he has all this to lose?” Knievel asks as he waves his arms at the richly appointed living room of his $300,000 home in Butte, Mont. “You see that paneling, it’s solid mahogany, $2,000 just for that wall alone.” His beautiful wife Linda, who is serving some visitors sandwiches and drinks, shoots him a cold stare in a vain effort to hush his boasting. “Well I’ll tell you,” he continues, “I wanted to be the best at something. I didn’t want to spend my life rotting. There’s no doubt about it, I’m the best there is—I’m just taking a calculated risk. And even if I do fly into the canyon wall, so what? I can say the Lord’s Prayer in 10 seconds.”
Originally Evel wanted to hurtle over the mile-wide Berkeley Pit, a mammoth open copper mine in his hometown of Butte. When that plan foundered, he announced he would launch himself across the Grand Canyon, until the Department of the Interior refused to let him land on government property.
The Snake River Canyon is no less intimidating than the other two. To pacify nearby residents, nervous at the prospect of 50,000 spectators, Evel has spent $30,000 for crowd-control fences, $10,000 for portable toilets, and thousands more for doctors and security guards to limit gate crashing.
Even gate crashers won’t hurt Evel’s pocketbook much. Top Rank Inc., the promoters of the leap, have already paid him his $6 million guarantee, which Evel has been spending this summer—mostly in bars and on the golf course.
Every afternoon he drives his golf cart the 100 yards from his house to the Butte Country Club where he plays with five or six friends. For its own protection, his vehicle is plated outside with steel, since Knievel regularly vents his anger at a missed putt by bashing the cart with his club. A beer wagon trails the group around the course.
These days Evel is frequently impatient with his golfing buddies and his three children. When he was told that his second son, Robby, 12, had ridden a cycle across a green at the club, Evel slugged him in the eye. “He was sorrier than hell afterward,” says a close friend, “because Robby wasn’t guilty. But Evel just gets into these moods and can’t get out of them very easily. His family has been putting up with a whole lot lately. I couldn’t take it myself.”
Knievel’s edginess can hardly be improved by the knowledge that his chief technical adviser, former NASA rocket engineer Robert Truax, who built the motorcycle rocket is skeptical. “I’ve been in the rocket business a long time,” says Truax, “and this looked like guaranteed suicide. We started out using the lid from a baked bean can for a main valve. Later, we switched to a dog food lid. I wouldn’t fly it, not even for the $6 million.”
A test of the ship’s trajectory in November was a failure, as was a similar test last week, because its landing parachutes opened prematurely, dumping the rig into the middle of the Snake. Evel, as usual, was sullenly glib. “You have to have failures to achieve success,” he says. “The jump is on. I have to keep my word, I must be a man.”