The Banality of Evel
On September 8, at Twin Falls, Idaho, approximately fifteen thousand rowdy fans gathered to watch the daredevil Evel Knievel jump over the Snake River Canyon. Knievel, a former juvenile delinquent, thief, cardsharp, pimp, and insurance salesman from Butte, Montana, had achieved fame by jumping his motorcycle long distances over such hazards as buses, trucks, sharks, rattlesnakes, and fountains. His vehicle for the Snake River stunt, dubbed the Sky-Cycle X-2, was no motorcycle but a thirteen-foot-long jet-propelled capsule. Despite the SkyCycle’s space-age appearance, its source of power was something from a much earlier epoch: steam.
The Sky-Cycle was invented by Robert Truax, a co-designer of the Thor ballistic missile, who had been Robert Goddard’s boss in the Navy rocket program during World War II. Its “fuel” was five hundred pounds of water, heated under pressure to seven hundred degrees Fahrenheit and pumped into the engine just before the leap. At liftoff, if all went according to plan, a valve would open and release steam out the rear of the craft, propelling it up a 10 8-foot ramp and over the canyon at 350 miles per hour. Two test flights had ended in failure, giving hope to the bloodthirsty element in the bikerheavy crowd.
Spectators began arriving days before the event and filled the intervening time with an eclectic variety of wholesome activities: beating up reporters, encouraging women to expose their breasts (with the occasional success that made it all worthwhile), riding their bikes through bonfires, molesting high school drum majorettes, engaging in public sex, and committing assorted acts of vandalism. The night before the leap one gang of fans stole four thousand cases of beer from a truck while another counterproductively set fire to some portable toilets. David Frost, Norman Mailer, and the patron saint of 1970s trashsport, Bobby Riggs, were on hand to elicit one another’s reactions.
A St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer lamented: “If it’s true that you can judge a country by its heroes, consider that it took America less than fifty years to move from Charles Lindbergh to Evel Knievel.” While the contrast was stark in most ways, the two men did have one thing in common. Knievel’s promoter, Bob Arum, said the daredevil had initially turned him away because “there were only three things in the world he hated: New Yorkers, lawyers, and Jews.” But Arum, who was all three, explained: “That’s just the way they talk in Butte…. They’ve probably never met any Jews or blacks before.” As often happens, the prospect of collecting large amounts of money helped both sides to overcome their scruples.
As also often happens, the event was as disappointing as the hype had been overblown. The Sky-Cycle’s steam engine fired up according to plan, but on its way up the ramp, a parachute deployed prematurely. A second parachute followed soon after. Out of sight of the crowd (though a million fans could see on closed-circuit television), the craft fell about a thousand feet to the canyon floor, where it bounced twice before coming to rest. Knievel emerged six million dollars richer at the cost of a few scratches.
In both these respects he did much better than Sam Patch, the original American daredevil hero, who had thrilled the young country in the 1820s by leaping unaided into a number of waterfalls, including Niagara. With no closed-circuit television, the best Patch could do was to pass the hat among the spectators, and with no parachute, he met his end abruptly with an awkward dive into the Genesee Falls near Rochester, New York, in 1829. Knievel, perhaps learning from Patch’s fate, eventually retired from stunting. His son Robbie now carries on the family trade, most recently by jumping over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.