Today in Pop Culture: One Man, One Bike, One Dream

Published on January 1st, 2016 in: Sports, Today In Pop Culture |

By Jeffery X Martin


As the New Year begins, let us speak of fallen heroes, those who dared to dream big and fail miserably. These are men among men, the ones who dare to straddle that line between heroism and stupidity, and we remember their successes as well as their failures.

Friends, I bring before you a man named Evel.

Evel Knievel was a motorcycle man and in his mind, the only reason inanimate objects existed was so that he could get on his bike and jump over them. He didn’t even need a bike. Knievel lost a job by somehow maneuvering an earth-mover into a wheelie. That little jaunt ended when Knievel drove the machine into the main power line of Butte, Montana. The entire town was without power for a few hours.

That’s what the legend says, anyway, but any legend that hangs around long enough becomes the truth.

But it’s the motorcycles that are important here, and the man who rode them. His first jump was over a box of rattlesnakes and two mountain lions. His back tire clipped the box of snakes upon landing, but he did land it.

Ever in search of bigger and better stunts, Knievel tried things that sane, mortal men would never attempt.

1966: Barstow, CA–Knievel tries to jump into the air, like a hurdler, over a motorcycle barreling at him. He jumps too late. The motorcycle hits him in the man-package, and he is sent to the hospital.

1966: Missoula, MO–Knievel attempts to jump 12 cars and a cargo van on his motorcycle. He hits the top of the van, goes tumbling, and is sent to the hospital.

1967: Graham, WA–Knievel clears 17 cars, but does not clear the van at the end of the row. He is thrown from his mighty steed and sent to the hospital.

On this day in 1968, Evel Knievel drew nationwide attention by attempting to jump the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. Upon takeoff, his motorcycle decelerated. He managed to land on the safety ramp, but when he did, the handlebars were wrested from his hands and he skidded across the parking lot. He received a crushed pelvis and femur, a fractured hip, wrist, cracks in both ankles, and a concussion. He was sent to the hospital.

This human being, the man who would not say die, became a role model for millions of people, the folks who would ask their close friends to hold their beer and watch this. A singular breed of man, the kind of man usually known to friends and relatives as “Johnny No Thumbs.”

In 1971, Knievel tried to jump 13 Pepsi trucks. Again, he couldn’t get enough speed, and he landed on his front wheel. He was thrown off, skidded for 15 feet, broke his collarbone, fractured his right arm, broke both of his legs, and was sent to the hospital.

In 1972, Knievel made a successful jump at the Cow Palace. He stopped short. This caused him to be thrown off his motorcycle, break his back, and get run over by his own bike before being sent to the hospital.

Why did he keep doing it? What makes you think he had a choice?

1974 saw Knievel perform his craziest stunt ever: jumping the Snake River Canyon on a specially designed rocket bike called the X-1 Skycycle. It was boosted by superheated steam. The parachute installed on the bike as a safety measure deployed early. Even though he made it to the other side of the canyon, the winds caught the parachute and blew him down into the bottom of the cravasse. He was not sent to the hospital, and survived the fall into the canyon with only a few minor injuries.

Go figure.

He did a few jumps after that, but it was never quite the same. Evel Knievel, the Motorcycle Madman, stopped riding after he attempted to jump over a swimming pool filled with sharks. [Yes, that is where the term, “jumped the shark” originated. I don’t care what Fonzie did the next year.] During rehearsal, Knievel skidded out, broke both of his arms, and hit a cameraman, who lost his eye in the accident. They were both sent to the hospital.

Suffering from both diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, the Last of the Gladiators passed away in 2007. He was buried in his hometown of Butte, Montana, and his eulogy was performed by Matthew McConaughey.

Bad ass.

What are we to do with this icon, this lunatic, this modern Icarus? Evel Knievel was clearly out of his mind, but the world adored him for it. We needed him to fly for us when we could not. We needed him to crash with us when we failed. He was a human being who didn’t believe in his limitations. He was a god among bacteria. He was the poster boy for terrible decisions, and he was necessary.

His name was Evel Knievel. Remember his name when you look at the night sky.

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