Speaking in cheerleader-ese, we’ll sum it up thusly:
Oooh, but in between? What a sight.
Jump-suited fountain-jumper (well, almost-jumper) Evel Knievel’s crazy-man stunt over the Caesars Palace fountains still stands as an extreme sports milestone 51 years later, even though Knievel, his bike and the pavement had an unfortunate rendezvous.
Yet to achieve superstar status as a motorcycle daredevil, the 29-year-old, Montana-born Knievel (birth name: Robert Craig Knievel Jr.) was in town to take in the Dick Tiger/Roger Rouse light-heavyweight title bout at the Las Vegas Convention Center in November 1967 when he spied the Caesars fountains.
What does any reasonable person think when they see those watery wonders? Jump ’em on a flying bike. Natch.
Ever the self-promoter — “huckster” or “con man” would also apply — Knievel summoned up a full tank of moxie and phoned Caesars CEO Jay Sarno, claiming he oversaw (the thoroughly bogus) Evel Knievel Enterprises. Over several pestering calls, some Knievel buddies also in on the hoax ID’d themselves as his lawyers and reps from ABC-TV and Sports Illustrated magazine, clamoring to know about some mind-boggling cycle stunt hosted by the resort.
The scam succeeded. Caesars execs green-lit the stunt. The New Year’s Eve jump was set for high noon.
Despite Knievel’s prodding, ABC declined to air it live on Wide World of Sports, so the devilish Evel overcame that obstacle, too. He hired actor/director John Derek to film the event in a truly low-rent production (Derek’s then-wife, actress Linda Evans, was one of the camera crew).
How did the rakish biker prepare the morning of the jump? By losing 100 bucks at the blackjack table, downing a shot of Wild Turkey bourbon, and cuddling with a couple of showgirls at the jump site.
And the jump itself? As Knievel later explained, the bike — to his surprise — decelerated as he approached the takeoff ramp, causing him to come down short of the 141 feet he needed to land safely. Instead he barreled into a van-supported safety ramp, his hands torn from the handlebars as he spun off the bike, skidded into the pavement and came to a painful stop in the parking lot of the Dunes Hotel.
Did we say painful? Try excruciating. The only thing Knievel successfully landed was a monthlong hospital stay courtesy of a crushed pelvis and femur, hip, wrist and ankle fractures, and a concussion. However, even failure and pain were promotional opportunities for Knievel, who reportedly leaked stories about his “life-threatening injuries,” gave bedside interviews and claimed to have been in a coma for most of his hospital stay. That was later refuted by several sources — including his wife — in the documentary, Being Evel.
But here’s a morsel of schadenfreude: ABC later coughed up more dough for film of the jump than it would have cost to cover it live. Yup — failure pays. Psych!
Crashing spectacularly had made Evel Knievel a death-defying darling of the world who would go on to (crazily) attempt the following, with varying degrees of success:
- Make 75-plus ramp-to-ramp jumps over cars, vans, double-decker buses and Mack Trucks.
- Sail over a tank of 13 live sharks.
- Fly over a crate filled with rattlesnakes and a mountain lion.
- Blast over Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket (an epic fail, though he miraculously escaped with only minor injuries).
Quite a resume, yet, beyond the toll on his body, it did leave him with one nagging problem. “I have trouble getting life insurance, accident insurance, hospitalization and even insurance for my automobile,” Knievel told Dick Cavett in a 1971 interview. “Lloyd’s of London has rejected me 37 times.”
Knievel died at age 69 in 2007, not in a burst of daredevil-y glory, but from years of battling diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis. Yet he had built a career that made his macho nickname into a synonym for breathtaking feats of pure testosterone. And that ballooned into a legacy that others have been trying to top for years, with several attempting to conquer the very same Caesars fountains:
- September 1980: Gary Wells sustained serious injuries when he also couldn’t complete the jump.
- April 1989: Evel’s son Robbie finally notched it up as a victory for the Knievel name, successfully soaring over the aquatic obstacles.
- May 2006: Mike “The Godfather” Metzger did likewise, adding even more midair razzle dazzle with a bike backflip.
- July 2018: Travis Pastrana added his name to the victory roster, first zooming over 52 flattened cars and 16 buses in a lot behind Planet Hollywood, then sailing over the Caesars waterworks.
Yes, that Caesars bike-in-flight stunt turned Knievel into a superstar. However … “The promoters wanted more and more from me,” Knievel once said, in a quote on Selvedgeyard.com, a site devoted to iconic motorcycle riders.
“They wanted me to jump or spill my blood and break my bones. Every time they wanted me to jump farther and farther and farther. Hell, they thought my bike had wings.”
Aviation assistance notwithstanding, it’s not the airborne acrobatics that could kill ya. “Anybody can jump a motorcycle,” Knievel added. “The trouble begins when you try and land it.”
Las Vegas helped him prove that. Vividly. With a steep hospital bill as a keepsake.