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Where Evel Lurks
Richard Hoffer
October 07, 1996
Former daredevil Evel Knievel is still a gambler, so look for him in Las Vegas
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October 07, 1996

Where Evel Lurks

Former daredevil Evel Knievel is still a gambler, so look for him in Las Vegas

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"I'll think about it," she says and heads for the blackjack tables.

"A great little golfer," Evel says admiringly, "and a good little gambler, too." It reminds him. "I once won $50,000 in golf, beat this guy one up. Eagled the 1st hole. You do know I'm the biggest gambler in town, don't you?" In Las Vegas? "Oh, yes," he says, fierce all of a sudden. "I bet my life here."

Robert Craig Knievel hasn't made a motorcycle jump since 1980, but he must have made hundreds of them over his 14-year career, in venues ranging from civic centers and county fairgrounds to Idaho's Snake River Canyon, where he made his famous abortive attempt to rocket three quarters of a mile, from one side to the other, in 1974. All those nights when he left his wife, Linda, and three kids in the hotel room—dressed in his leathers, with his helmet tucked under his arm, wondering if he'd come back and see' them again—the terrible feeling in his stomach never yielded to experience. "The feeling just got worse, every time," he says. It was surprising. "Got so I couldn't pull the trigger."

He got out in time, sort of. He never cheated on his stunts, and going by his X-rays, his performances were less than surefire. Beginning with one of his first jumps—in 1966, when he failed to clear a box of rattlesnakes, and the critters slithered clear of their splintered crate—he established the national threshold of danger, and he raised the bar every time, or at least added another bus. The thrills were genuine. He figures he spent 3½ years in hospitals in the service of his daredevilry.

He was certainly paid well enough—as much for his promotional genius as for his performances. As for the failed Snake River Canyon leap, it hardly matters whether he made $6.5 million, as he says, or $250,000, as others claim. More to the point was the fame that he fashioned from the stunt. It became apparent that his jumps (whether made over 19 cars at a backcountry track or over 13 Greyhound buses on Wide World of Sports) were not meant to get him from here to there, but to support the growing industry that was Evel Knievel. In the 1970s his action figures helped resuscitate a flagging toy industry. His Evel Knievel bikes, made by AMF, were everywhere. His name was on pinball machines, toothbrushes, blankets, curtains and radios. In your basement you may have an Evel Knievel lunch box.

Of course that money and Linda are long gone. By the time he straightened himself out in 1990, following a spree of spending and drinking that was every bit as outlandish as his stunts, all that remained was his fame, the residue of Evel Knievel quilts and wristwatches. Luckily for him, though, he lived into this ridiculous era in which fame is highly bankable.

Celebrities of Evel's vintage are suddenly attractive to sponsors, card-show organizers, bankers and car dealers. A guy like Evel, such an icon to a certain generation that he is seen as a kind of Elvis, is the beneficiary of a windfall for no good reason except that he survived, and Elvis didn't.

"I'm not bragging," he says, "but I'll make more money in the next 10 years than in my whole career." He thinks he represents seven or eight companies, outfits such as Choice Hotels and Little Caesar's Pizza. He is vague, he says, because he doesn't care that much anymore. The money just comes in. He claims he has gotten as much as $10,000 a week from sales of a pain-relief gizmo called the Stimulator, which he endorses and sells on his Happy Landings Web site. He'd prefer to have no involvement in his business affairs beyond the actual appearance work and the endorsement of the checks. For two years one of his Snake River Canyon sky cycles was parked inside the Vegas Hard Rock Cafe, at a handsome sum per annum. A movie about him (the fifth by his count) and a planned Evel Knievel theme restaurant in Las Vegas (to be called the Daredevil Cafe) will proceed without any worry on his part—though he expects residuals.

So, sallying forth from his fairway home in Clearwater, Fla., he golfs—he says he has a 12 handicap—with Krystal and his buddies five days a week; he shops; and he bets on sporting events. Because three or four months are a long home stand for him, he is less likely to be in Clearwater than on the road, carving a circuitous seasonal path through the U.S.: Atlanta; St. Louis; Butte, Mont, (where his 102-year-old grandmother, the woman who raised him, still barks at her "Bobby"); Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (where he has a home); Deer Valley, Utah; San Francisco; Vegas. He drives all the time; this trip to Vegas was in a custom-painted Chevy Tahoe with a TV antenna. His Web site (www.evelknievel.com) updates his itinerary: "Evel is on vacation in the Midwest and near the West Coast, playing golf and relaxing in the mild warm weather."

"I have a wonderful life," he says. A lucky life? "I wouldn't say that. I broke enough damn bones and spilled enough damn blood, I wouldn't call it lucky." The rebuke is mild, though. A light beer or so later he says, "Luck may have had something to do with it." He's alive, isn't he?

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