Vengeance may be the most powerful motivating factor in sports. Vanquished athletes long for it. Humbled teams crave it. Robbie Knievel was looking for a little himself last Friday, and for the first time in the history of organized competition, the focus of revenge was a humongous water fountain in the parking lot outside Caesars Palace. In a typical Las Vegas spectacle, the heir to the motorcycle-daredevil legacy took on the fountain that had nearly killed his dad 22 years earlier. This time the Knievel won, evening the series at one-all.
The 26-year-old Robbie avenged the blot on the family escutcheon by gunning his 500 Honda up a ramp, soaring 150 feet across the fountain, landing on another ramp, and roaring into an underground garage where five paramedics and a brain surgeon waited to, if need be, splice him back together again. The jump took all of four seconds, and so moved Knievel the Elder that the creator of all this madness lapsed into a fit of overblown praise. "This was one of the greatest sporting events of the century," said Evel, 50, who works for his son as a sort of daredevil's advocate. "It made anything I ever achieved look like crap. It transcended stunt jumping. It transcended sport." Down, Evel.
Some people might argue that this was not sport but physics: It was more a matter of ballistics, Robbie being the projectile. But Showtime, a national cable TV outfit, was willing to bankroll the stunt. Presumably, the possibility of seeing Robbie splatter across the Vegas Strip had its charms for those willing to fork over the $14.95 pay-per-view tab.
Robbie hoped his fountain hop would be a great leap toward fame, fortune and a fracture-free future. Before he even started his engine he had gotten a $250,000 guarantee from Showtime and a cut of the cable take. "I hope to make a million off this," he said. If nary a soul had tuned in, Knievel still would have earned $62,500 per airborne second. That's well short of Michael Spinks's $148,352-per-second pay for his 91-second pas de deux with Mike Tyson, but well ahead of Michael Milken, whose $550 million salary in 1987 worked out to only $4,407 per second for a 40-hour work week, no vacations.
Robbie has been riding in his father's considerable trajectory since he was an eight-year-old hustling tourists at the Knievel ranch in Butte, Mont. For 50 cents you could watch Robbie hurdle 10 10-speeds on his minibike. "I couldn't keep off the ramps," said Robbie.
Or out of trouble. As a teen he robbed a music store, spent a night in jail, and later landed in reform school. There was also trouble at home, where Evel's approach to parenting was anything but hands off. When the old man took to dispensing fatherly wisdom with his fists, Robbie left home. Eventually, the two reconciled—more or less—and Robbie found a comfortable niche on the tractor-pull circuit. Last summer, in Portland, Ore., he smashed Pop's car-hopping mark, clearing 22 cars and vans on a motorcycle. "Robbie never even finished reform school," said Dad. "What else was he going to do, operate on tumors?"
Last week the least of Robbie's worries was the jump itself. "The treacherous part comes after I hit the landing ramp," he said. "If I sway too far left, I'll collide with a cement pillar. Drift too far right and I'll smack into a pylon. If I come up short of the ramp, I could decapitate myself."
Robbie's jump was somewhat less risky than Evel's ill-fated attempt. Twenty-two years of technology have produced a better bike, one 200 pounds lighter than Evel's cycle. And while Evel was more of a stuntman, Robbie is a bonafide cyclist. "The equipment's 20 feet better and Robbie's a much better rider than I ever was," Evel said.
Still, Evel was pacing Friday night when his son appeared on the launch ramp sheathed in the family's familiar red, white and blue leathers. Then, gesturing to the cameras, Robbie announced, "There will never be another Evel Knievel." Finally, with thousands of casino refugees surrounding the scene, Robbie cruised around and around on the 400-foot runway atop his stripped-down customized bike.
At last he extinguished all smoking materials, stowed his tray table in the upright position and took off. Up the narrow plywood ramp he vroomed, then sailed over the fountain in a gentle arc. With the front wheel upright, Robbie touched down at the top of the far ramp and roared safely out of sight.