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He's Not a Bird, He's Not a Plane
Gilbert Rogin
February 05, 1968
He is Evel Knievl, self-styled conservative wildman—here soaring over the fountains of a Las Vegas hotel—who intends to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle
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February 05, 1968

He's Not A Bird, He's Not A Plane

He is Evel Knievl, self-styled conservative wildman—here soaring over the fountains of a Las Vegas hotel—who intends to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle

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"I'm going to have a radio team, headed up by Joe Pyne, to keep track of my altitude and let me know, when I get halfway across, whether I have enough altitude to make it all the way. If not, they better warn me. There is a chance of a head-on collision with the opposite rim of the Canyon. Splat! Senator Metcalf asked Bobby Kennedy in my presence whether he'd head up my pick-up team if I have to abort into the Colorado River. Senator Kennedy told me he didn't know whether he would be free at the time.

"But the gravest problem is that I don't lose my nerve before I jump. Hell, I don't feel I have a problem. I have a situation. I don't have any problems in life, just situations. I'm positive I can jump the Grand Canyon because I'm a firm believer in the fact that any idea that a man can honestly conceive and honestly believe, if he wants to do the thing really bad enough, he can do it.

"I don't care if they say, 'Look, kid, you're going to drive that thing off the edge of the Canyon and die,' I'm going to do it. I want to be the first. If they'd let me go to the moon, I'd crawl all the way to Cape Kennedy just to do it. I'd like to go to the moon, but I don't want to be the second man to go there.

"It's like Indianapolis. That's great, but I don't want to join the numbers, the ranks, fall in line. Indianapolis is wonderful. I don't mean any disrespect. But I want to do something that's never been done before. Auto racers, they defy death. I stare it right in the face. I believe we were born dead. I did not ask to be put here on earth. I have accepted the fact that dying is a part of living. If I make it across the Grand Canyon, I'll be a millionaire. But I'm not all jacked up to make a big killing. I want to do this thing because I want to do this thing. I don't know if it's going to make a worthwhile contribution to society or transportation, but I'm going to do it. And the best thing about the deal is that I'm not going to make any less money if I don't do it, if I have to get off halfway across. One hundred thousand people aren't going to say 'boo.' "

Knievel believes that both the jump and the preparations for it will be an irresistible draw. "Three hundred thousand people come to the Grand Canyon every month between April and Labor Day," he says, "and all they've got to look at is the Grand Canyon." However, he may never get off the ground. Knievel is convinced that Raymond Nakai, the chairman of the Navajo Indian Tribal Council, is receptive to what Knievel calls "my program," but the 74-member council has so far refused to grant him permission to build takeoff facilities; this, despite his offer to deposit $100,000 to guarantee the wages of whatever Indians he would employ to construct the ramp, runway, access area and parking lot. (He has also offered the Navajos a percentage of any TV money, the live gate and the concessions.) "I feel I have been misled by the Navajo people," Knievel says. "They seem to be concerned about cattle grazing and erosion."

Even if Knievel finally obtains the Navajos' permission, it is not altogether clear whether he may land in the National Forest. He treasures a letter from Robert E. Vaughan, a deputy assistant secretary in the Department of the Interior, which he interprets as giving him authorization. The pertinent passage reads, "Obviously, we would have no objection to your making the jump outside of the Park." Vaughan's letter concludes: "Your only mildly reassuring to those of us who have read about your plans. But you have our best wishes for success in your undertaking."

Whatever the case, Knievel is determined to jump. "I've told [Secretary of the Interior] Udall and Senator Hayden there's no way they're going to stop me," he said the other day. "Even if I have to go up there at one a.m. in the pitch dark of the morning and jump that motorcycle off the edge." A moment later he added, "I wonder what in the world I'm going to do after the Grand Canyon."

Evel Knievel was born in Butte, Mont, as Robert Craig Knievel. His father, an imported-car dealer, and his mother were separated when he was six months old, and he was raised by his paternal grandparents. As a small boy he was nicknamed Evil. "I've changed the 'i' to 'e'," he says. "I'm not evil. I don't relish doing things that aren't right." He is 29 years old, and in his wallet he carries a fortune-cookie slip that reads: "You will live long and enjoy life." He sets great store by this prediction. "A guy who owned a gas station once bet me $25 I wouldn't live to be 23," he says. "When I became 23, he wouldn't pay up. That night I conked his attendant and robbed the place of $900."

Knievel is 6'1", weighs 198 pounds, uses hair spray and is undeniably handsome. Recently, when a waitress in a Hollywood night club learned he had his heart set on jumping the Grand Canyon, she said, "Oh, God, don't let him do it. He's too beautiful to die."

"Everybody expects Evel Knievel to be a long-haired guy," Knievel says, "but I'm a conservative wildman. I am a guy who is first of all a businessman. I present myself to the public as an athlete and as an average human being. I look like a pole-vaulter." In fact, he was. His best height was 14'6", which he cleared at Fort Lewis, Wash, when he was in the Army. He has also made 30 parachute jumps, ridden in amateur rodeos and in 1957 won the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men's ski jumping championship. Moreover, he was the owner, general manager, coach and star of the Butte Bombers, a semipro hockey team, and in 1959 made the Charlotte (N.C.) Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League, which he quit after the exhibition season because he felt he had no chance to reach the NHL. While he had the Bombers, he promoted a game with the Czech team, which was on its way to Squaw Valley for the 1960 Winter Olympics, and lost $8,000. "I guaranteed plane fare and hotel rooms," he says. "Thirty-seven Czechs got off the plane."

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