Evel Knievel first became interested in jumping motorcycles when, as a boy, he saw Joey Chitwood, a famous stunt driver, jump a car. "I got a couple of doors out of my grandfather's garage and propped them up on buckets and pedaled off on my bicycle," Knievel recalls. "I kept moving the doors farther and farther apart. Finally, I missed. I broke the bicycle in half. Grandfather was afraid I was hurt. When I wasn't, he spanked me. After buying me three or four bicycles, he gave up."
Knievel put on his first motorcycle show at the Indio (Calif.) Date Festival grounds in February 1966. At the time, he had a troupe called Evel Knievel and his Motorcycle Daredevils and had seven people working for him. Today he has two—Art Parker, formerly an Army weight-lifting champion, who is his equipment foreman and drives Knievel's 60-foot trailer truck, and Boots Curtis, the advance man, who was for many years a sales manager for BSA motorcycles. Boots also drives Knievel's red Fairlane 500 XL, which pulls the motorcycle trailer and is equipped with a mobile phone. Knievel enjoys making calls while driving and is proud of his ability to remember phone numbers. "I like to tax myself like that," he says. "A man generally uses only a quarter of his brain."
At Indio, Knievel jumped over two pickups. Then he went to Hemet, Calif., where he was rained out, and overextended himself at the bank. The next stop was Barstow, Calif., where the wind blew too hard to jump. But Knievel is an all-round stunt man. For example, he can ride a parasail behind a car. "It's a pretty wild ride," he says. "But it's a lot of fun if you don't come down too hard." He once tore the rear end out of his brother's car in a strong wind, and on another occasion got up to 300 feet behind a jet car. "I don't know anyone else that parasails on asphalt behind a jet," he says. Knievel also claims he can do a wheelie—riding a motorcycle on its rear wheel—for a mile. "I once did a wheelie so far the engine sucked a valve," he says. "I've also gone through more fire walls on a motorcycle than anybody. I've raced through 25 or 30 at a crack—half-inch board soaked in gas for an hour. I don't wear no asbestos or nothing. I just go right through them. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. You got to go fast enough so you don't get burned, but not so fast you get concussed."
At Barstow, Knievel tried a stunt that is not performed anymore. It involved standing on the ground while another stunt man drove a motorcycle straight at him, and then jumping so that it passed beneath him. "Everyone there knew I was going to get hit—except me," Knievel says. "The motorcycle hit me in the groin and thighs at 60 mph when I was a foot and a half off the ground. I went up in the air 15 feet, turned a couple of flips and landed on my back. I was paralyzed. They covered me up with a blanket. They thought I was dead. My ribs were all cracked and broke. I was sprained from the bottom of my feet to my waist. About a month later, after getting out of the hospital, I went back to Barstow and put the show on. They helped me on the motorcycle. I did all the wheelies and made the jump off the ramp. I was obligated to a lot of people, a lot of banks."
Last December Knievel was in Long Beach, Calif., where, as an added attraction at the indoor motorcycle races, he was going to try to set an indoor world's-record jump of 10 cars.
The morning of his performance he was on the floor of the Sports Arena, helping Art Parker set up the ramps. Knievel was wearing white bucks. "A lady came up to me the other day," he said, "and said, 'You Pat Boone?' 'No, ma'am,' I told her, 'I'm not Pat Boone.' "
Since he would have to start his run in the lobby, he paced off the distance between the takeoff ramp and the bottom of a flight of stairs, which was as far back as he could get. "It should be 125 yards," he said, "but I'm going to try it at 90. You ever see me stop? You ever see me hit a wall? I stop just like that."
He climbed to the top of the takeoff ramp to align it with the landing ramp. Then he went upstairs and stood among the seats, gazing speculatively down at the ramps and the gulf between them.
"You got to grab and go," he said. "You got to gas that motorcycle and don't let go. Speed doesn't necessarily get distance. You got to get it up right on top of the power curve, right at the peak so that the rear wheel is driving fast off that chain. It's just like a person crouching and springing up. You got to get up on the foot pegs on the balls of your feet, hang on and guide it through the air. If you see you're going to miss, just grit your teeth. The people are going to die if I miss that thing."
He went downstairs, climbed the takeoff ramp once more and pretended to do a swan dive off it. "I'm gritting my teeth already," he said from the top of the ramp. "Man, oh, man, I'll be glad when that bike gets traction. Melvin Belli, whom I've retained to negotiate with the Navajos, told me, 'Shorten up your jumps. It scares the hell out of a person.' He thinks I'm going to get killed. If I didn't increase them, I wouldn't be where I was. Sure, a guy likes to see a guy jump. But so what if he's only jumping three or four feet.