Superhero comics and movies are at an all-time high, but they aren’t really anything new. The first superheroes appeared in the 1930s, then a slew of superhero movies in the 1950s, then again in the 1980s and today. While they are fantasy, superheroes strike a chord in the heart of boys and girls and men and women everywhere. They do things we can’t do, things we might never do, because it’s too expensive (Bruce Wayne / Batman) or too dangerous (Clark Kent / Superman or any superhero, really), and yet we still want to be like them.
Then there are real superheroes, like Evel Knievel, a motorcycle stuntman whose alter ego is none other than Evel Knievel, that is, he was an ordinary man, just like everyone who knew him. In 1938, he was born in a regular family in a Montana copper-mining town, grew up mining, playing hockey, doing motorcycle stunts as a teen, even served in the Army and had a little of a criminal streak. Though he was born “Robert Craig Knievel,” his brushes with the law earned him the nickname “Evil Knievel,” though he adopted the “Evel” misspelling because he wasn’t really a bad guy.
Though Evel Knievel was “just an ordinary man,” he was absolutely fearless, a great showman, and a proficient salesman. To attract prospective buyers to his motorcycle dealership, for example, he came up with his first motorcycle stunt, jumping over rattlesnakes and cougars to prove his point. As would later prove to be the case, failing to clear the tub of snakes, instead launching it into the crowd, was actually more impressive, his fame (and motorcycle sales) quickly growing. A few months later, he starred in his first daredevil show, which would firmly launch him to fame, fortune, and superhero stature.
“Kids wanted to be like me, men wanted to be me, and the women wanted to be with me.” – Evel Knievel
Failure = Success
Knievel also believed that a man should never go back on his word. Just like Superman fears no bullet, Knievel feared no stunt, or at least he didn’t let fear keep him from flying. One day, he would jump two pickup trucks, but the next would be four. Another day, he would jump thirteen cars, but the next would be twenty. He set his sights on jumping a portion of the Grand Canyon, and it seems that only the FAA stood in his way, so he decided on Snake River Canyon, where he could do as he pleased. He once promised to jump the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace, and then had to con his way onto the premises to fulfill it.
Every jump and every stunt earned him greater fame, and the stories grew, even when he failed to stick the landing. In fact, in spite of making the Guinness Book of World Records for motorcycle jumps (He jumped a Harley-Davidson XR-750 over 19 cars, in 1971), some of his failed stunts were so spectacular that they outshone his successes. After failing to stick the landing at Caesar’s Palace, he was in a coma for a month, but he kept getting back up. Halfway through his career, in 1975, he had suffered 433 bone fractures, earning him an as-yet-unclaimed place in Guinness Book.
“A professional is supposed to know when he has jumped far enough.” – Evel Knievel
If there’s anything that Evel Knievel taught us, it’s that even an “ordinary man” can do extraordinary things, and his legacy lives on. Robbie Knievel went on to follow in his father’s footsteps for a number of years, setting records of his own and replicating many of his father’s stunts. Even outside of family, the legacy of Evel Knievel lives on, men and women pushing the boundaries of the possible, inspiring onlookers to push just a little more, to realize the impossible, even if it sounds crazy.
“You can’t ask a guy like me why [I performed]. I really wanted to fly through the air. I was a daredevil, a performer… Sure, I was scared. You gotta be an ass not to be scared. But I beat the hell out of death.” – Evel Knievel