Wisconsin, June 1973. Photo Courtesy of Evel Knievel Museum
A brash Butte legend gets a tribute worthy of his legacy.
BY JOSEPH T. O’CONNOR
When a young Robert Knievel was arrested for swiping hubcaps in his hometown of Butte, Montana, police tossed him in a cell beside notorious criminal William Knofel, nickname: “Awful” Knofel.
Knievel changed his name to “Evel,” took to motorcycle stunts and kick-started a phenomenon that took the nation by storm. That’s one story, anyway. There are others. But no matter how you turn the wheel, no one had ever seen anything like Evel Knievel.
Considered the Godfather of Extreme Sports, Knievel was part risk-taker, part master showman, and a deft entrepreneur. He hand-built his illustrious career and a splashy red, white and blue brand on the backs of powerful motorcycles and death- defying acts.
In the 1970s, Knievel became a legend and then a hero for a Vietnam War-torn America. He was pals with boxer Joe Frazier; Muhammad Ali, also a bombastic self-promoter, declared Knievel “the white version” of himself. “Kids wanted to be like me, men wanted to be me and women wanted to be with me,” Knievel once said.
“He borrowed pieces from the most flamboyant people in show business,” said Matt Vincent, the former mayor of Butte who happens to be married to Knievel’s youngest daughter, Alicia. “If you look at the way Evel dressed, you could see pieces of Liberace and Elvis Presley in his getup. At first glance you’re like, ‘This guy comes from a hardscrabble mining town like Butte?’”
Over a 15-year career, Evel Knievel amassed 172 motorcycle jumps over everything from greyhound buses to sharks and poisonous snakes, and crashed 19 spectacular times. The short list includes the infamous 151-foot disaster over the fountains at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, and a failed attempt to jump over a quarter-mile-wide section of Idaho’s Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket called Skycycle X-2.
Knievel holds the Guinness World Record for suffering the most broken bones in a lifetime: 433. Some don’t buy that number but in the world of legends, legendary tales pervade. Now, thanks to a new museum in America’s heartland, Evel fans can count the broken bones themselves.
“Knievel was raised on the rough-and-tumble streets of Butte and lived by maxims akin to the code of the west: believe in yourself; live by your word; get back on the horse.”
The Evel Knievel Museum launched onto the Topeka, Kansas, landscape last summer and, among its hundreds of relics, displays more than 40 X-rays of the bones broken by the greatest daredevil in American history. Since its grand opening June 30, museum co-owner Mike Patterson says he’s astounded by the sheer volume of travelers hopping off nearby Interstate 70 to glimpse the Evel display.
“In the first four months, we had [people from] all 50 states,” said Patterson, who is also the third- generation owner of the Harley-Davidson shop that was expanded to include the museum. “Almost 60 percent of our visitors are from out of state. And it’s not just people passing through, it’s people making it their destination.”
The concept for a Knievel museum took root in 2013 when Lathan McKay, a former pro skateboarder turned Evel historian asked Patterson to help him renovate Big Red, the 1974 Mack truck and trailer Knievel used to tow equipment between venues. McKay, who began collecting Evel artifacts en masse in 2012 when he met Knievel expert Scott Wiley, acquired the truck after two years of haggling with the former owner.
Patterson and his team had recently restored Jerry Lee Lewis’s vintage Harley-Davidson, and bore a reputation beyond polished results. With initial funding from McKay’s business partner Marilyn Stemp, the crew spent the next two years restoring the truck to its original, immaculate form, but a greater objective soon became clear. “We both kind of knew that the goal was always to have a permanent museum somewhere,” McKay said.
The 13,000-square-foot homage to all things Evel now contains the world’s most extensive collection of Knievel memorabilia, including original motorcycles, leathers, road-rashed helmets, and a virtual reality stunt jump. It even holds one of the two famed Skycycle X-2s, thanks to a third partner, Jim Caplinger, who bought the rocket in Canada and helped the project through the finish line.
While Knievel’s bone-breaking motorcycle jumps draw visitors through the museum’s doors, the partners see more to the exhibit. “I hope people from Montana feel like it’s well represented,” Patterson said. “It’s a tribute to the people from Butte and Montana.”
November 30, 2017, was the 10-year anniversary of Evel Knievel’s death of natural causes at 69. In July 2007, four months before his passing, he appeared on stage with his son, Robbie, during Butte’s Evel Knievel Days, a three-day annual festival that draws daredevils, motorcycle hounds and revelers by the tens of thousands.
In a final interview in 2007, a visibly ill Knievel broadcast the event as “the greatest, wildest motorcycle celebration in the world.” In true fashion, he radiated showmanship to his last breath.
But behind the bravado and beyond the star-spangled jumpsuit was a man who believed he could do anything. And even when he failed, he climbed back on his bike and tried again. Knievel was raised on the rough-and-tumble streets of Butte and lived by maxims akin to the Code of the West: Believe in yourself; live by your word; get back on the horse.
“It’s just crazy how the guy bounced back,” Patterson said. “It’s why he was such an inspiration to so many people. He never backed down, and if he said he was going to do something, he did it. That spirit was needed at that time.”
In the early ‘70s, America was in the throes of the Vietnam War, and the Watergate scandal was in full swing. In fact, Knievel’s daring attempt at jumping the Snake River Canyon on September 8, 1974, lost Page One headlines to President Ford pardoning Richard Nixon. The world needed a hero, and a brash Montanan draped in the colors of Old Glory filled that niche.
In these uncertain times, McKay says the nation once more seeks a champion like Evel Knievel. “I think America needs it again,” he said. “They need the message that you can achieve anything in life. They need the red, white and blue, the motivation. And we need a hero.”
Joseph T. O’Connor is the editor-at-large of Mountain Outlaw magazine.