There is an old saying in Hollywood that directing is 80 percent casting. Some say 90. This truism has been attributed to John Huston, Elia Kazan, Martin Ritt, and Robert Altman among others. The same thinking also applies to non-fiction feature writing. Often, the key to a story’s success lies in matching writer and subject. Think of Mark Jacobson’s story on Jackie Mason, Gay Talese’s portrait of Floyd Patterson, or Richard Ben Cramer’s take on Ted Williams.
I couldn’t help but this of this when I recently re-read “Touch of Knievel,” Allison Glock’s fine 2000 GQ profile of Robbie Knievel (selected to The Best American Sports Writing). Glock seems comfortable in Knievel’s world of hard-drinking, faith-testing daredevilry. She understands the scene—the people who attend Knievel’s spectacles, the men who protect him, and the woman who chase him.
When Glock describes the sensation of riding on the back of a speeding motorcycle with a man like Knievel, pelvis pressed “hard against his back while he slammed the throttle” you understand that she knows what’s she’s talking about. “When you ride at 100 miles per hour uncovered, air smacking your cheeks like a wet belt, sound amplifies. You feel your connective tissue vibrate. You think about nothing. You forget to swallow. Then it stops. And the world never seems more still.”
Reprinted with the author’s permission, please enjoy this evocative portrait of the badass Knievel family business. It’s a keeper.—Alex Belth
Even though Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan, borders majestic Lake Superior, the Kewadin Casino and Hotel slumps pitiably just off Shunk Road on an arid lot boxed by an RV park, a rehab center, a Head Start facility and a convenience store. Inside the hotel, the lobby flooring has been scuffed by the wheels of portable oxygen tanks, which are being pulled behind every other patron like luggage. The rooms are sparsely furnished, and there is no cable. There is only the casino, heavy on slots, the buffet restaurant and the bar, where Kaptain Robbie Knievel is slouched, drinking a Jack and Diet Coke.
He will knock back several before it’s all done. He’s pissed, see, because although he is in Michigan in July to attempt to set a world record by soaring his motorcycle more than 235 feet in the air over a bevy of semis, the tribal council that runs the Kewadin Casino isn’t paying him his jump fee. It has advertised the event. The life-size cardboard cutout of Robbie in his red-white-and-blue leather jumpsuit is propped in the lobby, in front of the platform showcasing his extra red-white-and-blue motorcycles, but the council won’t come off the coin. And Robbie doesn’t suit up without the money in his pocket.
“Jumping is my meaning in life,” he says, lighting a cigarette. “It’s natural. It’s what I love to do most. But,” he pauses, exhales, “I won’t do it without the cash.”
He signals the waitress for another round. “You get older and the jumps become more about the mental than the physical. I’m 36. I’ve been jumping motorcycles for 29 years, so mentally I can overcome what I need to,” he snorts laughs. “But this sucks. Nobody knows what it’s like to do what I do, to be in my shoes.”
He used to perform at tractor pulls when he started, triple-billed behind jacked-up monster trucks roaring in slop and rednecks butting bumpers in the demolition derby. He would be hopped-up or hungover—these were the crazy time, before he cleaned up his act and narrowed in on one path of potential self-destruction.
Now Robbie gets his thrills from wheels alone. He’s not a lunatic anymore. He wants to settle down with a nice girl, follow God’s word and maybe sail over the Snake River Canyon just once. As daredevils go, he’s very mature.
“I’m not afraid of death. I want to live forever. And I believe I will. Really, my only competitor is death,” he growls playfully, “and I’m gonna nail his ass!”
To understand the son, you must first know the father. It has always been thus, and is especially so when the father is Evel Knievel, the P.T. Barnum of daredevilry, a man who single-handedly created an industry by charging folks to come watch him play Russian roulette. Evel earned millions hurling himself over trucks and canyons and livestock, sniggering and waving his ass at the bulging eyes of death.
“My father was real good at being an American hero,” says Robbie. And for a time Evel was the biggest, becoming more recognizable than the president, his dolls outselling GI Joe, his squinchy face adorning everything from toothbrushes to pinball machines. George Hamilton played him in a 1971 feature film while in real life he made himself an idol via outrageous behavior, either as a human shuttlecock or as the nation’s no-horseshit bad boy. He once served six months for clubbing a former publicist with a baseball bat. Three years earlier, he had made the cover of Rolling Stone.
Evel hit his apex in 1974, when he tried to ride his Skycycle X-2 over the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, a flight that was ingloriously aborted when his parachute opened prematurely. It was one of the highest-rated shows ever on ABC’s Wide World of Sports. By 1975 there wasn’t a child jumping curbs in any cul-de-sac in the U.S.A. who didn’t pretend he was Evel Knievel.
“When I was growing up in Butte, Montana, I never knew how famous he was,” says Robbie. “I didn’t realize until I was 11, and then all of a sudden the trailer house turned into three yachts, Lear jets, a vacation home in Florida on the water. We were partying with movie stars and athletes. We were on the road every month.”
When Robbie was born, Evel was in jail in Twin Falls, Idaho, for speeding. When Robbie started jumping, Evel imploded. “My dad said I was a better rider than him when I was 15, but he never wanted to move over. He still doesn’t want to move over. I left home because he wouldn’t let me jump more than ten vans.”
So at 16 Robbie rented a $60-a-month hole and spent his day working on motorcycles and his jumps. He already had his own doll—Robbie Knievel: Teen-age Stuntman—but that was a gift of heritage, and when Robbie left the umbrella of Evel, he had to start over, to build his own fame train. The athletes and the movie-star friends disappeared, along with the boats and the jets, till all that remained was the jumps.
“My dad trained me. It’s easy when you make a kid drink Wild Turkey and beat him with a cane.” Robbie laughs. “The first time he ever taught me to ride a motorcycle, he tied a rope around me and put me in a ditch on a minibike. He used the rope because if you get paranoid, you grab a handful of the throttle. So with the rope he could yank me off.” Robbie runs his palm over his hair. See, my dad loved us—me, my older brother, Kelly, my younger Sister Tracey and the youngest, Alicia. He was proud of his sons. Then I started jumping, and he got a little pissed off.”
Robbie look like his father. He has the same improbably petite nose, same attenuated upper lip. But he is softer, handsomer. His skin is flushed, pink, babylike. His gray-brown hair curls above his T-shirt collar in the back and is vigorously brushed off his forehead in the front. His chest balloons. His jeans strain. Chicks peck after him, like they did his father. Some swoon.
Now 60, Evel is broken up and craggy, his bones melded stiffer and sharper than Hollywood. His last jump was with Robbie in 1980 in Hollywood, Florida. Now Evel lives with his 27-year-old girlfriend in Clearwater, Florida, where he’s recovering from a recent liver transplant.
I love my dad,” Robbie says wearily. “I spent many years hating him because he was jealous of me in a way. But he loved us. He’s my dad.”
But know this, too. Know this most of all. Though Robbie is, like his father before him, a one-man sideshow, earning his wage jumping trucks for bucks, Kaptain Robert Edward Knievel is named after his grandfather. “I’m a second,” he stresses. “Which is good, because I never wanted to be a junior anyway.”
The thing about daredevils is they are never alone. They have groupies—men and women who find their way to every jump, men and women who want to get a taste of a man who is not sleepwalking through life, hands extended into the black to break his fall. Daredevils also bring their team, the crew that constructs the ramps, lubes the bike and relives the past with vigor. They eat together, drink together, carouse; it’s a never-ending stag party where the men adore the groom with a ferocious intensity usually reserved for lovers.
For Kaptain Knievel, the posse includes Joe Little, the ramp builder, a man who looks like a Native American Sonny Bono and who wears an unflagging grin and 79-cent sunglasses. There’s J.D., the pyro guy, and his corps of fire starters, who routinely blow up enough heat to shake a stadium. And Fred Bezark, the Knievels’ attorney, who, with his shock of white hair and thick build, projects the solemn vibe of a man who eats shit storms for breakfast. Also in regular attendance are the Fox TV crew and producers, who discovered last Fourth of July that “the name Knievel still kills in the demos” and who are therefore on hand to record every jump—and perhaps its bloody aftermath.
And then there is Bill Rundle, the linchpin of Team Knievel since 1975. “I met Robbie when he was a kid. He used to come out to the racetrack in Butte and watch,” explains Bill, who was himself a jumper. “We’ve been together ever since.”
Though short, Bill cuts an imposing silhouette. His arms hang six inches from his sides at all times, as if he’s waiting to draw a pistol and speed a level adios to whatever irritant is buzzing in his atmosphere. On his left hand, he wears a gold-and-diamond ring the size of a palmetto bug. It’s a motorcycle studded with stones, a gift from Evel. On his right hand, he sports a smaller ring, gold too, a gift from Robbie. They weigh heavily on his fingers.
“I put them on for jumps,” he explains. Bill was Evel’s chief mechanic. Now he’s Robbie’s. He tunes the bike by listening to it, straining to detect disaster in the cackle of the engine.
“I hear every little thing. I hear all kinds of stuff other people don’t. I’m always listening to it You always have two thoughts,” he explains: “I hope I didn’t leave anything out and Imagine if the bike seized. I don’t want to see him miss the landing. So I go over the ramp. Jump up and down on it, check for nails. This is for real. This guy’s pulling the trigger. He’s risking his life. People don’t understand that this may be the last thing he ever does.”
Bill understands all too well. He’s seen jumps come unhinged and riders end up in wheelchairs for life, watched as friends have been thrown to tomorrow, heads severed, limbs collapsed like telescopes. He’s watched Robbie skitter like a Frisbee over yards of pavement, seen him bleed plenty, seen the angel of death nodding toward the exit sign and waved him off.
“I come to make things go smooth,” he says modestly. “Robbie and me, we’re like brothers. I know him better than anybody. He relies on that. The older we get, the harder it is to do this. Take a look at the ramps. Four feet wide. Ten feet high. Imagine hitting it at 95 mph. It scares the hell out of you.”
The waiter at Abner’s Restaurant won’t be coming to the Kewadin Kaptain Knievel jump: “With Evel he’d jump and crash, like that time at the Grand Canyon or whatever it was. He broke every bone in his body. With Robbie you get to see him break another record. Who cares? It’d be more exciting if he crashed. That’s what people want to see.”
Once, years ago, after a smashup, Evel and a young Robbie were in the ambulance together, Evel with IVs jammed in his veins, clothes cut open, skin bubbling up, blood underneath.
“Look at me, son,” he said. “Look at me good. Never do this. Never do this.”
Robbie said nothing.
“I was deaf as a child.”
Here’s how it works. The members of Team Knievel descend on a jump site about ten days before takeoff. They suss out the landscape, erect the needed ramps, park their trucks, wire the pyro, frequent the bars. They spend their days in the parking lots and on the fairgrounds where the jumps usually happen. They spend their evenings living hard, like it’s the last chance they’ll have to be together, which it could be. There is a constant awareness of the end. To hell with the rapture, they say, we got ourselves a doomsday every month
“You know, nobody really knows what doing this is like,” Robbie says. “And the drinking, the smoking—it kind of goes along with the package. The eighties were kind of wild. I don’t do drugs anymore. But I indulged. I tried things.” Now Robbie has replaced the candy with Christ. He has, as friends attest, given himself over to the Lord.
“Now I’m a believer,” he chortles, coughs. “Do I have a choice?”
Robbie leaps sober, shaking at the extremities, a man of Jesus adhering to the word. And when you watch him launch into the blue, chin tucked, wheels spinning, in the hush of your held breath, in the intermission of your heartbeat, you pray, too. And you feel as keenly as you ever have that God is in the details.
When he can, Robbie gives interviews, does radio and local news chats about positive risk taking and how he’s only “doing what he does best. Isn’t that what everybody wants?” How “no harm can ever come from telling the truth.” How on the takeoff site he says, “Hey, God, watch this!”
Eventually, the fans show up. Families, couples, teens with hard-ons for speed. He has regulars: the Beauchamp brothers who travel to every jump, tape it with their camcorders and later send the videocassettes to Robbie, even though he’s told them, nicely, “I never want to see myself jump again. I can still picture every one of them in my head—know what I mean?” Then there are Terry and Karen, thirty-somethings from Ohio who drive to as many events as they can: Green Bay, Wisconsin; Vegas; the Iowa state fairgrounds. When they arrive at the jump site, they hang around waiting to help. Sometimes Joe lets them paint and sand the ramp.
Robbie embraces them all. Even those he doesn’t know too well. Even those who don’t volunteer to paint the ramp. What other celebrities consider stalking, Robbie labels loyalty. And when the same faces bob enough outside his trailer window, he doesn’t escort them away; he hands them VIP passes.
Today the bobber is wearing cutoffs, strappy sandals and a crop top. She checks her hair in one of the motorcycle mirrors. She strokes the fuel tank with a French manicured finger.
“You like it?” Robbie asks. He jumps from his trailer wearing his trademark jean shorts, white Reeboks and T-shirt.
“Like it?” she gasps. “I looovvve it.” She stands back, hands on her hips, belly sucked in. Her long earrings rattle in the breeze like wind chimes.
“Maybe later I’ll take you for a ride,” Robbie says as he towels down the bike.
“Greaaaattt,” she answers, flipping her long auburn hair. She turns to go, then spots a slew of other female fans waiting outside the security fence, many with ball caps in hand to be signed, many with crunchy blonde hair and similarly strappy sandals. She decides to wait, encamping near the Team Knievel truck. Bill rolls his eyes.
Not that you can blame her. How many people get to say they rode with a Knievel? Got to press their pelvises hard against his back while he slammed the throttle until time bent at the corners? Because when you ride at 100 miles per hour uncovered, air smacking your cheeks like a wet belt, sound amplifies. You feel your connective tissue vibrate. You think about nothing. You forget to swallow. Then it stops. And the world never seems more still.
“Once Robbie took this reporter for a ride and she peed her pants,” says Bill. “She had to do the whole interview with her legs pressed shut.”
Robbie is back in the Kewadin Casino bar, hunched over his ashtray, draining cocktails as if they were Kool-Aid. There is only one day to go, and Kewadin management is still hemming over the delivery of the cash. There’s some snafu. Some fiscal misunderstanding. Promises are made almost hourly, then broken. Robbie is growing perturbed.
“I can’t believe it,” he mutters, all hangdog confusion. “How am I supposed to psych myself up?” He shakes his head, smiles. “I’m gonna go call my lawyer. I’m gonna go do something.” And he exits tramping out the door.
How does a daredevil walk? Like he doesn’t give a damn. Like his balls are unhappy being stuffed into a tight denim pouch. Like if he doesn’t get where he’s going, it doesn’t much matter, because he’s been there a thousand times before—when he’s airborne, you know, taking wing and the petty ticker tape of his life is unwinding fast and he knows this could be it, game over, and then he hits the landing ramp and his whole body compresses like a wrung sponge, including his vertebrae, including his intestines, including his brain—and so who really gives a rat’s about how he travels on foot, least of all him, because, Holy Mother of God, when he wants to, he can fly.
Robbie eats and drinks the same way he walks. He even smokes without affectation. The only time his vocation becomes evident is when he drives, which he does as if he’s wearing a bridle, speeding in spits, gunning the engine to 95 miles per hour, then releasing the pedal. Heel to the floor, then nothing. It is not relaxing.
His verbal cadence mirrors the driving style. He will shout a Journey lyric, hoot and holler, then he will mumble under his breath, out of the side of his mouth. It’s because of the song he hears in his head. His own never-ending sound track. The effervescent grumble of motorcycles, the squeals of children, the screams of fans, the explosions, the screech of melted tires, the simultaneous gasp of 20,000 people, the galvanizing symphony of life at the edge of the world.
He can’t turn it off. No matter how many voices he surrounds himself with, it’s always there, the hum of possibility, the law of averages, the improbability of surviving a career as a human missile, of retiring as a walking, talking member of society, as a man without a wheelchair. It whirs just beneath his skin, waiting to puncture through and speed him, surge, purge straight to the gates. It is not relaxing.
“I once spent 45 days at at juvenile detention center for robbing a music store,” says Robbie, under his breath. “They did Rorschach tests, all kinds of therapy. They found me to be completely normal.” He laughs— the very idea. And then, articulating only the backfire of a truncated rant he doesn’t share, he says, “Extreme sports, my ass.”
Freighters Restaurant looks out over the St. Mary’s River. Robbie likes to go there when he’s in town for jumps. “It’s nice,” he explains, “for Sault Sainte Marie.” The menu features prime rib, and although Robbie swears he’s on a diet of Jack and Slim Fast, prime rib is what he orders, with a gravy boat of horseradish.
Like his father, Robbie is a clown. He tries hard. Like when the waitress comes and he asks her to sip his cocktail to make sure it’s diet. She doesn’t understand, so he tries again, with three more corny gags, one about O.J., but nothing.
“No one gets me,” he says. “Doesn’t matter where I am.”
“Maybe you’re just not funny,” quips Bill.
“Like you’d know, fuckin’ used-car salesman on Rogaine.”
“One day back in Butte, I painted ‘Evel Junior’ on Robbie’s old ’66 Chevy,” he says. “He got so mad, he painted it black. Then he tried to run it off a cliff.”
Robbie changes the subject. “I had a girlfriend for seven years, but it recently ended. I’m accumulating friends now, and they’re nice girls, but I’m picky. Relationships aren’t like they used to be. It’s not the Leave It to Beaver days anymore. The Devil’s taken his stand with the world.” He sips his drink. “When it comes to girls, I don’t want nothing to do with you, I don’t care how cute you are, I don’t want to go to bed with you unless I want to wake up with you.”
He pauses, mugs.
“Unless I’m real drunk.”
He and Bill laugh. Bill’s disintegrating into an improbable giggle.
“Seriously, I’ve always wanted a nice girl because I had a wonderful mother. She prays for me a lot. I help her with that. I say, ‘Mom, there’s meaning for me. When I die, I’m gonna go to Heaven. I’m gonna have a new body. I’m gonna live forever. So why do you get so upset? God’s got a plan for all of us. You know the word.’ You know, she’s never been with another guy her whole life besides my dad.”
Robbie stops, lights a cigarette.
“The whole family was hurt when my dad left ten years ago. It took me eight years just to forgive him. But now I feel sorry for my dad. I feel sorry for him because he’s dying.”
After dinner, as he is leaving the restaurant, Robbie starts singing. It’s a silly song, but he sings it straight, riding the notes high and low.
You hear his name in every town.Is he for real or just a clown?Does he have wings, how does he fly?Is he a man like you and I?Everybody calls him Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel.
He starts laughing. “That’s an old song came out in the seventies. I used to sing it in my bedroom as a kid.” Bill nods.
“I’d never want my dad’s life,” Robbie says as he steps outside. “I know, because I lived it with him already.”
The Kewadin prejump trailer is sparse. No cheese tray, no fridge full of bottled water. Robbie’s leather suit is hanging off a cabinet knob. On the counter sits his opening speech, a scrawl on a torn square of cardboard. Robbie sits stiffly on a folding chair, smoking. J. D. is there, listening sympathetically as Robbie spits out a loose monologue about the folly of trust in the daredevil business.
“This sucks. It’s got me all ticked off, but I’m trying to stay mellow. They still haven’t paid me. They think I’m gonna go anyway, just because there are a few thousand people out there. But they’re wrong. I did some practice runs. I didn’t disappoint the kids.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” says J.D.
“I can’t wait to get this over with. They’ve screwed me for a year. I’m doing these guys a favor, that’s what I’m doing.”
“Yeah, that’s true,” says J.D.
“My dad taught me, and I learned. You get your money up front. These guys will screw you. They’re morons. God love ’em.”
“Yeah,” says J.D.
“I want to feel good tomorrow. I want to feel good every damn day. I want to wake up without a hangover.”
“I hear that.”
There’s a knock at the door. In comes a posse of Native American businessmen, led by the moron promoter. In his hand is a manila envelope stuffed thick. He nods at Robbie, tilts his head.
“We need to do this alone.” The trailer empties.
Outside Bill is tuning the bike, tightening and retightening, smelling the exhaust, patting the pipes, checking the heat. “Todd Seeley died Saturday. He was jumping a four-wheeler 150 feet. He’d jumped the same in San Antonio without a hitch. About five years ago, Randy Hill was decapitated performing a midair car crash. That’s how fast everything can change.”
Five minutes pass. Then Robbie emerges, grinning, and lets out a whoop. The show will go on. He will fly.
Later J.D. shares a story about Vegas. Seems the day before Robbie’s history-making Caesars Palace fountain leap in 1989, he did seven practice jumps over thirty limos. Evel was there, watching from his wheelchair. Each time Robbie jumped, Evel would flinch. “Evel wanted him to stop. He kept yelling, ‘Stop! Stop!’ but Robbie wouldn’t. Then Evel got up from his chair, took his walker and confronted Robbie, told him, ‘Enough.’ But Robbie begged, ‘One more time,’ and Evel said OK.”
That last time, Robbie sailed over no-handed. He made it to the safety ramp, but only by a foot.
“Look, Dad, no hands.”
That night Robbie cleared the 150-foot jump over the Caesars Palace fountains that had left his father in a coma for 29 days.
Bill’s face is stiff. With thirty minutes to go, his fingers twitch and his eyes dart from the ramp to the safety fencing to the gas tank to the flags flapping in the breeze.
“Wind isn’t good,” he mutters, squinting to read the weather. “Sometimes Robbie comes up before a jump and says, ‘I don’t want to fly this thing,’ meaning he doesn’t want to go too high. He knocked the wind out of himself one time in Butte. By the time we got to him, someone had already stolen his RK belt buckle off him.”
In the corner, Fox gets the prejump interview.
“What’s the biggest obstacle here? How do you do it? What are you thinking when you take off? What makes you do this?”
Robbie answers patiently, but his eyes struggle to keep from rolling, as if to say, “There are no answers. Clearly, I’m insane.”
“When do you know if something has gone wrong?”
“I know I’m going to crash when I leave the takeoff ramp. And when you know you’re going down at 95 miles per hour, you don’t relax. You turn into a brick. I visualize flying through the air before I take off. The landing ramp looks like a Popsicle stick. You go down, you hit the semis, you’re done.”
By now the crowd is five deep. One look and it is clear the Knievels are still products, action figures packaged in red-white-and-blue cellophane. They transcend class much like they defy gravity. The hip embrace them as kitsch, the intelligentsia as an example of the id unbound; the rest see them as heroes, or at least fine entertainment, especially if they crash. All are here today, most decked out in Knievel-theme apparel.
“I never eat before a jump,” Robbie tells Fox, “in case they have to cut me open.”
And now it is time. Robbie ducks into his trailer to yank on his leathers. He coats his body with baby powder and tugs—one leg at a time, then the arms. He needs help zipping the front. His hands are flapping like wings.
Once he’s dressed, the ritual is the same. Sirens squeal. The emcee thanks the sponsors. The national anthem is sung. Kaptain Knievel is introduced, and Robbie breaks from his trailer and walks to the landing ramp to make a speech, what may be his last words. He keeps it short.
“I wasn’t planning on jumping tonight,” he says, helmet tucked under his armpit. “But I’m going for it.”
Then he warms up by making speed passes at the ramp and popping 90-degree wheelies. Then, when his belly says so, he sucks a last breath and vaults into the clouds like a shot put.
He sticks the landing. The crowd erupts, a frenzy of release. Robbie flew, but he blew the record, missed it by more than 20 feet. Nobody seems to notice, least of all the fans, who swarm around him like gnats, fingertips aching for one touch.
The jump later that July at the Oneida Bingo and Casino in Green Bay is different. It has been heavily promoted. Safety bales have been stacked. Trees have been padded. Television crews have been alerted. Robbie has been paid up front. (Pals estimate he will clear a million this year, but when you’re paid in cash, details are sketchy.) He has had time to prepare, to think about the implications of his commitment.
Camp Knievel has been set up for days, and Robbie, hoping to break his own no-handed record, is wired. He whizzes around on his scooter. His hatred of the waiting time, the lull between life and life at 100 miles per hour, jets off him like heat. The song in his head is loud today. It is screaming. So he takes fans for rides. Poses for snapshots. Paces. Monkeys around with his fetching blonde daughters, Karmen, 19, by an early girlfriend, and Krysten, 12, by his ex-wife. They’ve been coming to a few jumps this year, donning red-white-and-blue sequined vests to watch their father cheat death.
“Karmen looks like Kim Basinger,” says Robbie proudly. “I just met her for the first time last year. It was one of those things where I needed to step out of the picture so her mom could do what she needed to do.” Though she’s known her dad for only a short time, Karmen is now using his last name. She has ideas. Like maybe one day she’ll be the one in the white jumpsuit.
“My dad says no way,” she says, grinning. “But he can’t stop me forever.”
At the site, a fan has trucked out a replica of an old bike of Evel’s. Robbie takes it out, pops some wheelies, listens to the rumble of history as he zooms around the parking lot.
As Robbie thunders by on one pass, Bill looks up from the tuning area. His forehead wrinkles reflexively, but it is too late. Robbie has already decided. He is headed up the ski ramp on the bike.
The ski ramp is the imperfect answer to a shortage of pavement. Because there is not enough distance in the Oneida parking lot to pick up the travel speed required to sail over 17 semis, the ramp men have erected a gravity-enhancing starter platform about three stories high, with a narrow plank of wood unrolling from the top like a tongue. The ski start rests on scaffolding and is accessible only via speeding motorcycle or cherry picker. The plank has been painted Knievel blue.
The bike doesn’t freeze until a couple of feet from the top. The engine is hung too low, and when it meets the sharp angle of the plank, it flat-out quits, leaving Robbie balancing at the ramp’s peak, with no means of gracefully sliding off.
It takes less than a minute for his posse to scale the scaffolding. Bill gets there first. He always does. He was there first in Hawaii, where the rain kept everything slick as liver and Robbie hit the ramp wrong, sailed too high, too soon and plummeted through the safety deck like a falling piano, breaking the swing arm off the bike and grating his leathers to his flesh. Bill was there the next day, when a hobbled but intact Robbie jumped again and set a world record—150 feet no-handed.
When Bill and the gang get to Robbie, he is hanging on by one hand from a support pole. Inches up or down and he would not have been able to reach the pole. Inches in either direction and Robbie and the bike would have been pitched to the ground like an anvil.
“Well, the show was almost canceled,” says Robbie, laughing, as Bill helps him eke his bike down the ramp. Bill shakes his head, spits.
It is twenty minutes before jump time.
“Want to know the definition of far?” asks Fred Bezark, the Knievels’ attorney. “The distance between the takeoff ramp and the landing ramp, and it doesn’t matter how much space is in between.” He shudders.
“I suffer every time they jump. You can’t watch this without having your heart in your mouth. You’re watching someone become a living bullet.”
Fred was introduced to Robbie back in Butte, in the seventies, while he was busy keeping Evel out of jail. The afternoon they met, Robbie was popping wheelies.
“Here was this little kid who says, ‘Hey, Fred, you want a motorcycle ride?’ and I say, ‘I guess so,’ and I jump on the back of the motorcycle and he drives me straight up the mountain. And at that time people wore those shoes with the high platforms and the heels, and I burned off one heel completely from the heat of the friction.”
Fred has other memories, too, darker ones about a father and son who collided like rams, bashing heads until one or the other was quivering unconscious.
“Time was, my hardest job was to get them onto the same page. I talk to Evel and Robbie probably thirty times a week. Evel has a much tougher personality. Robbie loves his father dearly. He’s always professed his love for his father. And eventually Evel came to understand Robbie loved him.”
With three minutes till takeoff, the emcee won’t shut up. He is wearing a ballooning gray Chess King suit, circa 1984, and his thick fingers grip the microphone like it’s a life preserver as he rambles on in a contrived baritone about the legend of Evel Knievel.
“It all started with the world’s greatest daredevil, Evel Knievel,” he bellows like Ted Knight as he paces atop the landing ramp. “And now the tradition continues with his son, Kaptain Robbie Knievel, here at the Green Bay, Wisconsin, Oneida Bingo and Casino, attempting to break the world-record no-handed jump over—now, listen—over 17 semis. He will attempt to go more than 185 feet before your very eyes.”
As he blathers, Robbie paces in his trailer a short walk from the jump site. Outside, his crew members cradle their walkie-talkies, awaiting direction. The emcee is dragging on—Knievel this, Knievel that—and Robbie, already anxious, already primed to the jolting point, crackles over the speaker: “Tell that guy to get the hell off my ramp.”
The crew laughs, and without another word the emcee is unplugged. Van Halen starts blaring from the loudspeakers, fireworks explode, and Kaptain Robbie Knievel emerges from behind the smoke like a leather-clad hallucination, walking tall, one arm raised to God.
“Hey, Robbie,” a reporter shouts from the crowd. “Do you prepare differently for a no-hands jump?”
“Nah,” Robbie replies above the squealing din of 30,000 fans. “I put the one bullet in the gun as usual.”
Onstage Robbie preps the audience.
“Ever since I was eight, I’ve been looking down these ramps. I’ve set over a dozen records, conquered the fountains at Caesars. I had the best teacher in the world, a man who created his own sport. My father, a huge legend, Mr. Evel Knievel!”
The crowd detonates. So do the fireworks.
“I’ve been in major meetings with the city of Twin Falls, and hopefully someday I’ll stuff my ass into that contraption called a Skycycle and blast my ass zero to 450 miles per hour over the Snake River Canyon to keep the name Knievel the most famous on two wheels. I hope to see you after the jump.”
And with that he mounts his motorcycle and begins his speed runs. As he thunders by—once, twice, three times—popping wheelies, standing on his seat, zooming like lightning between the ramp and the fence, the fans tighten up. They cheer, but in hushed tones. They squeeze one another’s hands. They think about life. They hear, for a moment, the song Robbie hears every day of his full-throttle life.
And then he does it. He hits the ramp at rocket speed and lets go. He soars like an angel. He points skyward. And the world is silent. He lands. He folds over the bike like a monkey. His bones crush together like cymbals. And the unbridled joy of collective relief explodes like confetti above the crowd. He is alive. And for a little while, so is everyone who watched him.
He has broken the record. Shattered it by 34 feet in front of God and everybody. He is celebrating in the nearby Radisson hotel bar, pounding back booze to calm his heart. His posse is there, plus a few extras—fans, groupies, witnesses who want to share air with the man they watched fly a motorcycle, hands to Heaven, steering by will alone.
There’s a lot of hugging and “ah, man”-ing and meaningful nodding. The mood is thick with victory. There is love in the Radisson bar. And it is this love that propels Robbie to the microphone around 1:30 A.M., moving with his phantom gait to the stage, where no one notices him until he signals for the music to cease. He clears his throat, then smiles.
You hear his name in every town.Is he for real or just a clown?Does he have wings, how does he fly?Is he a man like you and I?Everybody calls him Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel.
Bill’s jaw drops. “I can’t believe he’s doing this,” he says, laughing.
They call him Evel, Evel, Evel Knievel.