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Top Reasons Why Evel Knievel Kicks Travis Pastrana’s Ass

After 75 ramp-to-ramp motorcycle jumps, 433 bone fractures and 9 years in his grave, Evel Knievel is still America’s greatest daredevil. If you’re thinking, but what about that “Spiderman” guy that free climbs skyscrapers, or Johnny Knoxville who famously broke his penis during a stunt, or Travis Pastrana with his double backflip on a moto-bike, you wouldn’t be wrong. These feats are incredibly impressive.  But between the performer and the execution, nothing comes close to the spectacle that was 1970s superstar Evel Knievel.

sportsillustrated viagettyimages evel knievel 2 Photo Courtesy of Helo.

Let’s start with the low hanging fruit. And more specifically, the ones inside this magnificent white jumpsuit. Evel’s signature outfit wasn’t exactly original—he never denied the similarities between his groovy get up and Elvis Presley’s go-to look, but Elvis never jumped Caesar Palace’s fountain on a motorcycle. Evel also took the outfit up a notch by adding a cape, stars & stripes and the fry-pan sized “EK” belt buckle. Compared to Knievel, modern day X-Games competitors look like they belong in a chart-topping boy band.  Knievel’s bad boy image included something that seems impossible in motorsports today, a flamboyant wardrobe!  Knievel openly credited Liberace as an inspiration, which is evident in his next category leading skill, showmanship.

helo evel knievel Photo Courtesy of Helo.

When asked how many bones he’s broken, Travis Pastrana notoriously responded, “I don’t remember most of the injuries, there have been too many.” Which is sweet. Which is humble.  Which is exactly the opposite of what Evel would do. Evel not only amped up his injuries (he reportedly spent 29 days in a coma for marketing purposes), but he also made sure that these injuries were well documented… by outlets like the Guinness Book Of World Records.  To this day, he still holds the record for the most broken bones in a lifetime (433 fractures of 35 different bones).

bonhams evel knievel harley davidson motorcycle Photo Courtesy of Bonhams.

Evel’s legacy is also untouchable because of his authentic activism. While modern day boys-with-toys set up foundations and lend their names to highly orchestrated group events, Knievel’s causes were far more personal. Even before becoming famous, the Montana native hitchhiked to Washington, DC to stop the government practice of culling elk in Yellowstone National Park. His fight eventually resulted in the relocation of these animals in lieu of destruction.  After his success, Knievel used his fame to highlight causes close to his heart (& lifestyle), like helmet safety.  In 1987, Knievel testified before the Transportation Committee in support of the California mandatory helmet bill, crediting helmets with his life. However, not all of his activism was without risk.  His outspoken belief that the Hells Angels were “murderers, thieves & drug dealers” led to some trouble.  At a 1971 jump at the Cow Palace near SF, a Hells Angel retaliated by throwing something (Knievel’s clan claims it was a tire iron, the Angels claim it was a Coke can) during the stunt, and as a result, a riot broke out to include the Angels, spectators and Knievel himself. These days, if a famous daredevil was even 20 feet from a fight, his handlers would whisk him away to safety before you could say, “job security.”

evel knievel comic

Photo Courtesy of Ideal Toys.

But the one thing that really sets Knievel apart from his modern counterparts is his widespread popularity. Because of his showmanship, celebrity and activism, his work was not a niche interest.  Modern day daredevils have to actively compete for attention in a busy, hectic world of spectacle and extreme sports.  In the 1970s, a Knievel event wasn’t just for adrenaline junkies or motorcycle enthusiasts, it was a family affair!  His 1975 King’s Island jump, during which he jumped 14 Greyhounds, produced the highest ratings in ABC’s Wide World of Sports history.  As anyone over 40 will tell you, every time Knievel performed a televised stunt, the whole family was glued to their 80 pound, wood trimmed tv with Knievel lunch boxes & toys in hand.  His popularity sprouted namesake pinball machines, posters, t-shirts and lunch boxes; with Knievel action figures being some of the best-selling toys of the early ‘70s.

Was he perfect? Absolutely not. Was he the most talented athlete of all time?  Probably not even close.  But Evel Knievel challenged many Americans, and fans worldwide to be a bigger, better, more badass version of themselves.  A call to action that seems even more relevant today. 

To learn more about this amazing man and his legacy, check out Being Evel (produced by Johnny Knoxville) available on DVD and airing on the History Channel. Paramount Pictures also recently announced an upcoming Knievel bio-pic, which will be written by Oscar- winning screenwriter William Monahan (“The Departed”). Who will play the legend has yet to be decided.  And to the guy who attempts to walk in Evel’s shoes, I wish you luck, pal.

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