Evel Knievel – The Snake River Disaster
Count me as one of those 70s kids who grew up worshiping Evel Knievel. The hard-drinking, wheeling and dealing outlaw motorcycle stuntman from the wild lands of Butte Montana was America’s premier extreme sportsman long before the term “Extreme Sports” was ever uttered.
By today’s standards, Knievel’s old Harley XR 750 bikes on which he performed are laughable. Under powered and way overweight with no suspension travel, his bikes handled like the Mack Trucks he would jump over.
His jumps in the 1970s were like a run away locomotive in terms of the momentum behind the movement. With each jump, Evel Knievel’s brand grew so rapidly, he soon became the biggest television draw in the world. His 1975 jump of 14 Greyhound buses at King’s Island amusement park in Ohio remains Wide World of Sports’ highest rated program with a 22.3 rating and a 52 percent share. Not even NFL games of that era drew numbers near that. Of his seven appearances on WWOS, five still rank among the top 20-rated shows in Wide World history, earning a rating of 18.0 or better.
What should have been the pinnacle of Evel Knievel’s career turned into a dark day in stunt history. The events that took place September 8th, 1974 on the banks of the Snake River were chaotic to say the least. As chronicled in Car and Driver Magazine’s long form story on the events that took place, former Editor in Chief William Jeanes tells the bizarre story of thousands of hippie biker vagrants descending on the sleepy, conservative Twin Falls, Idaho – the site of Evel’s infamous jump.
You really owe it to yourself to read Jeanes brilliant story from the event site.
During the lead up to the big jump, there were shotgun toting hillbillies acting as “security,” crazy bikers, rapes, a constantly pissed-off Kneivel and more mele than you can imagine. The local Jaycees saw the event as the perfect time to sell beer for a fundraiser. That sounded great but the outlaw bikers got tipped off on the supply and broke into the container and stole all the suds.
Making matters worse, the event was coordinated by Top Rank Boxing! Bob Arum, Shelly Saltman, hell even a young Vince McMahon was an investor. They saw the event as pure gold and turned it into one of America’s early Pay Per View spectacles, offering live, closed-circuit TV coverage piped into stadiums and movie theaters across America. I know for a fact this is true as my dad took my sister and I to watch the spectacle at the Oakland Coliseum. It was a packed house.
After nearly a week of craziness in Twin Falls, the jump went down. It was doomed from the start. As the world watched, the countdown to launch commenced, Kneivel strapped into a “Sky Cycle” which was perched perilously on the cliff’s edge affixed to a massive ramp. The patriotic cycle was peroxide powered much like the rocket car dragsters of the day. You know what happens next.
Knievel hit the throttle, the sky cycle launched skyward. But! The massive cargo parachute fell out of the cycle’s ass end before it even left the end of the awe-inspiring launch ramp. Evel shot skyward for about 500 yards, did a pirouette, and came back towards the canyon headed straight to the bottom of the Colorado River. He made it out alive but the entire event, from pre-promotion, the circus in Twin Falls, to the utter failure of the closed circuit broadcast left everyone upset and deflated. It signified the beginning of Knievel’s end.
Post script: In 2016, long after Knievel’s 2007 death from liver failure, stuntman and Knievel fan Eddie Braun built a duplicate Sky Cycle (with the same engineers who built the original) and successfully completed the jump Knievel was never able to that fateful fall day in 1974. That footage is below.
I will always remember Evel Knievel as an American hero and to this day, reading about him and watching his videos on YouTube still gives a thrill and a sense of nostalgia. Behind that patriotic leather suit was a lot of chaos, lawsuits and drama but posthumously, Kneivel remains an iconic American hero. Those were wild times.