There are thousands of men in their forties mourning the original X-Gamer, who as boys spent many an afternoon building a ramp out of old plywood and jumping over a few boxes or other kids or clutter from the garage, some still holding somewhere in their personal archives an old metal lunchbox with him in that Captain-America jumpsuit:
Most people will remember Knievel for his storied jumps: crashing at the Caesars Palace fountain in 1968, the disastrous attempt to fly across the Snake River in a Skycycle in 1974, or nearly killing himself at London’s Wembley Stadium after clearing 13 buses in 1975. He’d show up drunk for many jumps — and ride like a champion.
I think many of us watched him jump -- particularly after that slow-motion rag-doll tumble he took in Vegas -- to see if this time he might kill himself. I vividly recall the hype leading up to that Snake River rocket ride, and when it fizzled out I thought to myself, this guy is nothing but a huckster. Before that I had considered him only an idiot.
He was seemingly fearless, driven to try stunts that were — admit it — astonishingly stupid and pointless. But as a P.T. Barnum-caliber showman, he made the outcome seem somehow relevant and made millions care about what happened to him. He had an amazing, unfathomable need to be a real-life superhero.
But what a price he paid, only to be proven a mere mortal, time and time again. Perhaps his mortality is what made his fans adore him so. He failed so many times, so spectacularly and so publicly, that he ended up instead the ultimate antihero.
He jumped 13 cars in the Astrodome in 1971, setting an attendance record for the time. Here's a video of it. I can still feel the anticipation: the wheelies past the line of cars, the way he would ride to the top of the ramp and rev the bike's engine before backing down and making the jump.
He was quite obviously the inspiration for the satirical Super Dave Osborne in the '80's and '90's. By that time Knievel had retired and withdrawn from public life, although he had recently sued, and then settled with -- two days before his death -- rapper Kanye West over his image in a video.
Even watching his son Robby duplicate his jumps in recent years was nostalgic. There was really no one like Evel Knievel. He wasn't one of my generation's heroes, but he certainly was one of its icons. And for the first time in many decades he's not feeling any pain, so that's got to be a comfort.