For Evel Knievel a successful jump was good. A spectacular crash was even better.
Death cheated Evel Knievel, taking him like any ordinary septugenarian, at home in bed, after years of declining health. For a man who’d made millions selling the potential spectacle of his public demise, shrouded in leather, flames, and the roar of the crowd, it must have been a disappointment, both aesthetically and financially.
His life, on the other hand, was a thrill ride, filled with so much visionary speed, noise, and hype that he remains relevant decades after he last did something newsworthy. Before the X Games, Jackass, and World’s Widest Police Chases, there was Evel. Before rappers who make more off their clothing lines than their albums, there was Evel. He recognized there was a growing market for TV sports programming aimed at viewers with no patience for huddles, time-outs, and games that dragged on for hours. He understood his performances functioned mostly as advertising for the merchandise he could sell. He was post-Napster pre-Napster, a YouTube auteur before the rest of the world had even discovered their remote controls.
In 1965, the 27-year-old Knievel performed his first feat of premeditated daredevilry in Moses Lake, Washington. The young entrepreneur had opened a motorcycle dealership there and he thought jumping over two boxes of rattlesnakes and a couple of mountain lions would be a good way to drum up business.
A few years later, he left the motorcycle dealership behind and began his career as a professional showman. On New Year’s Day, 1968, he jumped the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. To get the gig, he’d called up Caesar’s owner Jay Sarno pretending to be a reporter from Life magazine who’d heard that one “Eval Nevall” was planning to perform this feat. Then he called Sarno again, pretending to be from Sports Illustrated. Then he called Sarno a third time, pretending to be from ABC Sports. When, at last, he called Sarno pretending to be his own agent, the casino owner itching to make a deal with the little-known stuntman that somehow everyone was talking about.