CLEARWATER, Fla. – Evel Knievel, the red-white-and-blue-spangled motorcycle daredevil whose jumps over crazy obstacles including Greyhound buses, live sharks and Idaho’s Snake River Canyon made him an international icon in the 1970s, died Friday. He was 69.
Knievel had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, an incurable condition that scarred his lungs.
He had undergone a liver transplant in 1999 after nearly dying of hepatitis C, likely contracted through a blood transfusion after one of his bone-shattering spills. He also suffered two strokes in recent years.
Longtime friend and promoter Billy Rundle said Knievel had trouble breathing at his Clearwater condominium and died before an ambulance could get him to a hospital.
“It’s been coming for years, but you just don’t expect it. Superman just doesn’t die, right?” Rundle said.
Immortalized in the Washington’s Smithsonian Institution as “America’s Legendary Daredevil,” Knievel was best known for a failed 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered cycle and a spectacular crash at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. He suffered nearly 40 broken bones before he retired in 1980.
Though Knievel dropped off the pop culture radar in the ‘80s, the image of the high-flying motorcyclist clad in patriotic, star-studded colors was never erased from public consciousness. He always had fans and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years.
Knievel made a good living selling his autographs and endorsing products. Thousands came to Butte, Mont., every year as his legend was celebrated during the “Evel Knievel Days” festival, which Rundle organizes.
“They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives,” Knievel said.
Born Robert Craig Knievel in the copper mining town of Butte on Oct. 17, 1938, Knievel was raised by his grandparents. He traced his career choice back to the time he saw Joey Chitwood’s Auto Daredevil Show at age 8.
He began his daredevil career in 1965 when he formed a troupe called Evel Knievel’s Motorcycle Daredevils, a touring show in which he performed stunts such as riding through fire walls, jumping over live rattlesnakes and mountain lions and being towed at 200 mph behind dragster race cars.
In 1966 he began touring alone, barnstorming the West and doing everything from driving the trucks, erecting the ramps and promoting the shows.
“The phrase one-of-a-kind is often used, but it probably applies best to Bobby Knievel,” said former U.S. Rep. Pat Williams, D-Mont., Knievel’s cousin. “He was an amazing athlete. … He was sharp as a tack, one of the smartest people I’ve ever known and finally, as the world knows, no one had more guts than Bobby. He was simply unafraid of anything.”