He Was the Apple of Evel's Eye; Now Robbie Knievel Aims to Outdo Dad's Daredevilry
"A lot of people say I look like my father," allows Evel Knievel's 20-year-old son, Robbie. "I guess I do, except I'm younger, better-looking and smarter." That's a cocky kid talking, for sure, but Robbie is tired of being asked to compare himself to Evel. Of course, he's not above cashing in on the connection. Even in the distant Canadian town of Red Deer, Alberta, where he jumped a motorcycle over 15 cars and two vans last month, Robbie was surrounded by reminders of his father. The trailer he arrived in was originally designed for Evel. The programs being hawked for $2.50 apiece had Evel's picture on the cover. The motorcycles on display were emblazoned with Evel's logo—albeit with a Roman numeral II added in deference to Robbie. And there, too, was the "Sky-Cycle" rocket, still dented after all these years, that Evel used in his 1974 attempt to jump almost a mile over Idaho's Snake River Canyon.
That stunt failed, but Evel has gotten into the record books another way—breaking an incredible 433 bones before he finally retired. Now Robbie has announced plans to top every one of his father's records for jumping motorcycles and cars at outrageous speeds. One of Evel's records appears safe, however. To date Robbie has broken only two bones (in his wrist).
His immediate goal is to set the mark (held not by Evel but by Frenchman Alain Jean Prieur) for the longest motorcycle jump ever—212 feet. At Red Deer he jumped a modest 140, but he took off on a steep slope usually reserved for skiers, which brought his speed up to 80 mph before takeoff. Eight thousand fans watched as Robbie sailed through the crisp Canadian air for a long, long second before making what he describes as "a perfect landing. It was scary, but I'm like my father. Once you give your word you're gonna do a jump, you've gotta do it."
Young Knievel began riding at 2; when Evel "burnt wheelies" on the streets of their hometown, Butte, Mont., Robbie was often on the handlebars or in his father's lap. "At 6," Robbie says, "I realized my father did something unusual for a living." He joined Evel's show at 8 and remembers "riding out in Madison Square Garden on a bike that was three times bigger than I was." When they toured together, they often wore identical red-white-and-blue jump suits, but early on, Robbie was too big for his britches. At 14, he made light of the four vans he was asked to hurdle by saying, "My grandmother could jump that far." By the time Robbie dropped out of high school at the end of his sophomore year, he was doing as many jumps as his father. Reports Ken Brown, who managed Evel as well as anyone could and now handles Robbie, "There was tension between them until Evel decided to go off."
Evel continued jumping after the Snake River crash, finally retiring in 1980 because, says Brown, "he felt like it was time to stop breaking bones." Evel now lives out of a $200,000 motor home, traveling from golf course to golf course, mostly in the South. By all reports, he's something of a hustler. Brown says Evel "blew" most of the millions he earned and now "would like Robbie to be successful and send him money."
There was no question which Knievel would fall heir to the act. Evel's wife of 22 years, Linda, who still lives in Butte, tried to discourage all four of her children from riding, but Robbie alone failed to heed her. "The other members of my family," he explains, "were always hiding from the cameras, but I liked being in the public eye." (Evel shuns the limelight too now, in part because of the bad press that followed his attack on L.A. writer Sheldon Saltman in 1977. Incensed by Salt-man's unauthorized biography of him, Knievel hit the writer over the head with a baseball bat, for which he later served six months in jail.) So far Robbie seems to be handling fame well. Says Brown, "The difference between them is that his dad got successful quickly, but Robbie has been in the limelight from the start." In his heyday Evel captained 16 boats (but only three of them, he complained, were yachts) and two Learjets. "Robbie," quips Brown, "will probably only want one."
Evel, he adds, also never expected to reach 40. Robbie does. He moved to Scottsdale, Ariz. so he could ride year-round. Robbie, whose bikes are said to be much safer than his father's, practices every day and studies videotapes of all his jumps. Evel, who didn't start jumping until he was 26, rarely rode when he wasn't in a show.
Like his father, who is a sometime painter of Western subjects, Robbie has taken up art for relaxation—and money. An eagle he recently did in clay will be cast in bronze this summer. The limited edition of 1,000 will be hawked for $2,500 each. He also maintains his own motor home and plays guitar and drums in the two-bedroom "cottage" he shares with a friend, Ken Hoar. As for relationships, Robbie asks, "What's a steady girl? A two-night stand? Seriously, before I pick somebody, I want to be very careful."
Careful? With a last name like Knievel? "I'll do any stunt if they pay me," admits Robbie. He earned $30,000 for the Red Deer jump, and he expects to gross between a quarter and a half million dollars this year. His next jump is scheduled for either Pennsylvania or Montana in July, when he'll try 150 feet. "He's a better jumper than his dad already," says Brown. Agrees Hollywood stunt coordinator Spanky Spangler, who has appeared on That's Incredible, "He handles his bike a whole lot better. He'll go far."
No matter what the distance, one part of Robbie's routine is sure to remain the same. Before he hurtles down that runway to meet whatever fate awaits him, he has "a little talk with God. I don't ask Him to help me make the jump, I just ask Him to watch it."
On Newsstands Now
- Amy Robach: 'I'm Lucky to Be Alive'
- Paul Walker: Inside His Tragic Death
- Julia Roberts: Choosing Family Over Hollywood
Pick up your copy on newsstands
Click here for instant access to the Digital Magazine