Evel ways 

Jumping through the hoopla of Evel Knievel Week

Evel Knievel was famous for saying, “Anybody can jump a motorcycle. The trouble begins when you try to land it.” Knievel should know.

The daredevil rarely had trouble getting his bike in the air, but he suffered plenty on the landings. Throughout his career he has broken his collarbone, arms, ribs and back. On New Year’s Day in 1968, he attempted to jump his Triumph 123 feet over the Caesar’s Palace fountains in Las Vegas and was hurled violently from the speeding bike. Knievel suffered numerous fractures and fell into a coma. Twenty-eight days later, he woke up to find he was a legend—a folk hero somewhere on the continuum between Houdini and Tony Hawk.

His fame flourished throughout the ’70s and early ’80s and his reach seemed omnipresent. His action figures could be found on K-Mart shelves everywhere, his silhouette emblazoned kids’ lunch boxes and his visage lit up pinball machines. He starred in spectacular television specials and Hollywood even tried to immortalize him twice—in 1971’s Evel Knievel starring George Hamilton as Knievel, and 1978’s Viva Knievel in which Knievel (starring as himself) and Gene Kelly (starring as the stuntman’s drunken sidekick) battle a band of wickedly-evil drug dealers lead by Leslie Nielsen. But even with all his celebrity, Knievel had never been given a whole week—until now. From Monday, July 29 to Saturday, Aug. 3, residents of Butte, Knievel’s hometown, are hosting the first ever Evel Knievel Week.

“Evel has always wanted to give back to his hometown,” says event founder and chairman Jeff Francis. “And here’s one way he’s doing it.” Over five days there will be a motorcycle parade, an exhibit of Evel Knievel memorabilia, a motorcycle safety (yes, safety) clinic and a display of the coolest local and visiting bikes, including 11 custom rides built by designer Arlen Ness.

For fans more attracted to action than nostalgia, fellow stuntman and daredevil Spanky Spangler has something special planned.

Spangler has survived more than 21,000 stunts ranging from leaping out of helicopters, hot air balloons and flaming cars to jumping a rocket truck over the Rio Grande. But for Evel Week Spangler has arranged something simple: He is going to dive off one of the tallest buildings in Butte’s historic district–the 10-story Finlen Hotel. Naturally, he will set himself on fire before the 100-foot-plus fall.

Throughout the week, Butte will also host more than a dozen local and national rock bands that will play venues throughout the city, including the headliner Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who play a Saturday show at the Butte Civic Center. The Jett concert will be topped off with a $10,000 fireworks finale display. “Evel will be at all these events,” says Francis. “He’ll be leading the parade, mingling with the crowd at Spangler’s jump and Saturday night he’ll be on stage with Joan Jett.”

But many Knievel devotees don’t want to just meet the man, they dream of riding alongside him. Saturday, before the finale, they will get their chance during the Poker Run.

“A Poker Run is exactly what it says it is,” says Jerry South of Butte’s Thunderball Harley-Davidson shop. “You ride to a spot and pick up a card then ride to another spot and pick up another card.” After buying into the game, participants will travel a 200-mile loop taking them throughout Butte. At seven different stops they will be dealt a card. The rider with the best hand at the end of the run takes the cash pot.

“We had 178 people on last year’s Thunder Run,” says South, of the bike shop’s 2001 fundraiser on behalf of the American Red Cross. “With Evel here we could have a lot more.” The event, which organizers hope will become an annual affair, has been planned as a precursor to the yearly Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Sturgis, S.D. “We hear that 20,000 people come through Butte on their way to Sturgis,” says Debbie Retzlaff, a member of the Evel Week organizing committee. “We hope they all stop here.”

People from all over the United States and beyond have called about the event, she adds. “I got a call from a guy from London who is keeping a tab on all the people coming from Europe,” Retzlaff says. “He told me there are people coming from England, France, Switzerland.”

Whether or not the event is a success, the 63-year-old Knievel will be using the occasion to publicize one final jump. Knievel has been hosting a national infomercial for a product called Rejuveon. He has teamed with the energy supplement company to not only produce the infomercial but hype his swan song.

“That latest rumor I’ve heard is that he’ll do the final jump next year at Sturgis,” says Retzlaff. “If we have an Evel Week next year it would be great if he could do a warm up jump here.”

Knievel was also famous for saying, “You are never a failure in life when you fall, as long as you try and get up.” If and when Knievel attempts this final jump, fans will be crossing their fingers hoping he can be true to his words and get up one last time.

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