Category Archives: evel knievel
When I was a kid, specifically when I was in second grade, there was one toy that all the boys had, and I mean all the boys. I’m specifying because sometimes the class conflicts squooshed their way through the mud to the surface and there were toys that some kids had, and other kids just wished they had. This was different. It was an equalizer. I’m talking about Kenner’s SSP Racers.
SSP stood for Super Sonic Power, at least that’s what my addled forty-six year-old mind tells me. I’m sure Google could help, but what’s the fun in that, right? These were sleek plastic cars (and sometimes motorcycles) anywhere from six to ten inches long that had only one wheel. They might appear to have more than one, but the others were faux. That one wheel was primary in a basic system of gears that could be wound up and spun at high speed by pulling a toothed plastic strip through them. By pulling the ‘T-stick’ and placing the car on the ground, floor, whatever semi-flat surface – they would take off like, well, like racers.
Kenner must have released dozens of models over the course of a few years and like I said, everybody had ’em, would bring ’em to school and race ’em at recess. You could set up ramps, make ’em do tricks – and even have your own demolition derbys – and this was before Kenner got the hint and made their own special SSP Demolition Derby, but more on that later.
What I remember most is how important the model you had was, whether you picked it out yourself, or your parents did, or it was a gift – you could be identified by your model. It might sound odd, but almost forty years later I can still remember who in second grade class had which SSP Racers. I had a blue Indy Racer, which I wanted, I loved the Indianapolis 500 when I was a kid, and then I also had two Siamese Slingshots, one green and black, and one chromatic copper. That was one of the later waves of SSP Racers, chrome colors.
Of the kids in my second grade class, John P. had the Black Jack (did it only come in black?), John F. had the golden Rail Bird, Mark L. had the Two Much, John M. the Jet Star, Bobby T. the Super Stocker… well, you get the idea. We used to race them across the asphalt and up and down a steep ramp used by the food service. Great fun.
Later Kenner released the SSP Demolition Derby, which came with two different sets, a pick-up truck and a Volkswagen bug, and in the other one, the one I didn’t have, a station wagon and I think a sedan. Unlike the futuristic modeling of the regular SSP cars, these actually looked like standard cars, and beat-all-to-hell ones at that. The gimmick was that when the front bumper was impacted, the doors, hoods and trunks would fly off. Cool, right?
But the best part was the set came with two ramps so the cars to collide in mid-air. Those ramps got lots of use, and not just with the Demolition Derby cars. We all used them with the regular SSP Racers as well, and a year or two later when the Evel Knievel rage took over, everyone used those ramps for the Stunt Cycle. No offense to Ideal, but your ramps sucked, Kenner’s were the fo’ shizzle.
Forty years later, you can find SSP Racers sometimes in stores, usually in generic brands. You see a lot more of them on eBay or on YouTube. Here’s a site where people share their memories: click here. One thing’s for sure, they won’t be forgotten.
As I turn forty-five today I’m thinking of a birthday exactly thirty-five years earlier, when all I wanted in the whole wide world was the Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle Set. I even remember that tongue-twister name to this day, probably from saying it so much in the weeks before my tenth birthday.
I think it was one of the few times as a kid that I was obsessed with a toy that much. Evel Knievel in the 1970s was a larger than life figure. I remember watching his jumps on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports,” and even listening to my AM transistor radio that Sunday afternoon for news of how his Snake River Canyon jump went. He was like a superhero, even dressed like one, but he was real. Maybe that’s where it came from.
The toy itself was pretty simple, a motorcycle, an action figure of Evel himself, and the ‘gyro-rev-booster’ that made the cycle go. It was magic in a box. The problem was, it was a ‘doll.’ And my father was dead set against me having ‘dolls.’ It was a dead stop point.
I had no dolls. Hell, I had no action figures, even though that term to my father meant doll, no matter what you called it. This was something that separated me from my friends. I couldn’t play equally with the other boys with their G.I. Joes, their Six Million Dollar Men, or ~ drool ~ their Mego Super-Heroes. It didn’t even matter that my cousin, who I was always being negatively compared to, had all those toys.
My father eventually gave in, and my tenth birthday was filled with an afternoon of enjoyment racing that stunt cycle up and down my front porch and making him jump the ramps from my SSP Demolition Derby Set. I was in heaven! My sister and her husband got me Evel’s Scramble Van that birthday, but as much as I loved them, it just wasn’t me. The van and its camping accessories were just a bit too much Barbie Dream House for me. So I guess my father really didn’t have that much to worry about.
Eventually the magic wore off. The handlebars of the stunt cycle broke off, and Evel’s hands broke off as well. Still, that was one of the best birthdays I ever had.
I remember the man, or at least the legend of the man fondly. I waited through what seemed like hours of talk talk talk on the “Wide World of Sports” to see the man jump whatever. I remember seeing his excruciating landing at Caesar’s Place. I remember listening madly to the AM radio news the Sunday he attempted to jump Snake River Canyon.
And what I remember most was that there was nothing, and I mean nothing, I wanted more for my birthday in the summer of 1974 than the Evel Knievel stunt cycle playset. I did get it, along with the Scramble Van accessory, but really, that was a bit too Barbie for my tastes. I loved the ramp that came with it though, that and the dual ramps that came with the SST Demolition Derby became Evel’s territory as I jumped everything from cats to wagons and even off the cliff of my front porch.
Since that time, I’ve seen documentaries on the man, and I’d have to say he was crazy, stubborn and maybe even a bit of a liar – but one thing was sure, Evel Knievel was an entertainer. There’ll never be another like him.
From the Associated Press:
Motorcycle Daredevil Evel Knievel Dies at Age 69
Friday, November 30, 2007
CLEARWATER, Fla. — Evel Knievel, the hard-living motorcycle daredevil whose exploits made him an international icon in the 1970s, died Friday. He was 69.
Knievel death was confirmed by his 21-year-old granddaughter, Krysten Knievel. He had been in failing health for years, suffering from diabetes and idiopathic 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.
His death came just two days after it was announced that he and rapper Kanye West had settled a federal lawsuit over the use of Knievel’s trademarked image in a popular West music video.
Immortalized in the Washington’s Smithsonian Institution as “America’s Legendary Daredevil,” Knievel was best known for a failed 1974 attempt to jump an Idaho 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.
For the tall, thin daredevil, the limelight was always comfortable, the gab glib. Always, he welcomed the challenge whether in sports, at work or play. To Knievel, there always were mountains to climb, feats to conquer.
“No king or prince has lived a better life,” he said in a May 2006 interview with The Associated Press. “You’re looking at a guy who’s really done it all. And there are things I wish I had done better, not only for me but for the ones I loved.”
He garbed himself in red, white and blue and had a knack for outrageous yarns: “Made $60 million, spent 61. …Lost $250,000 at blackjack once. … Had $3 million in the bank, though.”
Although he dropped off the pop culture radar in the ’80s, Knievel always had fans and enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in recent years. In later years he still 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.
“They started out watching me bust my ass, and I became part of their lives,” Knievel said. “People wanted to associate with a winner, not a loser. They wanted to associate with someone who kept trying to be a winner.”
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 Western states and doing everything from driving the trucks, erecting the ramps and promoting the shows. In the beginning he charged $500 for a jump over two cars parked between ramps.
He steadily increased the length of the jumps until, on New Year’s Day 1968, he was nearly killed when he jumped 151 feet across the fountains in front of Caesar’s Palace. He cleared the fountains but the crash landing put him in the hospital in a coma for a month.
Hi son, Robbie, successfully completed the same jump in April 1989.
In the years after the Caesar’s crash, the fee for Evel’s performances increased to $1 million for his jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in London — the crash landing broke his pelvis — to more than $6 million for the Sept. 8, 1974, attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon in Idaho in a rocket-powered “Skycycle.” The money came from ticket sales, paid sponsors and ABC’s “Wide World of Sports.”
The parachute malfunctioned and deployed after takeoff. Strong winds blew the cycle into the canyon, landing him close to the swirling river below.
On Oct. 25, 1975, he jumped 14 Greyhound buses at Kings Island in Ohio.
Knievel decided to retire after a jump in the winter of 1976 in which he was again seriously injured. He suffered a concussion and broke both arms in an attempt to jump a tank full of live sharks in the Chicago Amphitheater. He continued to do smaller exhibitions around the country with his son, Robbie.
Many of his records have been broken by daredevil motorcyclist Bubba Blackwell.
Knievel also dabbled in movies and TV, starring as himself in “Viva Knievel” and with Lindsey Wagner in an episode of the 1980s TV series “Bionic Woman.” George Hamilton and Sam Elliott each played Knievel in movies about his life.
Evel Knievel toys accounted for more than $300 million in sales for Ideal and other companies in the 1970s and ’80s.
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.
Outstanding in track and field, ski jumping and ice hockey at Butte High School, he went on to win the Northern Rocky Mountain Ski Association Class A Men’s ski jumping championship in 1957 and played with the Charlotte Clippers of the Eastern Hockey League in 1959.
He also formed the Butte Bombers semiprofessional hockey team, acting as owner, manager, coach and player.
Knievel also worked in the Montana copper mines, served in the U.S. Army, ran his own hunting guide service, sold insurance and ran Honda motorcycle dealerships. As a motorcycle dealer, he drummed up business by offering $100 off the price of a motorcycle to customers who could beat him at arm wrestling.
At various times and in different interviews, Knievel claimed to have been a swindler, a card thief, a safe cracker, a holdup man.
Robbie Knievel followed in his father’s footsteps as a daredevil, jumping a moving locomotive in a 200-foot, ramp-to-ramp motorcycle stunt on live television in 2000. He also jumped a 200-foot-wide chasm of the Grand Canyon.
Knievel married hometown girlfriend, Linda Joan Bork, in 1959. They separated in the early 1990s. They had four children, Kelly, Robbie, Tracey and Alicia.
Knievel lived with his longtime partner, Krystal Kennedy-Knievel, splitting his time between their Clearwater condo and his Butte hometown. They married in 1999 and divorced a few years later but remained together. Knievel had 10 grandchildren and a great-grandchild.
I used to see George Hamilton on all the game shows and talk shows back in the 1970s. I would wonder often why this man was a celebrity. Folks would make fun of his tan all the time, but that couldn’t be why he was famous, right? Heck, if I knew the man, I’d probably make fun of his tan too.
After seeing the 1964 Hank Williams biopic “Your Cheatin’ Heart” recently I have to say I now know why George Hamilton is a star. He’s a terrific actor, on calibur with many of the best in my opinion. The only other flick I can think of offhand that he’s been in is “Viva Kneivel” so obviously he’s just not good at picking scripts.
“Your Cheatin’ Heart” isn’t one of them however, it’s great, and with a loving soundtrack of the father’s tunes by son Hank Williams Jr. this is film that can’t be beat. Enjoyable from start to finish, they don’t make ’em like this anymore.