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Common Tread

The surprisingly good Evel Knievel Museum tells the media sensation's story

Jul 24, 2020

A billboard appeared off Interstate 70, west of Kansas City, a few years ago. All it said was, “Evel Knievel Museum Topeka” with a photo of the famous stuntman pulling a wheelie while standing on the seat of a Harley-Davidson XR750.

I’m sure that almost every guy who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s had the same reaction I did: I’ve gotta see that. But I anticipated a tawdry roadside attraction; a room with a few blown-up photos, a grainy video on loop, a jump suit, and a hacked-together replica bike.

So, I kept putting it off until last month. In the late stages of moving from KC to Milwaukee, I finally realized I might not get another chance to drop in. I’m glad I did because the museum’s excellent, with a huge collection that’s well displayed. And because my visit inspired me to seek out Sheldon Saltman’s hard-to-find memoir "Evel Knievel on Tour."

I came of age at the height of Evel’s celebrity, so he was a huge presence in my teen years. But now I realize that he didn’t only jump cars and buses on a motorcycle, break countless bones, and blow millions; he pioneered a whole new kind of celebrity. Evel was bombastic reality TV before reality TV. In today’s media environment, he would have flown even higher.

billboard for Evel Knievel Museum
This appeared alongside I-70 a few years ago. If I'd known how good the museum was, I wouldn't have waited nearly so long to visit it. Photo by Mark Gardiner.

Why Topeka? As Evel himself would say, "Why not?"

The museum is housed in a large, purpose-built two-story addition to Topeka’s Historic Harley-Davidson dealership, which is, well, historic. Henry Patterson began working in a Harley dealership in Grand Junction, Colorado, in 1926. He bought the Topeka franchise in 1949, making it one of The Motor Company’s oldest family-owned shops, run today by his grandson, Mike Patterson. For years, the Pattersons kept their service staff occupied through the winter months by taking on restoration projects, and Historic developed a national reputation for that kind of work.

In 2012, Patterson got a call from the family of rock ‘n’ roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis: Would they take on the restoration of Jerry Lee’s 1959 Harley? Mike and his longest-serving employee, Bruce Zimmerman, drove down to Memphis.

“We got down there and met ‘Killer,’ and when we got into his garage we realized somebody had disassembled the bike,” Mike recalled. “Bruce and I searched for about two hours through his garage, finding parts in sacks, drawers, and boxes.”

After Historic rebuilt it, Jerry Lee put the hog in his living room, but he later sold it at a Mecum auction. Jerry Lee played "Great Balls of Fire" halfway through the bidding, and the bike ended up going for $385,000, making it one of top 20 motorcycle auction sales.

Historic Harley-Davidson in Topeka, Kansas
Historic Harley-Davidson has a pretty impressive collection of its own bikes, skewed towards flat track bikes that Mike raced, on display elsewhere at the dealership. This was really the dealership's only exhibit design experience before taking on the Evel Knievel Museum. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

Jerry Lee Lewis had a connection to an obsessive collector of Evel Knievel memorabilia, named Lathan McKay, who was an ex-pro skateboarder turned filmmaker. McKay had acquired Evel’s custom Mack truck and trailer, which had been rusting away in St. Petersburg (Florida, not Russia) for decades. The skateboarder shipped it up to a truck restorer in New Jersey, but after a year they still hadn’t begun the restoration. Meanwhile, Jerry Lee’s family had said great things about Historic Harley-Davidson’s restoration skills, so McKay called Patterson to ask whether he could recommend a different truck restorer.

Knievel's truck
The beginnings of the museum date to the restoration of Evel Knievel's customized Mack truck. The cab shown here. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

The mention of Evel Knievel’s truck immediately got Mike Patterson’s attention.

“In 1971, when I was four years old, my family took me to Hutchinson, Kansas, to the state fair to see Evel jump,” Mike told me. “I don't remember anything else at that age, but I have a vivid memory of the whole day because it was that impactful to me, even at four years old.”

“We restore trucks, too,” Patterson told McKay. (Slight problem: No one at Historic Harley-Davidson had ever done such a thing.)

“It took two years of my life,” Patterson admitted. More than 90 craftsmen worked on it. Over the course of the restoration, Patterson became a part owner of the truck. With some sponsorship help from Mack Trucks, it toured to Sturgis, and then appeared in Hollywood at the premiere of the documentary, “Being Evel.”

interior of Evel Knievel's custom Mack truck
The interior of Evel Knievel's customized Mack truck. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

“Let’s build a museum”

For a few months, Evel’s rig was a featured exhibit at Mack Truck’s own museum in Allentown, Pennsylvania, but after investing a small fortune in the restoration, Patterson needed a permanent place to park it.

Lathan McKay had already amassed a large collection of Evel paraphernalia. Patterson suggested building an addition on to his Historic Harley-Davidson dealership to house the truck and McKay’s items. The contractors finished the building in late 2015.

The collection grew all the while. One of the many people involved in the truck restoration was a retired Topeka attorney named Jim Caplinger. He got bit with the Knievel collecting bug, and funded the acquisition of an X-2 Skycycle that had been used for an unmanned (also unsuccessful) test jump across Snake River Canyon. Caplinger also purchased the helmet that Evel wore for his unsuccessful Wembley Stadium jump in London.

McKay, Patterson, and Caplinger’s estate (the attorney passed away in 2018) are the main contributors of display items, although several other people have also loaned or donated items. Patterson told me that the museum’s contents are insured for about $3,000,000.

Evel Knievel stunt cycle on display in the museum
This XR is the very bike that Mike Patterson saw Evel use in Hutchinson, Kansas. Mike says it is the most complete Evel jump bike in existence. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

One of Mike Patterson’s favorite displays is the very motorcycle Evel had used at that Kansas State Fair, which made a permanent impression on him nearly 50 years ago. “This is probably the most complete Evel jump bike in existence,” he told me.

As Topekans heard about the museum, a few locals came forward with connections to Evel, including relatives of Joie Chitwood, whose famous "Thrill Show" inspired Evel Knievel when Chitwood toured through Butte, Montana in the 1960s.

Put simply, the museum’s fantastic. You might think that I’m biased because it’s moto-centric, but the Evel Knievel Museum in little old Topeka earned a prestigious Thea Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Themed Entertainment Association. The same year it won, Theas were also presented to Warner Bros. World in Abu Dhabi, and to Disneyland for its Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride.

What makes that award even more impressive is that Patterson sought estimates from professional exhibit designers, but when he saw what their services cost, he told the staff at Historic Harley-Davidson to get creative, and they sure did.

Evel Knievel museum
The museum has a lot of really fascinating Evel ephemera, including that huge bag of mail that he received after he was a no-show at one of his final appearances in Chicago. One of the letters was addressed simply, "Evel Knievel, at a hospital in Chicago." Evel crashed and broke both of his arms in practice, so he had a good excuse for not jumping over a tank full of sharks that night. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

Failing upwards

As a motorcyclist, I have conflicting feelings about Evel Knievel. On the one hand, Evel pushed back against the Hells Angels image that still tarnished motorcycling in the late 1960s, as he was rising to fame. And he was an outspoken advocate for the use of crash helmets, and popularized full-face styles.

On the other hand, he was a drunk and a serial philanderer who was emotionally abusive towards his wife and kids; he also threatened them with physical violence.

Muhammad Ali once told Evel, “You’re the white Muhammad Ali,” which was The Champ’s way of acknowledging that they were both savants when it came to manipulating the press. But there was at least one big difference between their routes to fame: Ali was one of the greatest boxers of all time; Knievel was famous for doing something at which he was, at least arguably, incompetent.

His first public jump was in 1965 over a box of rattlesnakes. That one ended with him landing on the box and releasing the snakes, which quickly scattered the crowd. From that point through 1967, he jumped about 26 times and crashed four times. He had roughly the same odds you’d have playing Russian Roulette, which isn’t a game of skill.

Although he managed to turn his daredevil act into a small-time career, crashing at Caesar’s Palace turned him into a superstar.

“If he’d made this jump, we wouldn’t be talking about him today,” Mike Patterson admitted as he showed me the display devoted to Evel’s fountain jump, which took place on New Year’s Eve, 1967.

Knievel pestered ABC to cover it for Wide World of Sports. The network refused but told him that if he filmed it himself they’d consider buying his footage. Evel spent his own money to hire John Derek as a producer. Derek, in turn, pressed his wife, actress Linda Evans, into service as a camera-operator. She captured a memorable shot of Evel’s Triumph Bonneville tumbling right towards her lens.

Although he was severely injured, Evel had the presence of mind to milk the press’ curiosity about whether he’d survive. For nearly a month, his spokespeople were instructed to report that he was in a coma, which was not true. Meanwhile, they negotiated a far higher price for the crash footage than they could possibly have earned had the jump been successful. It figured on Wide World of Sports’ opening credits for years.

Forget county fairs and podunk race tracks; Evel was an instant national celebrity. Although he was loathe to take another run at the fountains, he went back to jumping cars and trucks. He wasn’t paid that much money for each jump, but in 1973 Ideal Toy Company released its Evel Knievel Stunt Cycle. American kids clamored for it, and Ideal followed it up with several other toys. Evel had other sponsors — Harley-Davidson, Chuckles candy, bicycle makers — but Ideal’s checks were the ones with seven figures. They funded Evel’s increasingly lavish lifestyle of private jets, helicopters, and yachts.

Problem: Every promoter wanted him to attempt a new record. Even Evel realized how that was destined to end; he was already boosting his courage with booze before every jump. That’s when he cooked up the idea of one last "jump" across the Grand Canyon — something that couldn’t be topped and would earn him all the money and fame he’d need to retire.

When the feds refused to grant him access to the Grand Canyon, he vowed to jump across the Snake River Canyon in Idaho. Evel hired Robert Truax, an ex-U.S. Navy rocket engineer, to create a "Skycycle" for the stunt. Truax built three steam-powered rockets which were "cycles" in name only.

One of Evel Knievel's Skycycles in the museum
One of the two Skycycles that was used for an unmanned test. This one still has the crumpled nose-cone that resulted from a crash landing. The drawing in the plexiglass box in the foreground is a sketch of the paint scheme, which was designed by Willie G. Davidson. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

The plan was for Evel to launch from a steep steel ramp, pull five gs on the blast across the canyon, then float down to earth on a parachute. Evel could only afford two unmanned test flights and they both failed. One of the rockets disappeared in the Snake River and wasn’t found until days later, miles downstream. Truax begged Knievel to delay the stunt so that the rocket could be perfected.

Another problem: The jump had already been breathlessly hyped as the biggest pay-per-view event of all time. In those pre-cable TV days, arenas and theaters had been booked to show the jump; tickets had already been pre-sold. Millions of dollars in sponsor money had been spent.

After two failed tests, Evel expected to die, but that was preferable to backing down. On September 8, 1974, Evel was strapped into the third Skycycle and launched himself from the rim of the canyon.

It was a fiasco. Fans rioted the night before. Evel’s promotion team had to hire an outlaw bike gang to protect the ramp — a fact they concealed from him, because they knew he hated "bikers." The pay-per-view coverage was disappointing. And of course, a small drogue parachute deployed while the rocket was still on the ramp, dooming the stunt to failure.

Evel couldn’t get out of the seat on his own. Depending on how it came down, he could have drowned in a foot of water. But as the rocket descended under its main parachute, the wind pushed him back onto a narrow rock ledge.

Downfall

Evel had one shot to go out on top and missed it. He had no real choice but to go back to jumping from ramp-to-ramp, to justify Ideal’s sponsorship money. The very next jump he cleared 12 buses at London’s Wembley Stadium. Unfortunately, there were 13 buses between the ramps. Concussed, and with a fractured pelvis and hand, Evel still managed to stand and tell the audience that they’d never see him jump again; he was finished.

He did, however, jump a few more times. His career was effectively ended by injury, but not the way you’d expect.

Back in the crazy run-up to the Snake River Canyon jump, Evel had hired Sheldon Saltman, a New York PR man, to coordinate publicity. Saltman (with Evel’s knowledge and permission) had carried a tape recorder almost constantly on the media blitz. He later wrote an accurate but unflattering memoir of that period called "Evel Knievel on Tour," which was published by Dell in 1977.

Knievel was infuriated. He stalked Saltman to his office on the 20th Century Fox film lot and attacked him with a baseball bat, in front of witnesses. The attack was a national news story. Saltman suffered a broken arm and concussion.

Ideal immediately killed its sponsorship deal. Knievel was charged and convicted of assault. Saltman sued and got a $12,750,000 judgment, but without Ideal’s millions, Evel’s lavish lifestyle meant instant bankruptcy; Saltman never collected.

Evel gradually redeemed his image through the 1980s and ’90s. In 1999, he was inducted into the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame. He suffered from diabetes and declining liver function, attributed to hepatitis contracted from blood transfusions. Late in life, he got a liver transplant that, according to his Wikipedia page, became available as the result of a motorcycle accident. He finally died of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. It’s possible that his lung problems were the result of exposure to rock dust during one of the brief periods in which he had legit employment; he worked as a driller at a copper mine near Butte, Montana.

Mike Patterson
Mike Patterson is the third generation of his family to steer Topeka's Historic Harley-Davidson dealership. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.
Mike Patterson has a copy of Saltman’s book on display in the museum, but there’s no mention of Evel’s baseball-bat attack.

“We have a lot of superfans who come,” Mike told me. “We don’t go into the dark details of his life. They don’t want hear it. We just keep it all positive. We want people to have a fun time, and show their kids that he was a hero.”

“With social media now, he would’ve never made it,” Patterson admitted late in our chat. “He would’ve been blown up.”

Knievel did a pretty good job of blowing himself up even without social media. At one of those pre-Snake River press conferences, with Ideal Toys executives in the room, Evel grabbed a microphone and told reporters, “One toy I’d like them to make is is my own idea. You wind it up, it goes like a little bugger, goes across the floor and grabs this little Barbie doll, throws her on the floor, gives her a little lovin’, jumps back on the motorcycle, and goes whizzing out the door screaming, ‘GI Joe is a faggot!’”

The famed sportswriter Jim Murray interviewed Knievel before the Snake River stunt. By then, Murray was nearly blind, but he saw the daredevil clearly. “It’s a revealing comment on America in the 1970s that a carnival performer has become a national hero,” Murray wrote in his syndicated column, “but we are bored, our traditional mores are in disarray, and we hunger for a hero. Evel Knievel may be junk food, but he satisfies that hunger.”

Evel Knievel mask
In the age of the pandemic, you can even get an Evel Knievel mask at the museum. Photo by Dan Wayne. © Dan Wayne.

Although it only shows one side, the museum’s well worth a visit

“We had no idea what to expect. We didn’t know if we’d get 5,000 people a year, or 100,000,” Patterson told me. “But so far, we’ve averaged 25,000 people per year. In a normal summer, we’ll get visitors from about 25 different states every day.”

It remains to be seen how the museum will do in this Summer of COVID-19. It’s open for business. Employees are wearing masks. Only one display, a VR motorcycle jump, is closed because staff have to spot visitors who might otherwise fall off the motorcycle.

“I was one of those kids that jumped my bicycle,” Mike said. “I remember sitting at the top of my driveway when I was eight and I took off from my ramp and I thought, ‘I'm scared. I don't know if I'm going to make it, but I'm gonna do it anyway, even though I'm scared.’ And I think we took the same leap of faith when we built this museum.”

“I would almost say we're still in the air,” he concluded. “We're hoping for a good landing, but you’re not going to get anywhere without taking a risk. That's what people admire about Evel Knievel, too.”