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Evel Knievel's record-breaking jump

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Evel Knievel's record-breaking jump

John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

Spurred by the desire for more national exposure, Kings Island’s most attention-grabbing moment (thus far) occurred when, on Saturday October 25, 1975, Daredevil “Evel” Knievel set a world record by successfully jumping 14 Greyhound buses at the park.

Kings Island first received national television attention when episodes of ABC’s “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch” were filmed at the park. Following that attention, Kings Island ventured into the world of special events to draw crowds and media coverage. In 1974, the park contracted with Karl Wallenda who successfully walked a tightrope stretched from the park’s Eiffel Tower over the International Street Fountains. The walk gave Kings Island the ample news coverage they desired. So the following season, executives wanted another attention grabbing event to help boost attendance in the fall months. Kings Island’s manager of promotion and special events, Jim Gruber, had recently attended an event in Akron Ohio where he saw the immensely popular “Evel Knievel” perform stunts to the awe of the crowd. It dawned on him that Knievel may be exactly what Kings Island was looking for. 

Born Robert Craig Knievel, “Evel” (a nickname he gave himself – dropping the “i” for and “e” to avoid seeming sinister) was a world-famous motorcycle trickster who hailed from Butte, Montana. Following a trouble-filled, “colorful” early life, he had made a name for himself performing motorcycle stunts that eventually garnered national notoriety. He became world renowned as a daredevil of epic proportions in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. Known mostly for elaborate cycle jumps (and the horrible accidents that resulted from some) Knievel was a media darling with a larger-than-life personality. He became a master of sensationalistic events, not to mention an expert self-marketer, who was able to wrap the press around his little finger.

By 1975, Evel had made attempts – some successful, some not – of grandiose proportions. His attempt at jumping the fountains at Caesars in Las Vegas ended with a horrifically brutal and near fatal crash. He had jumped the Grand Canyon on bike, and Snake River Canyon via steam-powered rocket. He had also set world records for jumping countless busses, stacked cars and trucks at events across the globe.  However following an unsuccessful 13-bus leap at Wembley stadium on May 26, 1975, Evel announced his retirement. By this point in his career, Evel was 36 years old, and very wealthy due to his extremely lucrative career with ABC television, who had exclusive broadcast rights to his jumps and his various licensing deals.

Meanwhile, at Kings Island, Gruber knew scoring a Knievel jump at Kings Island would be the coup of the decade. He proposed it to park and Taft executives who green-lighted his pursuit of the daredevil. But the problem was, Knievel had famously announced his retirement and had spent six months recuperating from the injuries he sustained during the Wembley attempt.  Even so, Gruber reached out to Cleveland event promoter Rick Case, who was Knievel’s friend and associate.  In those conversations, Case revealed that Knievel was indeed unsatisfied with his last jump and was looking to make another attempt – a world record-breaking jump – in San Francisco.

Kings Island, owned by Taft Productions, also had an “in’ through their locally owned ABC affiliate. You’ll recall that the earlier broadcasts of “The Partridge Family” and “The Brady Bunch” were produced for the ABC network. The immensely popular “Wide World of Sports” on ABC was a rating dominator and were the exclusive Knievel television event broadcasters. Through Case and ABC, the park was able to contact Knievel who agreed to meet and discuss the possibility of his next attempt taking place at the park.

At his invitation, on September 2, 1975 (the day after Labor Day) Gruber, Kings Island marketing director Bill Price and promoter Case all flew to Butte to meet with Knievel. What they found was an eclectic and demanding man, who commanded the room and who was as much in charge of things off his bike as on it. The trio quickly realized that in order to make the jump happen, they would need to treat Knievel how he wanted – as a king. Knievel required a guarantee of $100,000 by the park, and would receive between $300-$500K based on ticket sales and concessions. The park was required to take out a one-day, $1 million liability insurance policy on behalf of Knievel, who was no longer able to insure himself. He also required complete control of all aspects of the event and an around-the-clock staff member to accommodate him. The negotiations were not easy and the team spent two days in Butte trying unsuccessfully to convince Knievel that Kings Island was the place to jump.

ABC was airing the Knievel biography “Portrait of a Daredevil” that same week. With a deal on the table, and knowing this was the perfect announcement opportunity, Knievel finally signed the deal. ABC was quickly contacted, and a local news affiliate filmed the “surprise” announcement that would be tagged on to the program airing that very night. In an unfortunate twist, an ABC staffer leaked the news to a Cincinnati reporter, and the announcement was revealed to the public just hours prior to the show. The park’s new public relations manager. Ruth Voss, was bombarded with calls from the media demanding confirmation of the event. Nonetheless, when the show “Portrait of a Daredevil” was ending, Knievel announced to the world that he would be leaving retirement to set a world record – and he would be doing it at Kings Island in Ohio.

No doubt exhausted by the negotiations, Kings Island park executives were ecstatic, but they quickly realized their work had only just begun. It would take 69 days of around the clock planning to make the jump happen. The ABC/Knievel contract stipulated that the network chose the day, date and time of any jump. They picked October 25following a Notre Dame versus USC college football game and prior to “The Harlem Globetrotters.” The event would be blocked from television viewing audiences in Cincinnati, Columbus, Indianapolis and Dayton as to spur those interested to attend the event at the park. Kings Island partnered with Rick Case Promotions to produce the event, and together they contracted the Jack Elrod Company of Indiana (Indianapolis 500) to design and build the jump arena for the spectators.

The park’s viewing area itself set a record for being the largest temporary arena in the US at that time covering 13 acres. It was built on the south side of the Kings Island parking lot, and was designed to hold 70,000 spectators. It was 560,000 square feet measuring 126’ x 600’ (equivalent to two football fields) and took 18 40-foot trucks of lumber and steel to build it. It would allow for 35,000 reserved bleacher-type seats behind a 35,000 person general admission section. It was all built at a 17-degree angle so that views from those in the standing crowd would not be obstructed. (No chairs or seating were allowed in the general admission section of the arena.) The jump ramp itself was strategically positioned to stretch from the front area of the park towards International Street so that the ABC coverage would capture Kings Island, the Eiffel Tower and its rides in the background.

Knievel arrived at the park nearly two weeks before the jump on October 13 and stayed at the Kings Island Inn. As required by contract, Kings Island assigned Evel his own personal contact/PR person. The job was given to Ruth Voss, the previously mentioned and newly anointed Kings Island PR manager. A seasoned media vet, she soon had her hands full since Knievel was often unpredictable with the press, demanding, not to mention a handful when it came to women fans. The park threw a media-filled cocktail party in his honor in the evening. Knievel arrived to the event fully decked out in his world-famous American Flag themed white jumpsuit. But he was completely taken aback when the press buttoned up at the news conference asking very few questions. Concerned and upset, Mrs. Voss had to re-assure him that the silence came only because they were absolutely “in awe” of him – which they were.

The park worked with Evel to arrange a multi-city publicity tour of the region to drum interest and coverage of the jump. Over the next week, he was taken on a helicopter press tour of Indianapolis, Dayton, Cleveland, Akron, Columbus and Cincinnati. Following him to many of the events was his $99,000 traveling van and his $9,000 Harley Davidson that would be used in the jump.  Evel proved a media darling, and graciously plugged Kings Island at every chance he could. As demanding as he was, he was indeed grateful and verbally generous to Kings Island for the opportunity they had created.

Between press tours and interviews, Evel oversaw the complete arrangement of the stunt area, the set-up of the jump ramp, run out and staging. He decided, at one point, he didn’t like the plain looking ramp, so he wanted it to be painted. The park obliged, but due to time constraints, they had to use the helicopter to hover creating wind to speed up the paint drying process. Evel made several practice jumps leading up to the day of the event, each time adding a greyhound bus. Traffic on Kings Island Drive had to be stopped for each of his practice runs as the run out following the landing ramp required the use of the roadway.

When Saturday October 25 finally arrived, it was a cold drizzly day. Leading up to the jump that evening, Knievel’s 600-foot touring van, Formula-1 race car, and the infamous Sky Cycle were on display at the arena. The public had been given the option of purchasing a $12 ticket that included park admission and reserved seating for the jump itself, or an $8 ticket including only access to the general admission area only. The chilly rainy weather actually caused the crowd size to be much less than anticipated. Only about 25,000 were present at the jump – 20,000 of those bought the park/jump tickets while around 5,000 purchased the jump only option.

Nonetheless, the events went on as scheduled. The jump itself was scheduled for 6:10 pm, but beginning at 2 p.m. the park had organized entertainment for the spectators. First, the Kings Island Clown Band, Kings of Swing, Dixieland Band, Country Group “The McCoys” and the Hanna-Barbera characters performed.  Then, at 4 p.m., a “Thrill Show” emceed by Cleveland radio host John Lanigan featured the Kings Island Firestone Air show. Four hot-air balloons landed, two World War bi-planes performed acrobatic stunts overhead and 11 skydivers jumped from 13,500 feet over head to form the letters “E K” above the park. 

At 5 p.m., Knievel and his son performed demonstrations with the stunt car, crash car and X-R 75 Harley Davidson cycles to the delight of the crowd. Originally, both Knievel’s two sons Kelly (14) and Robbie (12) were supposed to perform with him. But in the week leading up to the event, Kelly had suffered a broken leg – leaving only Robbie to perform alongside his world-famous dad.

As the jump time neared, ABC’s “Wide World of Sports” went live with Frank Gifford hosting the jump. In attendance was Rick Case (the event’s promoter), Zeke Rose (then President of Ideal Toys who had an exclusive Evel Knievel line of action figures) and officials from Harley Davidson, Chuckles Candy and Greyhound (all sponsors). Grant Shorten of Mason, Ohio was also on hand. Shorten was a funeral director the park had chosen to handle matters should Evel have been fatally injured. The park also contracted with Bethesda North Hospital to be on standby should he become injured. Finally, Evel’s wife Linda, daughter Cindy and (of course) two sons were there to witness.

Evel was interviewed live on air by Gifford where he praised Kings Island for their commitment and persistence in making the jump possible calling it “The finest place I’ve ever had the privilege to perform in my life.” Evel then did some wheelies and minor stunts to jazz the crowd. Finally, after he took four approaches on the ramp, Knievel gave the crowd a thumbs up indicating his attempt was a go.

Without hesitation, Evel Knievel jumped as promised. Mid-air, Knievel’s bike briefly fishtailed to the side but he was able to correct. Upon landing, his rear tire clipped the final bus roof and righted his cycle which was in grave danger of flipping backwards. He successfully leaped 14 Greyhound busses besting his previous attempt of 13. The jump was 133 feet in length (his longest) and set a world record that remained unbroken for 24 years. His bike actually broke nearly in half upon landing. However he successfully made it – safely - and the spectators and park couldn’t have been more ecstatic. It wasn’t perfect – Evel even admitted that had the jump been another four feet, it would have been a disaster, but it was incredible. 

To say the jump at Kings Island was monumental would be an understatement. It would be Evel’s final world record attempt and his most successful jump. Upon landing, he promised the audience that he would never again attempt a jump of that magnitude, a promise he kept. At 37 years old, Knievel knew he had reached his limit. In true Knievel fashion, Evel again took the stage with Gifford and thanked the Kings Island saying they were the ones that made the jump successful.

The ABC coverage would break records as well. It stands to this day as the all-time highest rated “Wide World of Sports” broadcast in the show’s history. The event drew a staggering 52% share… meaning over half the nation’s television viewers watched. The park fell far short of its requirement of 45,000 park spectators to monetarily break even, however the publicity they gained from the national exposure proved priceless.

After the Kings Island jump, Evel continued with minor performances to appease his fans. His last major “stunt” was to be a cycle jump over a tank of sharks in Chicago, but an accident prior to the event prevented him from completing it. That failed attempt prompted the ABC television show “Happy Days” to air the famous Fonzie shark-jumping episode – coining a new term in television history called “jumping the shark.” Ironically, “Happy Days” was produced by Paramount – a Taft shareholder and future owner of Kings Island.

Evel Knievel stopped jumping in 1980, and formally retired in 1981. He lived for another 32 years and passed away at the age of 69 on November 30, 2007.

A year following his passing, on Saturday May 24, 2008, Evel’s son Robbie – who had performed with him the very day of his Kings Island jump – returned to the park for his own event. “Kaptain” Robbie Knievel carried on the tradition set by his father and successfully made a 200-foot jump over 24 Coke Zero delivery trucks at 94 mph. Robbie dedicated the jump to the memory of his father, the great “Evel” Knievel.

If you’d like to marvel at one of the greatest moments in television history, you can view the Evel Knievel jump at Kings Island here. It is simply amazing!

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John Keeter

Kings Island Blog Contributor

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