Butte ponders the power of Evel

  • The motorcycle daredevil himself at the Butte Evel Knievel Daze last August


BUTTE, MONTANA — This is a town that has stopped at nothing in its pursuit of a buck. It has fouled its water with mining runoff and demolished half its downtown for a gigantic open pit, all for a relentless red harvest of copper.

It seems strange, then, that many longtime residents feel Butte has finally gotten too greedy.

The self-criticism comes as Butte, like many played-out mining towns, struggles to reinvent itself as a tourist destination. Butte’s economic development deal is not exactly one made with the devil, but it is a deal with Evel — as in Evel Knievel, the aging motorcycle daredevil.

Knievel, a not-so-favorite son of Butte, gained worldwide fame in the 1960s and ’70s for his show-offy biker jumps over live rattlesnakes, snarling mountain lions, aquarium sharks, casino fountains, and daunting lines of Greyhound buses and Mack trucks. Lately, he’s been reduced to starring in "Evel Knievel Daze," a festival held in his ambivalent hometown every August. Highlights include a motorcycle parade, a tattoo contest, and the display of the rocket-shaped X-2 SkyCycle he used in his attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in 1974.

Paul Squires of England caught a transatlantic flight he could barely afford, just to attend the last festival. "It’s a childhood hero thing; it makes me feel young again," said Squires, 31. "My friends give me a hard time about it. Last year, I went to a barbecue and had a few too many and they convinced me to jump a bicycle over a bonfire. I broke my ankle and wound up in the emergency ward."

"When I was little, I thought (Evel Knievel) was Superman," said Jim Mulcahy, a local cement mason, whose 8-year-old son Zakk tied for first in the Evel look-alike contest. "He got out of here, that’s for sure, and made it big." Mulcahy’s father, an Irish policeman with a penchant for wordplay, is credited with giving Knievel his stage name. At age 16, Robert Craig Knievel got tossed into the town jail for stealing hubcaps. It was not his first visit there. He was reportedly known as a "knocker," one who would knock on doors to demand protection money, returning to vandalize the homes of those who refused him.

"So we have Evil Knievel in the cellblock tonight," Marcus Mulcahy is reported to have said, and the name stuck. (Knievel later changed the spelling of the name to "Evel" to avoid offending religious fans.) Knievel’s youthful reputation as a thug and shakedown artist still dogs him. Many locals don’t care for his high-living braggadocio and wrinkled swagger, either. He’s one of the few living celebrities targeted by a petition against having a hometown street named after him. People resent the fact that a whole weekend in August is devoted to "Evel Knievel Daze" — and that the traffic is fouled up during that time.

Knievel is moving slower at 64, but retains his machismo. In response to the local opposition, he wrote an open letter to the town, boasting: "I have my beloved friends here. I have those who are jealous of me and don’t care for me. That’s their problem."

Though he has survived 37 broken bones (one sustained falling into a golf course bunker), the crash into the Idaho canyon, and a six-month jail term for breaking the arms of an unflattering biographer, his closest brush with death came three years ago, when surgeons gave him a new liver. Knievel had contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion during one of his many reassembly operations. His liver may also have been damaged by his favorite cocktail, the "Montana Mary," a vile blend of beer, tomato juice and Wild Turkey bourbon.

The most dangerous stunts Knievel attempted during the last festival were leading the parade on his Harley Davidson, and tweaking the town’s large Irish population by repeatedly bragging that his festival is "bigger than St. Patrick’s Day."

He sat in the Cavalier Bar after the parade and talked of making one last big jump — possibly attempting to clear 22 cars and three tractor-trailers in Las Vegas next spring. He was unimpressed by the suggestion that a few less cars might be more realistic.

"If I’m going to do a jump, it’s going to be a good one," he said, thumping the bar table with a crooked finger and narrowing his eyes. "I am not a stuntman. I am a daredevil."

The headlining daredevil act of "Evel Knievel Daze" took place on a Friday night, when a crowd that equaled a third of the town’s population stood in a weedy vacant lot amid old miners’ boardinghouses to watch Spanky Spangler try to make a corkscrewing leap over 11 salvaged cars in a yellow 1980 Oldsmobile. The stunt was Spangler’s follow-up to last year’s spectacle, in which he set himself on fire and hurled himself from the top of the Finlen Hotel, the tallest building in town.

To offset local resentment toward Knievel, the event’s organizers made admission to the Oldsmobile flight free, and offered beer for a dollar a can. "If they sold tickets for this," confided Wal-Mart pharmacist Larry McCarthy, "hardly anybody (local) would have come."

The smell of caramel corn and tamales perfumed the air as Spanky revved up his muscle car. The right side of the ramp collapsed at the critical moment and Spanky’s Oldsmobile flew off course, clipping the side of one of the wrecked cars and turning over once before coming to rest on its roof. The crew and an ambulance raced toward the wreck, and tense seconds passed before one of Spanky’s crew waved a towel around victoriously, signaling that the stuntman was unharmed. Spanky crawled out moments later and walked off, almost nonchalantly.

In that moment, Spanky was like Butte: thrown off course and thoroughly wrecked, but determined to get back on its feet and keep on going, unashamed.

Tom Zoellner, a former Arizona and Montana writer, is trying a stint in New York City.

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