TOPEKA — The Evel Knievel Museum in Kansas is one of the best kept secrets in the state.
Museum director Bruce Zimmerman has been busy the last three years to let people know about the showcase of history, collectibles and interactive features of the World’s Greatest Daredevil are right here in Kansas.
Zimmerman spoke to members and guests of the Osawatomie Rotary Club during a meeting at the Whistle Stop Cafe. He invited them to bring their families and tell their friends about this great hidden gem in Topeka.
How exactly did the Evel Knievel Museum end up in Topeka? That is a great question, considering Evel was born in Butte, Montana.
When he was growing up, Evel saw the Joie Chitwood Show, performed by legendary Joie Chitwood, a stunt racing car driver from Topeka.
Henry Patterson moved from Grand Junction, Colo., to Topeka where he opened a Harley Davidson Shop in 1990. The shop, now called Historic Harley Davidson, began to not only sell motorcycles, but do restoration work.
They restored a motorcycle for music legend Jerry Lee Lewis. The Harley Davidson Motorcycle went up for auction years later and was purchased by collector Lathan McKay. He heard Historic Harley Davidson had done the work and had an iconic tractor trailer for them to work on.
McKay had purchased Big Red, the truck that hauled the Evel Knievel show around in the 1970s, from a salvage yard in Florida. It was in dire need of attention.
The crew at Historic Harley Davidson in Topeka took on the project and put together a team of 90 local individuals and business to bring Big Red back to life.
“Even people from Evel’s crew were brought in to help on the project,” Zimmerman said. “The restoration took two years.”
When Big Red was completed, it went on a rock star-like tour across the country with stops in Sturgis for the annual motorcycle rally, an international trade show in Dallas, a NASCAR event at Dallas Motor Speedway and Knievel Days in Butte, Montana where Evel was born.
Young Evel Knievel saw the Joie Chitwood Show, which traveled the country, and he was hooked.
“Evel said after he saw that show, he knew that was what he wanted to do the for rest of his life, Zimmerman said.
Evel was not just the World’s Greatest Daredevil, but also one of the great promotors.
He set up his stunt at Caesars Palace, jumping the iconic fountains. He set up a fictitious company called Evel Knievel Enterprises and three fake lawyers to make telephone calls to the casino’s CEO Jay Sarno. He also placed a call claiming to be ABC’s Wide World of Sports and Sports Illustrated, inquiring about the show.
He arranged to jump the fountains on Dec. 31, 1967. Once the deal was struck, he contacted Wide World of Sports, which did not cover the event but asked for videotape of the event. Evel used his own money to hire producer John Derek, who saved money by using his wife Linda Evans to film the jump.
Caesars Palace was Evel’s longest attempted motorcycle jump, covering 141 feet. He said the motorcycle unexpectedly decelerated, causing the handle bars to come out of his hands as he crashed on the pavement. Evel suffered a crushed pelvis and femur, fractured a hip, wrist and both ankles and a concussion.
ABC-TV bought the rights to the film and Evel was soon an American and Worldwide legend.
Evel was a performer, doing 75 ramp-to-ramp jumps during his career. He was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame in 1999.
The Ideal company made all kinds of Evel Knievel toys in the 1970s, from his figure and motorcycle with a launcher to scramble van and stadium, a skycycle rocket, jet cycle, stunt and crash car and an Evel Knievel Stunt World set. Other merchandise from tooth brushes, lunch boxes and board games were also available.
“Who remembers going out into the yard and jumping things on their bicycle?” Zimmerman asked members of the Osawatomie Rotary Club.
A few hands went up.
Mark Fuchs with First Option in Osawatomie thought back to those good old days of his youth and the bumps and bruises he got trying to be like Evel Knievel.
“The saying is that Evel Knievel broke every bone in his body at least once,” Zimmerman said. “That is legend.”
Knievel broke 40 bones, including some which were broken multiple times.
Doug Danger performed a jump in Topeka and had it filmed. The jump is part of a Virtual Reality 4-D Jump Experience offered at the Evel Knievel Museum.
The Evel Knievel Museum showcases a collection of authentic artifacts that belonged to the legendary daredevil, including motorcycles, jackets, helmets and other items.
The museum features a broken bones interactive with Evel’s actual X-rays, a plan your jump interactive challenge, engine and suspension interactive and the Snake River Experience Room featuring his X2 Skycycle.
The Evel Knievel Museum, located at 2047 SW Topeka Blvd., is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, contact the museum at (785) 212-6205 or visit them online at EVELKNIEVELMUSEUM.ORG.