Evel Knievel museum celebrates American daredevil
30 Jun 2017 – 9:48
Mike Patterson, owner of historic Harley-Davidson and founder of The Evel Knievel Museum in Topeka, Kansas, surveys the wall of news clippings about the daredevil stunt rider in his Evel Knievel Museum on June 21, 2017. AFP / Beth Lipoff
Topeka: Step through the doors of the Evel Knievel Museum in Kansas and you come face to face with a bright red, 63-foot semi-truck.
It is the oversized home of the larger-than-life American stunt man when he was on tour in the 1960s and 70s.
The truck is restored to look as it did decades ago, with the ramps used by the famed motorcyclist to achieve his jumps stored in the back.
Knievel reached worldwide recognition with death-defying performances notable as much for unsuccessful landings as successful ones.
His daredevil spirit made him an American folk hero — wearing his trademark suit with the stars of the American flag and its red, white, and blue colors.
But until now, there has been no museum dedicated to his career.
“He was just a cultural leader. And I think whether you liked him or not, everyone watched,” said Mike Patterson, founder of The Evel Knievel Museum, which officially opens Friday in the Kansas state capital of Topeka.
“Kids all over the world were jumping their bicycles (like him),” said Patterson, who built the museum next to his Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership in the center of the area known as “America’s heartland” — the vast middle of the country.
From children’s toys to virtual reality
Born Robert Craig Knievel, the daredevil star died in 2007 at the age of 69 — his dream of a museum unrealized.
The new institution — which was officially sanctioned by the Knievel family — aims to celebrate his legacy with physical memorabilia, including four of Knievel’s motorcycles and his various colorful outfits.
There are videos of jumps from all over the world — from nearby Kansas City to London’s Wembley Stadium — and a virtual reality ride that allows visitors to sit astride a motorcycle and experience a jump.
Another interactive display lets visitors adjust variables such as speed, ramp angle and obstacle, to see if they can plan a successful stunt.
There are also two replica bikes, a timeline wall of his career, news clips and documentary photos of his stunts, and a plethora of merchandise, from keychains to children’s toys.
The museum quietly opened its doors in May for a test run, more than a month before its Friday grand opening. It has already attracted visitors from 34 states, and countries as far away as Australia and Zimbabwe.
‘America needed a hero’
For 58-year-old Randy Carlton, a visitor from Texas who remembers watching Knievel on television as a child, the museum was an educational experience.
“I can’t imagine doing what he did on the equipment he did it on,” he said, explaining that the heavy motorcycles Knievel used were “like jumping with a John Deere tractor.”
The museum’s location at a Harley-Davidson dealership is in part due to Patterson’s personal passion for Knievel, who often used a Harley-Davidson XR-750 motorcycle to perform his stunts.
“In the early ’70s, America needed a hero. It was a politically unstable time, and he represented what a lot of people wanted to see in America,” said Patterson, who was four years old when he first saw Knievel jump.
“He was an entrepreneur. He risked his body and always came back, no matter how bad he got knocked down,” he said.
When a Knievel collector asked Patterson to help him restore that red touring truck, Patterson had the idea to build an entire museum — spending $ 2 million to make that idea a reality.
The value of the museum’s collection, most of which is on loan, is estimated at another $ 3 million.
The Knievel family approved the exhibits and contributed items such as X-rays of his broken bones — 433 of them, a Guinness world record.
Members of Knievel’s original crew planned to attend the grand opening ceremonies.
Buck Venable, visiting the museum on a recent afternoon from nearby Missouri, said it was unique in retelling contemporary American cultural history.
“Most of the time you go to museums and you see stuff from before your time,” Venable said.
“To be able to come to a museum and see something that happened during your time, that’s great.”