Montana’s Evel Knievel Festival Is What Living Looks Like
Alexis Pike idolizes Evel Knievel. It started in childhood, and Pike was just six when she fractured her skull trying to emulate one of his many stunts. Getting knocked unconscious and spending four days in the hospital did nothing to dampen her adoration. So it was only natural that she would one day photograph Evel Knievel Days, the annual extravaganza celebrating the wild life and times of a quintessentially American showman.
To call Evel Knievel a stuntman is to undersell just what he accomplished. He remains a cultural touchstone of the 1970s, a man whose face emblazoned everything from action figures to lunch boxes, a man who provided an antidote to what President Jimmy Carter called our nation’s “crisis of confidence.” No one was more confident than Evel Knievel, who jumped his Harley-Davidson over cars, buses, and sharks. He even strapped himself into a rocket to jump the Snake River Canyon. ABCs Wide World of Sports broadcast seven of his stunts; five of them are still among the most-watched programs in the show’s history.
Though he broke more bones than he could count and once spent a month in a coma, Knievel seemed indestructible. His body, weakened by diabetes and pulmonary fibrosis, finally gave out in 2007 when he was 69, but even now the legend endures. Each year, legions of fans gather each July in his hometown of Butte, Montana, to celebrate the life of consummate showman who seemed to know no fear.
“It’s a project with Evel’s swagger, exploring sex, masculinity, image, risk, the West, and the momentum that carries you forward."
The adrenaline-fueled three-day event draws some 55,000 people daily. They come from far and wide to see men and women with more courage do things like launch all manner of conveyances great distances. Gregg Godfrey set a record when he flew 166 feet in a semi, and Bryan “Spanky” Spanger flew 123.5 feet in a car going backward. Hundreds join the annual motorcycle ride through town, kids compete in an Evel Knievel lookalike contest, and tribute bands do their best impersonations of groups like AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica.
Pike’s ongoing project Color Me Lucky captures the stunning feats, but it’s the small details that are most fascinating. Evel Knievel trading cards and commemorative tattoos. Carefully curated presentations of his helmets, leathers (with his beloved rabbit’s foot zipper pulls), and, of course, his motorcycles. Even his big-rig, appropriately called Big Red, was there. As Pike was shooting, Knievel’s daughter stopped by to survey the memorabilia. “It was touching because you could tell she had stepped into her past,” Pike says. “She was explaining all the details of the rig to her children and grandchildren and the time she spent there as a child.”
The photographer also shot at other locations associated with Knievel’s history, such as Las Vegas, Nevada and the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, sites both associated with failed jumps. Rather than focus on Knievel’s legacy, Pike hopes to explore just what drives people like Knievel and those he inspires, to risk their lives, and why so many people are only too eager to watch them do it. “It’s a project with Evel’s swagger, exploring sex, masculinity, image, risk, the West, and the momentum that carries you forward,” she writes in her artist’s statement. “Even when you know there’s a train wreck ahead.”