The Top Gear presenter fulfilled a lifelong ambition when he met the legendary stunt motorcyclist Evel Knievel (who has since sadly died). Richard told RT what it was like coming face to face with a childhood hero.
Did you see Evel Knievel jump over 13 buses at Wembley Stadium in 1975?
I wasn’t there, sadly. But the legend of it reached me, of course, as it reached everyone.
Have you at any time tried to re-enact this stunt? As a kid on a Raleigh Chopper?
I tried to re-enact that stunt and every other stunt of Evel Knievel pretty much every weekend and after school every day. I built ramps and put Action Man and toy cars on the other side. And crashed everytime: it was just what you did in our suburban street, along with millions of others. I was never any good at it, but then even Evel Knievel crashed, didn’t he? So that was still cool. Even though it hurt and you had to pick lumps of gravel out of your knees.
It’s a risky business meeting a childhood hero, how did Evel measure up? Were you disappointed?
Evel is not a man you could meet and be disappointed by. I mean, he’s not easy to be around; he’d make a terrible diplomat. He is a difficult, tough, challenging and challenged human being.
I was fascinated, terrified and elated to be in his company. Yes, sure, he shouted at me, the crew and the people with him; constantly. But then, he is Evel Knievel, he is the legend. And he created that legend himself, so if you are going to meet the man, you have to play the game.
What was the best thing about Butte, Montana, Evel’s hometown?
The town itself is made up of beautiful old buildings, basic utility shacks and broad streets. It’s actually rather beautiful in a tough, weathered way. The scenery around Butte was beautiful too. I rode through the hills on a Harley and soaked it all up. Yes, I looked like a complete nellie doing it; a short, skinny bloke on a borrowed bike grinning at pines trees and sweeping hills, but I was happy inside.
And the people are amazing; there is an inherent toughness, a sense of resilience and grittiness that pervades even the biggest of crowds at the daftest of events. They are warm and welcoming, but I wouldn’t want to cross any of them. You very quickly get to recognise the locals, just from the way they carry themselves, meet with people and talk. They are not the easiest bunch, but I’d want them on my side in an old-school saloon bar fight.
Would you recommend a visit to the Evel Knievel Festival weekend?
It probably isn’t for everyone. It’s not an overly sophisticated event. I doubt many people have agonised between attending Evel Knievel Days in Butte Montana or the Haye-on-Wye Literary Festival. I loved it.
The bike stunts are real, not done with computers – the fairground rides are old and rattly and so are the people running them. Stalls sell stuff you really need; hot chilli sauce, hunting knives, big hats and Vietnam memorabilia. The people are welcoming and friendly, but tough as hell. They have to be; they’re not living in Henley on Thames there.
Describe the local cuisine.
The local cuisine is, er, well it’s basic. Evel took us to a place where they do a mean pork sandwich. I ate mine and I’m still alive. I’ve always been a big believer in the approach to food that it is something you have to break off playing to eat when your mum calls you in for tea, get it down your neck as fast as possible and then get back out on your bike.
Not surprisingly, Evel sort of agrees and so does his hometown. There are actually quite a few restaurants dotted about Bute and some of them are pretty good. But if you’re the type of person who agonises over choosing the right olive to go with your rocket leaves, then go somewhere else.