A small town's stunt: Evel Knievel Week

The motorcycle daredevil hopes that a festival this week will rejuvenate his childhood hometown.

Every town loves a homegrown hero, though some need one more than others.

For decades, the favorite son of this depressed copper-mining mecca cloaked himself in a red, white, and blue leather jumpsuit and then throttled toward the sky on the back of a hog, like Icarus tempting fate.

Wherever he jumped, Robert Craig Knievel – known to the world by his stage name, "Evel" – performed daredevil stunts with the words "Butte, Montana – Home of the Richest Hill on Earth" proudly scrawled in bold letters beneath his vehicle.

Now, the town is returning the favor by honoring the stuntman with it's first ever Evel Knievel Week. The festival – which has already included a Knievel exhibit and lookalike contest – will conclude Saturday with a Joan Jett concert, fireworks, a parade, and appearances by the legend, who has driven his million-dollar motor home back to Montana.

"Butte and Evel Knievel have a mutual respect for [one] another because they've both had their fair share of pain," says Bill Rundle, a local salesman of vintage cars and a former member of Knievel's crew who compares the stuntman to Elvis. "He's come home to Butte because he recognizes how desperate things are here and he wants to help."

Knievel's feats, such as jumping over a line of buses in the parking lot of Ceasar's Palace in Las Vegas or rocketing across the chasm of Idaho's Snake River Canyon, were gonzo carnival acts of the television age. The American original is one of the godfathers of the brand of extreme sports premised on the notion that unless an "athlete" takes life-ending mortal risks, then the competitor hasn't lived. You can even see his imprint on NBC's "Fear Factor" or MTV's stunt extravaganza, "Jackass." Jumping over shark tanks on a Harley? He did it first.

During his heyday, Knievel attracted TV audiences that rivaled those on Super Bowl Sunday and, as a lucrative brand name, products with his likeness, including pinball machines, Halloween costumes, and toys, generated an estimated $300 million in sales.

But as famous as he became, Knievel never forgot the town where, as a young miner, he dreamed of finding an exit from the dead-end shafts.

Now, as Evel Knievel Week moves toward its dramatic crescendo, when a friend of Knievel's will light himself on fire and leap off the tallest building in town, Butte is again pondering an uncertain future.

Like a mirror held to Knievel's body – the daredevil broke 35 bones in motorcycle accidents during his career – this tired, bare-knuckled community is struggling to live up to its motto: The Town Too Tough To Die.

Once upon a time, Butte was the largest and most cultured city between Minneapolis and Seattle. Billions of dollars' worth of copper and silver were extracted from the ground beneath it.

Yet as the mining era withered in the latter half of the 20th century, and thousands of miners lost their jobs, Butte's Faustian bargain with copper barons, and the bill they handed the city, came due.

Butte's historic district, which boasted an opera house, a world-class amusement park, and spectacular architecture, has the dilapidated feel of the Rust Belt following the collapse of the steel industry. The town is hunkered among a panorama of mine wastes, fouled ground water, and a cleanup tab surpassing $100 million.

But perhaps the most poignant symbol of Butte's woes is the abandoned Berkeley Open Pit. The federal Superfund site is a toxic crater a mile across that has been marketed as a postindustrial tourist attraction.

Now, Butte has another reason for the three million summer travelers who pass by on Interstate 90 to stop.

The genesis of Evel Knievel Week grew from a late-night phone conversation. An ailing Knievel confided that he was worried that he wouldn't pull through – and that one of his last wishes was that Butte would name a street after him. Not only did he recover, but his wish has come true. A six-mile loop has been given his name. "Even on his deathbed, he was thinking about this town," Rundle said. "Butte has given him a street but he's lending us his name."

Knievel sees his festival as a way to bring much-needed tourist dollars into the local economy, says Jack Ferriter, a longtime friend of Knievel.

Initially, some civic leaders worried that it might attract an unsavory element, since it was marketed to motorcyclists headed to the annual motorcycle summer rally in Sturgis, S.D.

"Then the business community realized that maybe attracting bikers to town wasn't such a bad idea," says Jon Sesso, the planning director for the city of Butte and surrounding Silver Bow County. "Let's face it, most bikers going to Sturgis are more well-off financially than the people of Butte. Evel's helping us make hay while the sun is shining."

Tens of thousands of Knievel fans, including bikers, arrived this week on the strength of the daredevil's call for help. Having just signed some new endorsement deals, and planning, at age 64, to make one more motorcycle jump next year, Knievel says he hopes his festival sparks an economic renaissance in Butte.

"You wait and see, next year Evel Knievel Week is going to be bigger and better than ever," says Mr. Ferriter. "We're gonna turn this economy around. Butte's been down before but, like Evel Knievel, we've always bounced back up."

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