The parade will be hard to beat.
It was the Fourth of July in 1979, and I was 5 as I took in the parade on Montana Street in Butte. Like always, my family watched from our spot by the Bonanza Freeze.
The more than 100 parade entries included the Anaconda Copper Co. extravaganza, Tony the Trader, the Army’s Golden Knights parachute team and parade marshal Frank Quinn.
In the next day’s Montana Standard, Rick Foote called the parade, which celebrated Butte’s 100th year, Butte’s best parade in a decade. (Click here for the podcast version of this column.)
An estimated crowd of 52,000 lined the street on that picture-perfect summer day.
The parade was so good that I do not even remember that Evel Knievel rode in it in his Formula 1 dragster. I do, however, remember his son.
As Foote pointed out, 17-year-old Robbie Knievel stole the show.
I could not believe my eyes as Robbie, dressed in a jump suit just like Evel, rode his motorbike up and down the street.
After Robbie made a few passes by us, an El Camino came up, pulling a ramp. The car stopped right in front of me. My eyes nearly popped out of my head as Robbie hit the ramp and flew over the top of the car, landing smoothly on the street.
From that day on, if I was on a trike or bike — or running around the neighborhood pretending to hold the handlebars of a motorcycle — I was Robbie Knievel.
Nobody on the planet could hold a candle to the coolness of Robbie.
You could keep your Evel Knievel rocket toys. I had my imagination, and I was Robbie Knievel.
“The Kaptain” passed away last week after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 60.
I feel like a piece of my childhood died with him.
Robbie’s coolness never got old. Not for me. About 10 years after that El Camino jump, Robbie jumped the Caesars Palace fountains, completing the gutsy stunt 22 years after his father nearly died trying to do the same.
That jump was the talk of Butte for weeks. It was on pay-per-view television, so we only got to see the highlights of Robbie racing to the ramp before it got cut off on the news.
Still, it was one of the coolest things of the decade.
Robbie’s craziest stunt — at least in my mind — came in 1999. That is when he jumped 130 feet between the two 13-story Jockey Club towers in Las Vegas. I do not know if Robbie was scared, but the look of sheer terror on the faces of his family in the moments before the jump will stick with me forever.
That same year, Robbie jumped the Grand Canyon.
Well, he did not jump over the middle of the Grand Canyon. You need an airplane to do that. But the part he jumped was gutsy enough.
The funniest jump came in 2004. Robbie cleared a record 10,000 dishes. It was sponsored by Dawn Dish Soap, and it was a record, I assume, because nobody ever thought of jumping that many dishes before.
His longtime friend Joe Little called to give me the details when I was working on the sports desk at The Montana Standard.
“The kid has guts,” Joe said, in a major understatement.
Later that year, Robbie jumped a military aircraft on top of the USS Intrepid live on TNT. He made that jump to commemorate the premier of the TNT original movie about his dad.
Robbie knew he did not have the room to pull off the landing. So, he laid down the bike after he touched down and slid into a bunch of haystacks to keep him from tumbling off the side.
Before the jump, Robbie took the microphone from legendary TNT sportscaster Craig Sager and answered the questions he wanted to answer.
After the jump, Robbie and Sager had a comical tug of war with the microphone. The unimpressed Sager won, but not easily.
In 2005, Robbie was featured on the reality television series Knievel’s Wild Ride. TV crews followed Knievel around the country as he and his team drove from jump to jump.
It was wildly entertaining. It was especially entertaining when he made a crack about his father, not realizing the Last Gladiator might actually watch the show.
The show, by the way, had great ratings. A&E wanted to do another season. However, as Robbie told family members, he was too big of a pain in the butt, and the network opted to cancel after one season.
I watched every episode.
Several years later, Robbie jumped in front of Mirage volcano in Vegas on New Year’s Eve. It looked like he was jumping over it, which he would have if they would have let him.
After that, I heard some motocross kids laughing at Robbie. They pointed out that he was not jumping on the same bike his dad did. Robbie’s was much lighter and had much greater suspension.
That is true, but until those guys jump over the Grand Canyon, they can stick a sock in it. When they go from tower to tower 13 stories above the ground, then they can talk.
Robbie Knievel was daredevil in the truest meaning of the word. He risked his life and health to entertain the masses.
I was among those masses, and Robbie never disappointed to entertain me.
In 2003, my good friend Matt Vincent married Robbie’s little sister, Alicia. I was one of the groomsmen.
After a few beers, I mustered up the guts to go up and talk to Robbie. The first thing I did was tell him about that Fourth of July parade.
“I remember that,” Robbie said, excited by the memory. “That was Ferriter’s El Camino.”
He was talking about Jack Ferriter, another Butte legend who was pals with Evel.
Then, Robbie and I talked for a solid hour. He laughed when I told him that I pretended to be him every time I got on my bike.
That was a night and a conversation that I will remember forever. We laughed and laughed.
We all know Robbie was not the perfect person, and some people were quick to point that out after his passing. He got in to some trouble from time to time.
It was good to see that he owned up to his problems, and opened up about his fight for sobriety.
That could not have been easy to do. It took a different kind of guts.
Robbie Knievel was, indeed, human. And knowing that somehow makes him even more impressive in my book. He did things on a motorcycle that no human should have ever tried.
Like his father, Robbie Knievel embodied the spirit of the Mining City. While both would have a hard time winning a popularity contest in their hometown, they were always the perfect ambassadors for our rough-and-tumble mining camp.
They were Butte, America to its core.
During Evel Knievel days in 2006, I got to stand up next to the fence, right by the ramp, as Robbie jumped 180 feet on Park Street.
It was not the longest or the most dangerous jump he ever pulled off. Robbie was older, and he was getting thick around the waist.
Still, being that close to a Knievel jump ranks pretty high on my list of cool things.
That day, though, will always take a back seat to the Butte Fourth of July parade in 1979.
Rick Foote undersold it. It was not the best parade of the decade; it was the best parade of all time.
There I was, standing 10 feet away from Jack Ferriter’s El Camino as Robbie Knievel sailed over the top.
I guess the rest of the parade was probably alright, too.
— Bill Foley, who has never jumped an El Camino on a motorcycle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.