History Stories

There have always been daredevils. But never has there been such a variety of creative ways to defy death—and break a few world records along the way.

Ask almost any daredevil, stunt performer or extreme-sports athlete since the 1970s who provided their greatest inspiration and the name Evel Knievel inevitably leaps to mind. In his career as a motorcycle-jumping daredevil, Knievel dreamed big, performed fearlessly—and had the 433 broken bones to prove it. (Or so says the Guinness Book of World Records.) Below, a list of adrenaline-fueled boundary pushers who have followed in his death-defying footsteps, from a former Google engineer who made a world-record freefall from the edge of the stratosphere to a Brazilian surfer who rode (and survived) an 80-foot-tall monster wave. The risks may change, but the irresistible urge to take them lives on.

1970s

Evel Knievel: The Godfather of Daredevils

Formally known as Robert Craig Knievel Jr., Evel Knievel almost single-handedly revived the daredevil business in the 1960s and ‘70s with a genius for publicity, a knack for jumping motorcycles over cars and other objects and a seemingly limitless tolerance for broken bones. The American public got its first major glimpse of Knievel in 1967, when he drove his motorcycle off a ramp at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in attempt to leap the casino’s fountains. He stayed airborne for 140 feet but came down hard, breaking multiple bones. Many jumps (and hospital stays) later, he attempted his most daring and publicized jump, flying a rocket-powered cycle 1,600 feet across the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho, in 1974. Unfortunately, a parachute on the craft deployed prematurely, causing it to stop short and float down into the canyon, leaving Knievel with some minor scrapes. Evel Knievel retired in 1976 but not before his last major jump, clearing 14 Greyhound buses at an Ohio theme park without breaking a single bone.

Philippe Petit: Man on a Wire

The French-born high-wire artist, who later moved to the United States, first came to worldwide attention in 1971 when, at age 21, he strung a wire between two towers at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris and walked across, 223 feet off the ground. He topped that in 1974, when he performed the same feat, 1,350 feet in the air, in a 45-minute walk back and forth between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan. Although he was quickly arrested and charged with disorderly conduct and criminal trespass, the city, perhaps bowing to a public charmed by the young daredevil’s audacity, agreed to drop the charges in return for an encore performance in Central Park. Since then he has walked wires around the world and been featured in both an Academy Award-winning documentary, Man on Wire, and a fictionalized account, The Walk. “I prepare by reducing the unknown to nothing, but also by knowing my limits, he told The New Yorker in 1999. “If I think I am a hero who is invincible, I will pay for it with my life.” Happily, as of this writing, he is still alive.

Philippe Petit

Aerialist Philippe Petit crossing a high wire between the World Trade Center towers, 1974. (Credit: Bill Stahl Jr./NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images)

Karl Wallenda: Flying Family Patriarch

Famed aerialist and member of the “Flying Wallenda Family,” Karl Wallenda wire-walked across the quarter-mile Tallulah Falls Gorge in Georgia in 1970 and across Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 1972 before a Phillies game. (Local papers reported that he consumed one beer before that stunt and eight martinis after; the wire swayed so much he sat down on it midway through the crossing.)  The 73-year-old German-born Wallenda died in 1978 when a gust of wind knocked him off the wire he was crossing between two hotel towers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. In front of a traumatized crowd of onlookers, he fell headfirst and landed on a taxi. The Wallenda family were no strangers to tragedy. In 1962, the Wallendas seven-person tightrope pyramid collapsed 35 feet over the ground, killing two family members and injuring Karl. The show must—and did—go on. His great-grandson Nik Wallenda has since completed the wirewalk that took his Karl Wallenda’s life.

The Human Fly: Strapped to a Jet

The Human Fly, whose identity was kept secret, was only seen in public wearing a rhinestone-studded red-and-silver masked jumpsuit. His first set of stunts involved being strapped, standing up, to the top of a jet as it sped to 300 miles per hour. Another stunt, staged in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium, involved a motorcycle jump over 27 buses—topping Evel Knievel’s record jump over 13 school buses. But the Human Fly crashed upon landing and was never seen again. It was later revealed the Human Fly was a scheme launched by two brothers in Montreal looking for something more exciting than working in their family sausage-making factory—and there had always been more than one guy wearing the red suit.

Jackie Chan

Jackie Chan in the 1992 film Supercop. (Credit: Dimension Films/Everett)

1980s

Jackie Chan: Daredevil Actor

Hong Kong native Jackie Chan famously does all of his own stunts and has the broken bones (and skull) to show for it. In 1985’s Police Story, Chan slid down a four-story pole covered in lights and crashed through a large pane of glass, suffering second-degree burns and dislocating his pelvis. In 1986’s Armour of God, he attempted to jump from a wall to a tree branch, but missed the branch and landed on his head, cracking his skull and requiring emergency brain surgery. Perhaps his most famous stunt was being dragged around Hong Kong hanging from a helicopter by a rope ladder in 1992’s Super Cop.

Dar Robinson: Stuntman of Legend

Dar Robinson didn’t consider himself a daredevil. The legendary stuntman carefully calculated all of his record-breaking stunts to maximize safety. He made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the highest-paid stuntman—$100,000 to jump off the 1,100-foot CN Tower in Toronto before opening a parachute 300 feet from the ground for the 1979 movie High Point. In 1980, he jumped from the tower again attached to a steel cable that broke his fall 200 feet from the ground. He held world records and “firsts” for the highest fall into an airbag (311 feet) and skydiving from one plane into another. He died at 39 years old filming a standard motorcycle chase scene. He was thrown from the bike, fell 40 feet down a cliff and was gored by a sagebrush limb.

Dar Robinson

Hollywood stuntman Dar Robinson jumping from the CN Tower, reaching speeds up to 102 miles an hour. (Credit: Erin Combs/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Larry Walters: a.k.a ‘Lawn Chair Larry

Frustrated that his poor eyesight kept him from a career as an Air Force pilot, a California truck driver hatched a plan to attach 42 large helium weather balloons to a lawn chair and see where it took him. On July 2, 1982, with the help of his girlfriend, Walters strapped himself into a regular metal lawn chair attached to 42 8-foot balloons and cut the restraining cords. Expecting to rise about 30 feet before controlling his descent with a pellet pistol, Walters shot up to 16,000 feet before finally leveling off. Luckily, in addition to the beer and sandwiches he brought with him, he also had a CB radio, which he used to make contact with authorities. He floated through the flight path to Los Angeles International Airport, where more than one pilot reported a man in a lawn chair with a gun cruising at 16,000 feet. He shot a few of the balloons and eventually landed safely dangling from a power line.

Ken Carter: Rocket-Car Man

Canadian stuntman and daredevil Ken Carter made a name for himself in the 1970s and early ’80s jumping cars long distances with the aid of homemade rocket engines. He had been jumping rocket cars for 27 years before a horrific crash took his life in 1983. Attempting to break his own rocket-car record by jumping 200 feet from ramp to ramp over a man-made pond in Ontario, the rocket engine failed to shut off, propelling Carter 100 feet past the ramp. The car rolled in mid-air and fell 75 feet onto its roof. The safety roll cage was crushed flat.

Alain Robert

Alain Robert climbing from a hotel in Montreal on May 27, 1999. (Credit: Michel Ponomareff/Ponopresse/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

1990s

Alain Robert: The ‘French Spiderman’

Alain Robert was already known as one of the world’s most daring unassisted solo mountain climbers (no ropes, no special equipment, just his hands and feet) when he took on a whole new challenge: skyscrapers. In 1994, he climbed the iconic Empire State Building, wedging his fingers and toes in the crevasses between windows. Since then, he’s gone on to climb more than 70 skyscrapers—often in his signature Spiderman suit—including the world’s tallest buildings, the 1,483-ft (452m) Petronas Towers in Malaysia and the 2,717-ft (828m) Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It seems the upward urge was always with him: He scaled his first building at age 11, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, when he was locked out of the family’s 7th-floor apartment and climbed the side of the building to get in.

Doug Danger: Record-Breaking Motorcycle Jumper

A protégé of Evel Knievel, Doug “Danger” Senecal started jumping motorcycles in the late 1970s. (His first stunt may have been riding his motorcycle down his high school hallways on a dare.) After clearing 14 buses in 1985 and 25 cars in 1990, he entered the Guinness Book of World Records with the longest motorcycle jump at the time, 251 feet over 42 cars. A crash in 1992 left him in a coma with 17 broken bones. After re-learning how to walk and talk, he came back to jumping, and now tours as a motivational speaker to kids.

Robbie Knievel

Robbie Knievel airborne above the Grand Canyon in May, 1999 during a successful 228-feet world record jump. (Credit: John Gurzinski/AFP/Getty Images)

Robbie Knievel: Legend in His Own Right

Robert E. Knievel, a.k.a. “Kaptain Robbie Knievel,” son of the legendary daredevil Evel Knievel, is himself a world-class daredevil with 350 jumps and 20 world records to his name. In 1999, Robbie fulfilled one of his father’s dreams, to jump a motorcycle across a span of the Grand Canyon. While the jump was technically a success, Robbie lost control of the bike on the landing and broke his leg.

Andy Green: Land-Speed Record

In 1997, British Air Force fighter pilot Andy Green piloted a different kind of high-speed vehicle into the record books. In the barren Black Rock Desert of Nevada, he became the first person to break the sound barrier on land, pushing his Thrust SSC jet-powered car past 763 mph or Mach 10. He and his team are hoping to break the 1,000 mph mark with their new Bloodhound SSC ride in 2019.

Davide Blaine

A New York City Police officer watches while magician David Blaine attempts to be frozen in a block of ice for 58 hours in Times Square, New York, 2000. (Credit: Scott Gries/ImageDirect/Getty Images)

2000s

David Blaine: Insane Feats of Endurance

Starting in 1999, magician David Blaine veered sharply from nifty card tricks to insane feats of physical and psychological endurance starting with “Buried Alive” in 1999, when he spent seven days buried underground in a Plexiglas coffin surviving on a few tablespoons of water a day. In 2000, he was encased in solid ice for more than 63 hours and 42 minutes. After standing on a 100-foot high, 22-inch wide pillar for 35 hours without a harness in 2002, he fasted for 44 days suspended inside a Plexiglas tank 30 feet over the Thames River in London in 2003. And in 2008, he set a new world record on the Oprah Winfrey Show for holding his breath underwater for 17 minutes and 4 seconds.

Travis Pastrana: Two-Wheeling Heir to Evel

The first person to land a double flip on a motorcycle—and yes, the crowd went wild—Travis Pastrana went from being one of the winningest motocross racers in the sport’s history to one of the most decorated freestyle athletes in X Games history (17 medals in four different disciplines). He then took a page from Evel Knievel’s playbook, performing outrageous tricks ranging from a motorcycle backflip between building rooftops to skydiving without a parachute. (He avoided going splat by connecting with a buddy mid-air and latching into his harness—not as easy as it looks.) Pastrana has set his sights squarely on Knievel’s legacy, with plans to recreate three of the motorcycle icon’s gnarliest stunts (including leaps of the Caesars Palace fountains and 14 buses) in a single night on live TV.

Travis Pastrana

Travis Pastrana completing a backflip during an exhibition in Rio, 2009. (Credit: Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

Kirk Jones: First Unprotected Plunge from Niagara Falls

In 2003, Michigan native Kirk Jones became the first person to survive the 180-foot plunge over Niagara Falls with nothing but the clothes on his back. Eight seconds after disappearing over the falls, Jones emerged from the roiling mist below with some broken ribs and a bruised spine, but otherwise fine, even refusing a ride back from the Maid of the Mist. He was fined $2,300 and banned from Canada for life. Sadly, he died in 2017 trying to repeat the stunt with a large inflatable ball.

Natalia Molchanova: Greatest Freediver

Russian freediver Natalia Molchanova held 41 world records in the sport when she disappeared during a recreational dive off the coast of Spain in 2015. The sport can easily turn deadly, with divers fighting off not only oxygen deprivation, but toxic levels of lactic acid in their blood. But Molchanova, who took up the sport at age 40, had a nearly superhuman ability to dive deeper and deeper, surpassing 101 meters (331 feet) with only a fin. She frequently outperformed the best male competitors at world-championship events.

Nik Wallenda

Nik Wallenda walking a high wire over the Grand Canyon on June 23, 2013. (Credit: Tim Boyles/Getty Images)

2010s

Nik Wallenda: Tightrope Record-Breaker

Nik Wallenda, a member of the seventh generation of the Wallenda family of daredevil aerialists, completed several record-breaking tightrope stunts in the early 2010s, including the first-ever tightrope crossing of the Niagara Falls (2012) and the longest blindfolded tightrope walk between two skyscrapers (2014). He also tightroped across the Grand Canyon and holds Guinness World Records for the highest and longest tightrope crossings on a bicycle.

Gary Connery: First Wingsuit Landing Without Parachute

Relatively unknown to the wingsuit daredevil world, British stuntman Gary Connery became the first person ever to leap from an aircraft and land on the ground without a parachute in 2012. The 42-year-old Connery wore a wingsuit and leapt from a helicopter hovering 2,400 feet over the English countryside. He reached a top speed of 75 mph before landing/crashing into a runway of 18,500 stacked cardboard boxes.

Gary Connery

Professional Hollywood Gary Connery performing a 3,000 ft base jump without the aid of a parachute in his home town of Thames, England. (Credit: Mark Sutton/Limelight Marketing/Getty Images)

Alan Eustace: Highest Parachute Jump

Google senior executive Alan Eustace climbed to 135,908 feet—the edge of space—strapped to a high-altitude helium balloon before cutting himself loose and free-falling for 4.5 minutes before activating his parachute. Reaching a maximum velocity of 822 m.p.h., Eustace became the second man to break the sound barrier without an aircraft, the first being Felix Baumgartner in 2012. Eustace’s jump, which he planned in secret for three years, beat Baumgartner’s record by 8,000 feet.

Rodrigo Koxa: Biggest Wave Ever Surfed

Riding an 80-foot monster wave off the coast of Portugal, Brazilian surfer Rodrigo Koxa broke the Guinness World Record for the biggest wave ever surfed on November 8, 2017. On the same day, in the same spot, fellow surfer Andrew Cotton broke his back in a horrific wipeout. The record-breaking ride took place at Praia do Norte off the coast of Nazaré, Portugal, notorious for creating some of the world’s biggest waves. The World Surf League measures waves by comparing them to the size of the rider from trough to crest.

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