Evel Knievel Days, the festival named after Butte’s famous daredevil, faces an uncertain future as organizers struggle to secure funding from local business sponsors.
The event, which normally runs near the end of July and hosts big names in extreme acts, has appeared to be in trouble for the last few years. The biggest feat that took place at last year's event was a back flip performed by local man Levi Renz in an all-terrain vehicle on Broadway Street, said Butte-Silver Bow County Special Events Coordinator Bob Lazzari. In past years, the event was known as a draw for famous stunt men who performed such tricks as running through fire and jumping semi-trucks, among other swash-buckling moves.
While EK Days Board President Stephen Coe declined to go into details, he did say through an emailed statement to The Montana Standard last week that the organization is struggling to come up with sufficient funding from Butte’s business community.
EK Days has pursued some public funding. EK Days notified Superfund Advisory and Redevelopment Trust Authority board — known more commonly by its acronym SARTA — last fall that it would be requesting its annual allotment of $25,000 this year. EK Days has also put in a $20,000 request with Tourism, Business Improvement District (TBID), which collects a $1 hotel tax from overnight stays to support certain Butte events. That board is expected to vote on how much to give EK Days Tuesday.
Maria Pochervina, executive secretary for TBID, said organizations don’t necessarily get as much as they request from the board. Typically, EK Days has received around $10,000 nearly every year since 2012.
Coe said the group will also request money from the Convention and Visitors’ Bureau, which also doles out small amounts of public funds to local groups. He said EK Days normally asks for $10,000 each year but usually gets about $5,000 from that county wallet.
The three major summer festivals in Butte, including EK Days, have received money from the county’s economic development mill levy in the last few years. The Council of Commissioners approve those gifts. EK Days did not submit a request for funding this year.
This isn’t the first time EK Days has grappled with securing funding for the festival. Last year, Coe requested that SARTA give the group the full $125,000 SARTA then had to dole out to EK Days. SARTA provides money to Butte’s three primary summer festivals each year as part of an agreement with Atlantic Richfield Company.
The SARTA board initially agreed to EK Days' request for the full $125,000, then rescinded it. At the time, Coe said the organization sought the entire pot of money all at once in an effort to become self-sustaining.
Coe said, via email, that the board believes the event will continue.
“While Evel Knievel Days continues to be a uniquely exciting festival for our community, and a needed boost to our economy by bringing in visitors from all over the country, the current level of financial support it is receiving from local corporate and business sponsors falls far short of the amount necessary to continue putting on the quality of event we strive for with family-friendly entertainment and world-class stunts, acts and athletes like Greg and Tanner Godfrey, Travis Pastrana, Spanky Spangler and Mat Hoffman to name a few. This reality has the organization facing a very difficult challenge of how to provide a free, top-tier event without more financial support. Even in the face of this adversity, our organization of 100 percent unpaid volunteers are working hard to secure the funding needed to provide another event worthy of being held in Montana's festival city."
EK Days is Butte’s longest running summer festival, marking its 16th consecutive running last year, but it has been dogged by controversies to some degree since April 2014.
That’s when longtime organizers cut ties to the event amid bitter disputes with the county and Kelly Knievel over management and control issues. Kelly Knievel is the daredevil’s eldest son and owns licensing rights to his late father’s name.
The festival went on as scheduled under new direction in 2014, and the following year, it featured two stunts that wowed the crowds but raised serious safety concerns.
In one, Bryan Spangler launched his car into the air backwards and traveled 126 feet. But it knocked over one concrete barrier and skidded down two more, stopping only 6 feet from a building where dozens of people stood.
The stunts alarmed police and county officials, who essentially vowed “never again.” There have been no similar, crowd-stunning stunts the past two years.
The festivals in 2015 and 2016 also featured last-minute changes, including unannounced street closings that miffed many Upton business owners, residents and some commissioners.
The festival also irked commissioners in 2015 when the council learned, months after the fact, that the county provided nearly twice as much in-kind support, valued at $96,117 worth of aid, to the festival in 2015 as it had in 2014.
In a written statement, Kelly Knievel echoed Coe's comments.
"With the growth and success of Evel Knievel Days, the financial commitment necessary to support a free event is becoming more and more difficult. The Butte business community, as well as some really committed, hard-working volunteers, are the backbone of what we feel has been a great event for both participants and the local economy of Butte. We look forward to finding a solution that works for everyone," Kelly Knievel said in the statement.
A call to the daredevil’s daughter, Alicia Knievel Vincent, was not returned.
Reporter Mike Smith contributed to this story.