Levi LaVallee was in Las Vegas three years ago when, on New Year's Eve, Robbie Maddison set the world motorcycle distance-jumping record by launching his dirtbike 322 feet over a football field. LaVallee was already one of the best snowmobile racers in the world, but the thought of attempting Maddo's feat on a sled never entered his mind. What did was a desire to be a part of what has since become one of the most anticipated nights on the action sports calendar: Red Bull's annual New Year. No Limits. "It is by far the biggest stage and it's such a huge show," the 28-year-old LaVallee says. "I wanted to be a part of it." He just wasn't sure how.
Then, later that year, LaVallee took up freestyle and won a Winter X Games gold medal -- one of seven X Games medals he owns -- in the event. Suddenly, he had a new perspective about what was possible on the machine he'd been riding since he was a kid. "Freestyle opened my mind, and my imagination started running wild," he says. "I started having all these crazy ideas, like doing a double backflip. But the one thing I haven't done is distance jumping, so that seemed like the next step." The next year, LaVallee began planting the idea of a snowmobile distance jump into the minds of his sponsors at Red Bull. "I threw it out a few times, told them, 'I'm down to do it if you are,'" he says. "But I didn't expect them to say yes." In the meantime, he watched from home as Maddo jumped his bike onto the Arch de Triumph outside the Paris Hotel in Vegas on Dec. 31, 2008. He watched, again from home, as Travis Pastrana long-jumped his Subaru 269 feet off the Long Beach Pier on Dec. 31, 2009. This year, LaVallee decided he needed to get out of the house.
"Red Bull called asking what I thought about San Diego," Lavallee says. "I said I thought there wasn't much snow in San Diego." And then he said, "Yes." He'd worry about the details later. When Pastrana heard he was handing LaVallee the New Year's baton, he sent him a text asking what he had up his sleeve. "I told him I was going to do the same thing he did," LaVallee says. "Except I don't have to worry about my landing floating away." That's one of the few things he doesn't have to worry about.
The lack of snow and warm climate presented the most immediate challenge for LaVallee, his team at Polaris and the team of engineers, mechanics and ramp builders Red Bull assembled for the project. "This is the most challenging of all the jumps we've done, by far," says Dane Herron, who is overseeing the project. "Levi is attempting to do something no one has ever done in a place and on surfaces that are so different from what he is used to."
To make up for the lack of snow, Herron and his team covered the 1,100-foot run-in, ramp and landing, which will be transported to Embarcadero Marina Park in downtown San Diego, in Astroturf, the same surface used during freestyle contests at the Winter X Games. They then started experimenting with materials and coolants to keep the engine from overheating in 80-plus degree temperatures. They flew Levi and his sled to a wind tunnel in North Carolina to test how his 450-pound snowmobile would fly at heights and speeds LaVallee had never pushed it to. They put slick treads on the machine and took it to a drag strip to test how it would handle at speeds upwards of 100mph, which will be required for LaVallee to jump his desired distance under these conditions. The water gap alone is 300 feet. "My top speed on a snocross track is only 50 mph," he says. "And now I'm going twice that and hitting a ramp that's three times longer than I'm used to. This is way outside my norm, but I'm getting comfortable with it. I handle my sled well and I'm not afraid to go big. But I realized distance jumping is a lot crazier than I imagined."
The record LaVallee is attempting to break, 301 feet, was set in March 2009 by Anchorage native and X Games competitor Paul Thacker -- who is currently recovering from broken ribs, a collapsed lung and several broken vertebrae suffered in a practice crash on Nov. 18 -- at Brainerd International Raceway in Minnesota. For that jump, Thacker reached top speeds of 87 mph, so LaVallee and his team had that as their starting point. They also learned a lot about the aerodynamics of flying large land machines from the Maddison and Pastrana jumps and were able to apply that knowledge to LaVallee's project. And LaVallee, well, he's learning something new every day. "Every jump I do is a new personal best for me," he says. "So I'm pumped every time I land."
But that doesn't mean he'll be satisfied with a final measurement of 302 feet. "When we started, we had a goal in mind, and once we got all the bugs worked out and our comfort level up, I was happy with where we were. I didn't understand why we were doing so much more testing," Herron says. "But Levi came to me and said, 'Dude, I want this machine to go faster, and I know it can, so we need to figure it out.' The goals we set aren't the limits Levi's set for himself. He's not satisfied with where we're at now. He wants to go far beyond that." It's not called No Limits for nothing.