Altering the gap part of progression

Toomas Heikkinen undershoots the gap jump during X RallyCross practice.

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LOS ANGELES -- Action sport is all about progression, and this year's RallyCross competition at X Games LA is no exception.

While the hard-hitting, high-flying rally car discipline at X Games has featured a 70-foot crossover-gap jump every year in competition since 2007, this year is the first time that drivers will take on an all-metal, entirely mechanical jump feature.

Set up on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, this thing looks crazy. Designed by the guys behind many of Evel Knievel's more memorable stunts, it is bigger, badder and more metal than ever.

Instead of the usual carefully shaped dirt mounds, this year's rally car takeoff and landing are built out of a quarter-inch diamond plate welded to a steel frame. Its edges are abrupt and sharp, and there's no escape route. Once you're lined up at the base of this thing with your foot on the gas, you're going to fly, so you'd better hope you get it right.

Many of these drivers first encountered jumps that were natural features. Bringing the sport of rally car competition to X Games necessitated the introduction of a man-made jump, and each year has brought a new evolution: easier takeoffs, step-up landings, mellower angles … and this year, full metal.

Whether it's made of dirt or metal, going for a jump for the first time requires enormous mental discipline. When everything in your body is telling you to slow down -- as you climb up the ramp, with nothing but blue sky in your windshield -- you have to force yourself to keep your foot on the gas. And once you're in flight, there's a moment in the air when everything goes quiet and time slows down -- just a little bit. It's a moment that's long enough to take one deep breath and to ask the question: "Am I going to land this thing?"

Jumping cars is an art and a science. Ken Block, one of the early pioneers of gap jumping with his DC Mountain Labs video back in 2004, takes an analytical approach. He uses college-level projectile physics -- the same calculations the military uses to estimate the trajectory of a missile in flight -- to calculate ramp angles, ideal takeoff speed and landing distance.

This year's gap, which has typically covered about 40 feet, is a full 10 feet wider than it has ever been before. The sweet spot is at 79 feet, compared with the usual 70, and the estimated ideal speed to successfully navigate the gap is 52 mph -- about 9 mph faster than previous years' jump targets.

That stuff is all the science.

But the reality is that once you're behind the wheel and lined up to fly four wheels 79 feet through the air to a blind landing, RallyCross is like every other sport at X Games -- it's about having the confidence to commit to it, and stick it. Oh, and did I mention they don't have speedometers in the car? Ultimately, it comes down to the best drivers in the world just knowing and feeling what it's going to take to make the leap of faith.

We've learned a lot since we first started jumping cars at X Games in 2006. Touching the brakes on the takeoff causes the car to nose-dive (bad).

Accelerating keeps the nose up (good!). Going too fast means the car will fly too far and hit too hard (also bad). But going too slowly and shorting can be disastrous -- falling into the gap is one risk, but knocking the rear wheels of the car on the face of the landing means a front flip.

Toomas Heikkinen became the first driver to fall into the gap after jumping short during Friday's practice and crashing into the face of the landing. The crash was severe as he was taken to hospital where he was diagnosed with a left ankle fracture and is undergoing additional evaluation. The car is a write-off.

Since then, Block set the world record for a four-wheel-vehicle jump for a stunt on Discovery Channel's "Stunt Junkies" (171 feet, 2006). Travis Pastrana rang in the 2010 New Year with a 269-foot jump from the Long Beach Pier over water to a floating barge. Then, Tanner Foust broke the record again last summer with a 332-foot, ramp-to-ramp jump at the Indy 500.

This jump is a relative baby by comparison, but it isn't a one-off. They have to take it as many as 10 times in competition, and they are discovering that even when the landing goes well on this metal ramp, it's still hard to take. It can be a bone-jarring jolt when rubber meets metal. Cars are heavy and they have limited suspension travel. When the car bottoms out on the steel landing, the energy has to transfer somewhere -- and that's usually the driver's lower back.

And there has already been some controversy among the drivers. At a driver's meeting Thursday afternoon, there were no shortage of opinions about the metal ramp-to-ramp jump: make it bigger, make it smaller, make it faster, make it slower …

The thing is that getting rid of the dirt and carving all those angles out of bare metal makes the jump look bigger and nastier than ever. And the consequences of getting it wrong seem a lot worse. And while some drivers may now be looking back fondly on the soft curves of a dirt jump, that image has become nothing but a memory now. RallyCross has entered its next stage of development. That's progression.

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