Objectively speaking, snowmobiles are not supposed to fly. They weigh around 500 pounds, these things, and the combined unwieldiness of their many components -- engine, track, suspension system, skis, exhaust -- makes leaving the ground a difficult and dangerous proposition. This hasn't stopped anyone, of course, least of all X Games champion Levi LaVallee, who plans to break the world record for longest snowmobile jump on New Year's Eve, 2010. ESPN caught up with LaVallee to see what goes into preparing for a 300-foot sled launch.
From a snowmobiling point of view, what was the first thing you had to figure out when you started preparing for the big jump?
The first thing we needed to figure out was how to make the sled work at the kinds of speeds we'll need to clear 300 feet. When you're holding the sled wide open at 90-100mph, you build a lot of heat and friction on the rails. You also catch a lot of wind at that speed, which can make the sled do an air-wheelie during flight. And that's just no good. So we started our training and experimenting at Brainerd International Raceway, an NHRA drag strip in Minnesota. We just needed to make sure we can go fast enough, and fortunately we can.
What about the whole "flying" thing?
Well, we flew to North Carolina and put the sled in a wind tunnel, where we started playing with the aerodynamics. It turned out that the only way to stay stable and decrease the lift on the front end was to build a sleek nosecone, so we added that. We also learned a lot about how the wind will affect the sled in flight.
How has all the testing been going?
Everything has been going really well. We went out to San Diego after the aerodynamics stuff and did some testing on the turf. We set up the ramp for a short jump, then pushed it back. Then we pushed it back a little further, and a little further again. I just wanted to get comfortable riding on the turf and make sure I could read the radar board coming in, that kind of thing.
In your first practice video you mentioned that you felt like the sled was going into a nosedive in the air. Can you describe how that feels?
When you jump during a race, you set the nose a little bit lower so that you can hit the gas wide open when you land and accelerate. With distance jumping you do the same thing, because if you have the front end too high, it catches a ton of wind and starts to do the air-wheelie. Then, right before you land, you hit the throttle and rap out to bring the nose back up and keep you from landing too far forward. But during testing, when I'd hit the throttle, it would just cut out ... so I'd just continue in this downhill arc. I thought I was going to go over the handlebars.
Yikes. Did you guys get it figured out?
Yeah, for the most part we fixed the issue. The thing was, the only way to test the changes we were making to the sled was to do more jumps at distance! It was a little scary, but we all feel great about it now.
So what's the furthest you've jumped in practice?
I can't say how far I've gone so far, but I can say I'm really happy with it. My goal is to break the record, whether it's by a little or a lot. If the sled feels fast enough to really send it, I'm definitely going to be sending it. I'm not going to lay up! But it all depends on the next test session. Right now, we're feeling really good about the jumps we've done so far.
And the sled you're running -- does it even resemble a snowmobile at this stage, or have you guys changed so much about it that it's a totally different machine now?
Oh, it's definitely a snowmobile. Really the only thing that's different about it is that we have wheel-skis on it rather than regular skis. But if you took those off, you could take it right into the snow. We also added a few more wheels in the suspension, because there won't be any snow to lubricate the wheels or add that extra cushioning.
What's the biggest challenge between now and New Year's Eve?
The biggest challenge now is just getting every last detail figured out so that when jump night is here, we don't have to think about anything and it's just automatic. I just want to be 100% prepared to send that thing to the moon.