Riding a snowmobile isn’t all that different from riding a horse. It takes balance, concentration and some knowledge on how to start, steer and stop the animal.
The Winter X Games in Aspen are all about taking winter sports to the extreme, and the snowmobilers are no different.
The freestyle snowmobilers are about as extreme as they get, accelerating their 500-pound sleds up to 50 miles per hour and then launching them off ramps and flying as high as 60 feet in the air. When a rider takes off from a super kicker jump, they can travel as far as 100 feet from jump to landing.
“These guys are pretty damn crazy,” said Kyle Pallin, a snocross racer for Team LaVallee. “There aren’t too many guys who can do what the freestyle guys do.”
Levi LaVallee is the defending X Games freestyle champion, but he tore his latissimus dorsi muscle during the competition last year. When he began training for this year’s freestyle competition, he realized his lat muscle still wasn’t 100 percent.
“I had to pull myself from competing in freestyle,” LaVallee said. “I’ll still compete in the snocross and the long jump.”
LaVallee said competing in freestyle is a different beast that requires a special mindset. Battling the jumps is one thing but not near as tough as the mental aspects of the sport.
“Everything in your body is saying, ‘Don’t do this! What are you doing? Are you crazy?’” he said. “It’s not easy to overcome what your body and mind tell you. You’re putting yourself through something that you really don’t want to go through. At the same time, after all the practice and preparation, you know you can do it, but you have to tell your mind to step aside for that moment. I guess that’s my definition of overcoming fear.”
LaVallee watched the first freestyle practice session Thursday morning and said he felt the draw to compete. The X Games are the Super Bowl of freestyle snowmobiling, and watching his friends take practice jumps got his adrenaline flowing.
He said the draw would be stronger once the crowd starts making noise during the actual competition.
“Snowmobile fans are amazing,” LaVallee said. “They’re my fuel. The sled runs on race gas — I run on the crowd. When I see the crowd pumping their fists and hear them get loud, it gets me so dang excited. That’s my extra boost to push a little bigger and jump a little higher. I can’t say enough about the effect of the crowd.”
Most of the freestyle competitors grew up riding snowmobiles, giving them an extra familiarity with the limits of what they can do on a sled.
Cory Davis grew up in Soldotna, Alaska, where riding a snowmobile is second nature. Whether it was jumping across driveways, motoring through ditches or just going to visit a friend, a snowmobile is one of the few options for transportation in Soldotna.
“I’m more comfortable on a snowmobile than anything else I’ve ever swung my legs over,” Davis said. “After the X Games, I’m going back to Alaska to compete in a 2,000-mile partner race that goes all over the state and lasts six days. This is what I do, and the snowmobile is a huge part of my life.”
Like his fellow freestyle competitors, Davis said the mental aspects tend to outweigh the physical aspects.
“This sport is dangerous,” he said. “You have to be strong mentally. You have to accept what you’re about to attempt and understand what could happen. You need to learn to push yourself beyond the normal and stay aware of the potential consequences.”
Freestyle snowmobiling gained some notoriety last year at the X Games in Aspen when Texan Caleb Moore, 25, died a week after flipping his snowmobile and having it land on him during the competition.
The tight-knit freestyle community rallied in his memory and continued to compete like they all say Moore would have wanted.
In an Associated Press story on Thursday, Moore’s younger brother, Colten, said his brother is a guiding force behind him returning to Aspen.
“I just continue to push on,” the 24-year-old said. “I’m riding for him, with him. Like I’ve said before, if I tried to quit and if he could, he’d smack me.”
Davis said after watching Caleb Moore crash and then get up afterward and walk off the course created a false sense of his welfare. He thought maybe it was some broken ribs, but that’s not unusual for these drivers.
Unfortunately, the news got worse and worse. Moore died Jan. 31 from internal injuries he suffered during the crash, the first fatality in X Games history.
“Caleb was a great kid,” Davis said. “He did so many amazing things here. It’s great to see Colten carry on. To come back and actually do this again is amazing and hits home for many of us who do freestyle. It’s so cool he’s here.”
Because of the tragic circumstances last year, the freestylers now have to wear protective vests. The snowmobiles also have special “ski springs” that keep the ski tips on the snowmobile facing upward to try and prevent the tips from catching on the lip of a jump, which is what happened to Caleb Moore’s snowmobile last year.
“The sport is doing what it can to make it safer and minimalize risks,” Davis said. “But you can’t engineer this sport into a game of touch football. There will always be risks associated with flying through the air on a snowmobile.”
Linnae Frisby is the wife of Heath Frisby, another freestyle competitor and X Games gold-medal winner in the 2010 best-trick competition. She said she does a lot of praying when any of the freestylers compete.
“It’s almost impossible to explain what goes through my mind when Heath competes,” she said. “I have to trust in his ability. There’s a real mixture of nerves and pride mixed into one. These boys have a talent that’s also unexplainable. They are all so driven and want to push their sport farther.”
Willie Elam is a 27-year-old freestyler from Twin Falls, Idaho. He’s been competing for five years, but he’s now the father of a 5-week-old daughter, Maizi.
Being a new father is exciting, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a freestyler.
“I’m very aware my responsibilities are different as a father,” he said. “My wife, Stephanie, is very understanding. She knows I’m not going to do this forever, so she encourages me to do it while I can.”
Elam said there’s nothing quite like competing at the X Games. He said the fans are absolutely crazy, as they should be.
“The fans sure seem like adrenaline junkies,” he said. “If so, they’re definitely in the right place. You have to be careful and not let all that excitement push you past your limits. For me, the key to doing this as safe as possible is to stay within yourself and things you’ve practiced. You can’t go out and worry about getting hurt. If you do, you usually get hurt.”