One giant New Year's Eve leap for snowmobile stuntman
Levi LaVallee typically sees in the new year quietly at home with his fiancée, preparing for a snowmobile race the following day. As the 29-year-old says himself, "it's usually pretty low key". But this year is going to be a little different.
Instead of quietly toasting the arrival of 2012 at home with Kristen, the American will instead be planning to jump over a 90-metre water gap on San Diego Bay as part of the Red Bull: New Year, No Limits event.
The fact that LaVallee is attempting the record - in which he plans to jump about 120m in total - is all the more remarkable after he suffered a horrific training crash at 160kph last year while preparing for the very same stunt. It left him with two collapsed lungs and a fractured pelvis but, apparently, also undeterred about the perils of his stunt riding.
"That was a pretty bad crash," he says somewhat understatedly. "Right now, we've only shown people on TV right up until before the crash but we're planning to show the crowds the full crash just before I jump on New Year's Eve. But I bounced and slid about 100ft after landing while the snowmobile kept on bouncing for a good 200ft."
Thankfully for LaVallee, he doesn't remember the crash. And having worked out a technical fault was to blame, he has no qualms about his latest record-breaking effort.
"To be honest, the last thing I remember is putting my gear on for the jump, and I remember getting on a motorbike to ride to the end of the ramp," he says. "I don't remember the jump at all; maybe if I did remember the jump I wouldn't do it again. I don't know."
The first hazy memory he has is coming around three days later in hospital and, despite his condition, he was immediately curious to hear what had happened.
After recovering in hospital, it was about a month before he decided to watch the clip of his crash.
"I spoke to my dad, fiancée and best buddy about it, as they were watching right at the front at the time it happened," he says, "and I know it was pretty hard on them. When I spoke to my buddy, he was like, 'I wasn't sure whether I was going to see you again or what shape you were going to be in'.
"When I finally watched it back, it was pretty surreal, as it was something I have absolutely no memory of whatsoever. To watch yourself like that, it's just like 'holy cow'.
"It took me three or four times of watching it back to understand what had happened. For a month, the reason for the crash had been a big question mark. But watching it back, I heard the engine cut out and realised it was a carburettor problem, which was a big relief. I finally had an answer to the problem."
Polaris, the company behind his sled, has since built a new engine for LaVallee with fuel injection instead of carburettors for better reliability. Regardless, as a result of what has happened in the past, his family and friends will be understandably nervous when he attempts the leap later today, along with Australian motorbike rider Robbie Maddison. And LaVallee himself is not ashamed to admit he will be, too.
"Of course, I'll be nervous as I know that, while the engine problem has been sorted out, there are so many other little things that can go wrong," he says. "I know if I mess this one up, it'll be a big, big problem."
Every precaution is taken to ensure his safety - "for one, I'm wearing Kevlar armour, so I'm at least bullet proof" - and endless testing runs have been carried out to ensure he is as prepared as possible for his gargantuan leap of faith.
But whatever the perils, he just cannot help himself. Taking on bigger and bigger jumps is all he has ever known since the age of four.
"My dad got me a four-wheeler back then and he had the old hood off a car that he set up as a jump," he recalls. "I did that and bounced as I hit the ground. That was my first jump; I remember it clearly and I loved it. From there it just got bigger and bigger, and hasn't stopped, obviously. It's all I've ever wanted to do, really.
"I remember dad and I tried all sorts of stuff at home. He has his own garbage business and we lined up two of those garbage trucks back to back and I cleared those, and I remember thinking 'that was pretty awesome'."
LaVallee's mother, as any protective mother would be, does not quite share the pair's love affair for high-stakes jumping.
"My mum is probably not as big a fan," he adds, laughing. "She gets nervous about it, but she's great, too, as she's never pushed me about it and just leaves me to get on with it."
To date, his most famous jump came at the 2009 Winter X Games when he became the first rider to complete a double flip on a snowmobile - it's worth a watch on YouTube.
But that, too, unravelled in training. "I was doing it at my house," he says, "and the flip went wrong and the snowmobile came down on me. I was lucky to make it out alive. In fact, all I got was a bloody nose.
"But it was only just before the Winter X Games in Aspen and we still went ahead with it. Because of what happened in training, I obviously hit it too hard and I just avoided going wrong."
Once flying through the air at 160kph, he admits he has too many things to think about to enjoy the jump, the buzz instead coming if and when he lands successfully.
But he paints a vivid picture of the feeling of flying hundreds of feet through the air on a 225kg snowmobile at such high speeds.
"I don't know if it's my imagination, but it doesn't feel like you're floating, it actually feels like you're carving through the air, like on snow," he says. "It's amazing."
To date, the most nervous LaVallee has been about a jump was a mere 10m effort to arrive at The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on American television earlier this month.
"It's odd, as I'd been jumping hundreds of feet earlier that day but, for some reason, I was really nervous about that one," he says. "I guess there were a lot of people watching."
His stomach will no doubt be churning come today as he lines up with his close friend Maddison for their latest venture.
"We've done a lot of testing," says LaVallee. "I feel ready and I think things are going to go well". A lot of people around the world will be tuning in to find out.
Updated: December 31, 2011 04:00 AM