Before Levi LaVallee was setting world records jumping a snowmobile over San Diego bay, appearing on late-night TV and becoming a Red Bull hero, he was “just a kid from Longville, Minnesota,” as the personable competitor will tell you. Snowmobile racing fans first started seeing Levi’s high flying ways when he raced the juniors classes in snocross, but his entry into freestyle was even more notable. This article, first printed in the February 18, 2008, issue of Snow Week magazine, a former sister publication to Snow Goer magazine, LaVallee recounts the run up to that dazzling Winter X Games. He is speaking to former Snow Goer/Snow Week staffer and current X Games insider Vince Castellanos.
Levi LaVallee’s Winter X Odyssey
Levi LaVallee was already big in the snocross world before the 2008 ESPN Winter X Games in Aspen, Colo. But thanks to the best performance of any athlete at Winter X, LaVallee is poised to transcend snowmobiling and become an overall action-sports star. The Polaris pilot earned Winter X golds in both Freestyle (a major surprise) and the new Speed & Style event. In addition, LaVallee was strong in Snocross, too, taking 6th despite falling off in the final.
Of course, LaVallee’s success didn’t happen overnight. The racer had to learn several big freestyle tricks in a short period of time. He also had to convince Polaris racing officials that competing in multiple Winter X events was a good idea. That, perhaps, was his biggest trick of all. Here, in LaVallee’s own words, is the story of how he became the Male Athlete of Winter X ’08.
“I thought competing in Speed & Style was a good idea from the moment Levi suggested it in October. He’s a natural showman, ESPN loves him, and I thought he’d do well at it. Of course, for tricks I thought he’d be doing heel-clickers and can-cans. I had no earthly idea he’d try backflips.” – Polaris Race Director Tom Rager
LAVALLEE: I first heard about Speed & Style at Haydays in September, and Joe Duncan [ESPN’s sport organizer for Winter X snowmobiling events] told me I’d be considered. My first thought was, “Awesome! But I need to learn some tricks because heelclickers and can-cans aren’t gonna cut it.”
In October, Duncan contacted me and said I could be in but that I’d have to prove I could throw some real tricks. I got a little worried, because I had been riding my sled but wasn’t practicing tricks or anything. I called up Red Bull and asked for a ramp, and they had Steve Miller with SCS Racing get me one right away.
So I had a ramp, but I still needed help. I went to Justin Hoyer’s place in Wisconsin and we spent a day jumping to dirt. He gave me a lot of pointers; he really coached me. First we got Superman seat grabs down, and then we worked on taking my throttle hand off and doing double grabs. That was great, but I started thinking I’d have to do a backflip to win Speed & Style.
Right before [Polaris] race school [in the fall], I went back to Hoyer’s and began throwing backflips into his foam pit. I’ve flipped a lot of things: dirtbikes, mini-bikes, an ATV and a snowmobile in the Alaskan backcountry. I’m comfortable with the motion, but doing it from a ramp is a lot harder than off a natural hit to a soft, long downslope.
I did a few major lawn darts into Justin’s pit. I was all over the place, but from the first one I was at least bringing them mostly around; I never landed upside-down. Foam pits aren’t fun – it’s a long, frustrating process because it takes forever to dig the sled out of the pit and you get pretty beat up; you’re going from about 25 MPH to zero abruptly. But within 10 tries or so I felt I had it down.
About that time, I started thinking I could qualify for Wmter X Freestyle, too, so I went to [Tom Rager] Senior and he said, “Fine, as long as there are no flips.” And I said, “Sure, no flips.
Duluth, November ’07. Jimmy “Blaze” Fejes loses control mid-backflip and separates from his sled 30 feet high. Rager watches just feet away. A bystander near Rager asks, “Are you really gonna let Levi backflip?” Rager grimly shakes his head. “No way,” he replies. “Not a chance.”
LAVALLEE: I had a good weekend at Duluth, and Jimmy Blaze wrecked himself, so I was definitely nervous talking to [Tom Rager] Senior about the flip. But the Freestyle qualifier was coming up [in Billings, Mont.] and I knew I had to do it. Then I got a voice ail from Senior: “I heard a nasty rumor you’re thinking about flipping. Call me back!” I felt like a kid busted with his dad’s nudie mags.
Hentges Team Manager Tim Bender: “I was worried about his safety, but Levi sold me on it and then I sold Tom. Levi’s a smart kid who’s matured a ton the past couple of years, and I thought his approach to landing the flip was methodical.”
LAVALLEE: Senior said he trusted my judgment, and I promised that if there was a doubt in my mind I wouldn’t do it. I called Joe Duncan, told him I was going to practice flipping to snow and he said, “You getting an EMT there?” And I’m like, “What? Isn’t that what 911 is for?” We got an EMT and camera guy to the house, but we waited for hours because we couldn’t get enough snow on top of the landing; I wanted something soft in case it went wrong. Finally, we sent the EMT home. But we solved the snow problem, so I decided to go for it. I did seven practice airs, and on the eighth jump I pulled it around, set it down and parked it. The next day I did three more.
I had Chris Burandt’s gold medal run from Winter X ’07 written down on my desk, and I could do it all. It wasn’t really up to code or that polished, but I figured it was good enough to qualify in Billings for Winter X. I was surprised when I won in Montana. There were some really big tricks there, but conditions were tough, and I think that worked to my advantage because I’m used to racing in anything. But I still didn’t think I had a chance to medal in Aspen.
LaVallee barely rode his freestyle sled in the two weeks preceding Winter X and his team lost nearly a day of test time when the World Powersports Association West Yellowstone Pro Open final was delayed one day because of heavy snowfall. Levi arrived in Aspen on the evening before X Games practice.
LAVELLEE: Wednesday was the first Speed & Style practice, and everything went really well, but I was a little chunky on Thursday. We had Snocross practice and then Speed & Style practice and the final. I wasn’t focused and was really nervous; I couldn’t eat or anything. But Snocross practice was smooth, and there was so much going on, I didn’t have time to think too much.
LaVallee was the class of Speed & Style and its head-to-head racing/trick format, easily bagging his second Winter X gold (he also won ’04 Hillcross). “I was blown away. He definitely deserved it, and I started thinking, ‘Doing this was a good decision.’” – Tom Rager Sr.
LAVALLEE: Winning Speed & Style was more satisfying than getting Hillcross gold, where you just pin it and hang on. That was right up my alley, but so much practice and preparation went into Speed & Style.
On Saturday, I had Snocross and Freestyle practice back-to-back. I took a couple of Freestyle laps, hit the jumps and bailed. After that, I was totally in Snocross mode.
On Friday, the Snocross rhythm section had been really tough. Only guys like Tucker Hibbert, Ryan Simons, Ross Martin, T.J. Gulla and I were doing it. But on the parade lap before the final, you could see everything was way too easy. On the start, Tucker went into the first corner really wide and pushed everyone out. I squared it up and for a second I saw an open door and thought, “Holy crap! I’m gonna get this!” But then about five guys cut in front of me.
Things went from bad to worse when Zach Pattyn clipped Levi, sending him tumbling in the whoops. Despite the brief off, LaVallee still finished 6th in his fifth Winter X Snocross final in six years.
LAVALLE: I entered Sunday with no expectations for Freestyle. All I thought was, “I get to hit ramps, hitting ramps is fun, I’m gonna have fun.” That afternoon, I advanced out of prelims; it was awesome just getting into the final four.
Before the semifinals, conditions got nasty- it was snowing and blowing hard. I was matched up against Daniel Bodin in my semi. I went first and felt good about my run, but Bodin did two ginormous tricks right off the bat. I was in trouble, but he did a straight air [a jump with no trick] and I was like, “Maybe I’ve got a chance!” But he followed that by flipping the snow hit and I thought, “Well, maybe not.” Then he fell off on his last jump and I knew I had him.
Beating Bodin meant I was guaranteed at least silver. I was super-stoked; getting a medal was insane! In the final, I went first against Joe Parsons and had a really clean run. I threw everything I could and was like, “OK, that’s all I got:’ To be honest, I didn’t even see all of Joe’s run. I knew he was stomping it, but I was so mellow and felt great because I had already exceeded my goals.
After Joe went, we waited about forever for the judges; it seemed like 10 minutes. When I realized I won, I was just blown away. I was pumped – I was in such awe that I couldn’t even talk.
“He just attacked the track, and seeing what he had learned in about a month was amazing. I was extremely happy for him. His performance is great for the company, but our relationship is much deeper than that. Now people see why we stuck with him all those years.”-Tom Rager Sr.
“The new events helped expose snowmobiling to a whole new group of people, and Levi was unbelievable, the epitome of what the sport should be. He worked really hard and earned all of his success. It’s hard to say if doing other events cost him in snocross, but in my mind he did the right thing. All the hammering we’ve done on his sled over the years has been worth it.”- Tim Bender
The Freestyle gold was LaVallee’s third Winter X gold and 4th medal overall. He joins superstar Shaun Palmer as the only athlete to medal in four different Winter X disciplines. But the awards weren’t over.
LAVALLEE: I was upstairs in the trailer changing when ESPN called. I’m standing there in my underwear and they told me I was named Male Athlete of Winter X and won a Jeep. I just started screaming and everyone was yelling. It was so neat. I went to the ceremony and there was a big mob of people, and I’m wondering, “Is this what Shaun White feels like? I’m just some kid from Longville, Minn. Skiers and snowboarders are huge stars; I just ride snowmobiles.”
Getting home to Longville was awesome because my friends and family have always been so supportive. There were signs up and I got tons of texts and voice mails, which was so cool.
Now I’m focused on racing again. But I’ve got tons of stuff going through my mind that I want to try in freestyle. Some of it will make Senior nervous.