Before the days of mega ramp roll-ins, there really weren't too many options for getting up to speed to achieve big air. In Mat Hoffman's case, he chose a motorcycle to tow him towards the big ramp, and that duty fell on best friend, business partner and co-pilot Steve Swope. Steve's been alongside Mat throughout each stage of his quest for big air, and their close bond helped Mat achieve the unthinkable. This is Steve Swope on driving motorcycles and the science of towing his best friend on a bike.
How did it come about that you guys decided to pull Mat on a motorcycle to achieve the high air?
Well, there weren't a lot of options on how to get Mat going that fast. Mat bankrolled the whole thing out of his own pocket, so it wasn't really an option to build a giant roll-in. And because it was experimental, we didn't know how fast we needed him to go. A roll-in is okay for getting to a certain height, but once it's built, it's built. So a motorcycle seemed like the best option. And for the most part, it worked.
Were there any drawbacks to get going with Mat in tow?
There was definitely a technique to pulling him. He's only hanging on with his hand, and it's really sketchy to ride a bicycle at all with one hand, much less going fast down a really sketchy runway. And there was always a limited amount of run up. So you had to take off quick enough to get him up to speed where he felt stable, and you couldn't accelerate all the way into the ramp. Once you got up to speed, you had a little time to stabilize and sit there at that speed before he let go. So it was always a battle between accelerating fast enough to get Mat to the speed he wanted with enough setup time versus Mat yanking his arm off from taking off too quick. We had to be in good communication, and after every jump, we'd ask about the speed, and after a while, he and I really got it dialed. If he wanted to go 20-feet, I knew what to do, and if he wanted to do a warm up air, I knew what to do. And that's why it wasn't immediately interchangeable. When I didn't want to tow him anymore, there were a lot of things that went into that. Mat was confident with me, and somebody else would have to come in and learn all of that. It was never as easy as "Hey, this guy can ride a motorcycle." There was a lot more to it for what Mat needed.
What actually made you want to stop pulling Mat?
Mat has beaten himself up to progress the sport since he got on a bike, and he's paid the price. He was beat up even before he started riding the first big ramp. He got worse over time from normal riding, but after he lost his spleen, that was a really serious injury. He was within a half hour of bleeding out. Concussions kept piling up on him, and as much as I wanna help him do what he wants to do, at the same time it's hard to see your friend go through that. It's painful to watch and even more painful to help him do it to himself. And I got to the point, mostly in that I didn't want to be a part of that anymore. I wanted to help him do it, but to be the person on the motorcycle was a little more than I thought I could help with anymore.
So how did you feel standing on the sidelines when Mat attempted it in 2001?
At the time, our business had grown to the point where it was hard for me to even find time to be the guy on the motorcycle. It was a convenient excuse for me. I was actually on the road at the time. I wasn't even in Oklahoma City. It would've been different to watch someone else tow him, cause then I'm thinking, "Okay, someone else is doing it and I don't have to worry. But is the person doing it as technically sound as I am?" That could put Mat in more danger than he needed.
Fast forward to Mat riding Big Air at X Games. What were your feelings going into that event, knowing Mat was riding the event?
I was a commentator, not an organizer. I always knew he was capable, but Mat's injuries had piled up on him at that point to even worse than they were in 2000. If Mat was healthy, I wouldn't be concerned at all. He's fully capable. Knowing what Mat's body was like in 2007 scared the hell out of me. I was trying to do my job on the air live to millions of people and not freak out that my best friend is actually going to do this. I really wasn't believing it until I saw him roll down and jump the 70-footer for the first time in practice. I was scared out of my mind the whole time though.
So Mat does a nothing and lands a little sketchy, then does a 19-foot flyout during the event. Did you have to keep yourself calm while on TV?
Yeah. I'm so personally connected to him that it's hard for your emotions to not come out, but I had to try really hard to not say something that shouldn't be on the air. That was really, really hard. I almost had the same experience happen during Mat's no-handed 900. I basically lost it and forgot I was on TV. I sounded like an excited friend, not a TV commentator.
What purpose do you think The Birth of Big Air will serve to the BMX and action sports communities at large?
A couple things: It's super cool for BMX as a whole. The fact that it's about Mat and the true history of how big air came about is really special because Mat did it before the X Games and before big media paid any attention to these sports. And it still remains as once of the biggest accomplishments any BMXer or action sports athlete has ever done. I don't think a lot of people realize that. But for BMX to have this type of attention, in such a cool and incredible way, it doesn't happen very often, so I guess that's the second thing. I'm just really psyched for Mat.
The Birth of Big Air premieres on Saturday, April 24, 2010 at 8pm at the World Financial Plaza in Manhattan, NY.