Paul Thacker: 245-Foot Flyer

Snow, sleet and rain dumped overhead and wind whipped gusts reaching 40 mph while thousands of Minnesotans and their sled-head brethren huddled around a 3.8 million-gallon mound of man-made snow at a horse track. On Saturday night, Feb. 24, all the elements were in place at Shakopee, Minnesota's Canterbury Park for Paul Thacker's world record-breaking snowmobile long jump.

"The visibility wasn't good by any means, but I could see well enough to know which direction I needed to go," shrugged Thacker, who hit the metal take-off ramp with his 430-pound Polaris IQ snowmobile at 80 mph.

The consequences of not landing the Duke Boys-style, 245-foot jump would be like "stepping off the top of a five story building," said Thacker.

By day, Thacker, 32, of Anchorage, Alaska, is district manager for Wells Fargo Financial. By night (Saturday nights like Shakopee in particular), Thacker is the leading long jumper in the world, and his latest landing cements his claim further.

Thacker's 245-footer betters his previous record-making mark of 238 feet set on a sunny day in April 2006. "That was the first time we'd ever done anything official" —for distance jumping— "in all of snowmobiling," said Thacker. Diehard riders of the Slednecks variety have always loved big air, but it took a "numbers guy" like Thacker to dream up schemes for distance launches that have been popularized by motorcyclists (think, and thank, Evel) for decades.

The current world record on a motorcycle is 310 feet, set by 27-year-old Ryan Capes in October 2005. Capes, a fellow Monster Energy-rider, is a friend of Thacker's and holds a number of dry-land distance records, including his latest—a 253-foot Indy Air in Washington state at the end of February.

"Ideally," said Thacker, "the goal is to surpass the length of a football field (360 feet). I'd like to see snowmobiles become synonymous with motorcycles in terms of what they can pull off, though."

With blizzard-like conditions outside Minneapolis, a number of Thacker's confidantes urged him to scale back on the record attempt. Before the jump, and on every distance jump Thacker attempts, he launches a dozen or so practice jumps from shorter distances, at what he calls "mind speed"—the speed he knows he'll need to clear it—the longest of which (191 feet) he overshot by about 50 feet due to "one particularly feisty blast of tailwind." His team uses a radar gun to clock each trial jump and compare Thacker's mind speed to the actual speed he'll need to land.

"Everybody was trying to talk me out of doing it. I don't think anybody—fans or myself—had any business being out in that kind of weather, but they came out anyway, so we had to put on a show. When I'm doing distance stuff, it feels like that's what I was born to do. I absolutely love it. I don't get nervous, I just have a blast. It's hard to even put into words," said Thacker.

Winter X Games 11 freestyle snowmobile gold medalist Chris Burandt didn't go to Shakopee to discourage Thacker from gunning for a new record, however. "I told him I had confidence in him to do it in those conditions," said Burandt. "It was a cool conversation, but he didn't need it. He was totally cool. Everyone else was all sketched out, but I wasn't nervous for him. Not one bit."

Burandt was on hand, along with other freestyle riders, to do a demo during Thacker's main event. "I wanted to do it," Burandt said of the long jump. "It looked fun, but I didn't have a sled that would go fast enough. That's a big commitment there, and Paul knows how to jump snowmobiles. Not everyone can just pin it and see what happens—you gotta have sack to do it."

Blizzard or not, Thacker produced. "The fact that we were able to pull it off was a huge accomplishment in itself, considering what we went through with the weather. And, actually, I'm really ready to jump again tomorrow."