The man who put freeriding on the map
To want to be Jay Quinlan, you must want to be half insane, half neat freak. You must want to leap off 110-foot rock cliffs on a machine that weighs more than a refrigerator, but you must also want to vacuum your carpet twice a day. Quinlan means business both ways. He meant it two years ago when he fell 25 feet out of the sky onto the hard, cold earth eight times over four days while teaching himself how to do a back flip. The self-inflicted carnage wrecked two 450-pound, $8,000 snowmobiles – sleds, as snowmobilers call them – but the result opened doors. Quinlan went on to perform the first back flip in competitive freestyle snowmobiling history later that year in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on the sport’s largest stage, the Red Bull Fuel and Fury contest.It wasn’t the first door the 25-year-old Blue River resident has opened in this sport, which the athletes call “freeriding.” Like Mike Metzger in freestyle motocross, Quinlan is known as freestyle snowmobiling’s “Godfather.” He doesn’t know who started it, nor is he sure how it came about. But he has left a trail of clues.Alaska born and bredQuinlan was born on Alaska’s Kodiak Island, the “Emerald Isle,” which is home to some 700 commercial fishing boats as well as the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in the nation. He moved to tiny (4,100-population) Valdez soon after, and grew up there, in the “northernmost ice-free port in America.” His parents owned a snowmobile/ATV shop in Valdez (Vaal-deez), and when Jay was 3, he rode his first piece of heavy machinery. When he was 12, he began riding his sled to school 10 miles away, “just ‘cuz I hated to ride the bus.” That same sixth-grade year he dropped his first cliff.Alaska is more than the Final Frontier for snowmobilers. It is the Mecca. Nowhere on earth offers better riding, and nowhere is the sport more alive. This is not by accident. “Snowmobile mechanics” was one of Jay’s classes in high school. His best friend’s dad, Mike Buck, was the teacher. Shop, a high school boy’s dream subject, was considered one of the Valdez area’s most important educational offerings when Jay was growing up. He took three shop classes every semester until he graduated. So did most of the other boys.When Jay and his best friend, Joe Buck, were 16, a video producer heard about a couple of fearless young riders in Valdez. He called Mike Buck to see if he could film the kids. Buck said yes, and so Jay and Joe starred in their first movie, “High Energy 2.”
“What we were doing was no big deal,” Jay says. “It was what we had always been doing, just riding and dropping cliffs. But they were way into it, and at that point it was really new to people – or at least new to people in the states.” (Alaska’s statehood has always been more assigned membership than definition to those who live there.)The year after their film debut, Jay and Joe became something of hot commodities, if only because they were alone in the startup freeride market. Two more film companies followed the first, jumping at the chance to present a phenomenon few had ever seen. No precedents existed for Jay and Joe as video subjects, so they received little in return.”We didn’t even know what we were getting into,” Jay says. “At that time they weren’t paying for our gas, they weren’t buying us dinner. Nothing. We were just having fun. We thought it was great.”They didn’t realize it then, but they were launching a culture. They were inventing a sport and founding an industry. Today, freestyle snowmobiling is huge – not on the same level as skiing or snowboarding, but between videos, equipment and competitions, what began as a hobby for just a few has become a multimillion-dollar business. Much of this is due to risk. Frisco resident Seth Morrison, 31, is a pioneer in big-mountain skiing. He once flew off an 80-foot cliff and did two complete spins in the air while he was inverted, or upside down, then landed in a puff of snow and eventually skied away. He wears his hair blue, has his own K2 ski line and doesn’t think about consequences – “I just go.” He’s made a living and reputation the same way Quinlan has, by doing hair-raising stunts in front of a camera.When Morrison wants to get pumped up before skiing, when he wants to get motivated to take chances, he watches videos of Jay Quinlan.”He’s gnarly,” Morrison says. “All the stuff he does is just insane. He’s starting to take lines that we ski. I’m just like, ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ He’s got the same mentality I do.”Morrison met Quinlan in Valdez when Jay was 16. Morrison was there for a heli-ski shoot (Valdez is surrounded by the Chugach Mountains, famous for their steep, powdery terrain). They stayed in touch, and when Jay was tired of commuting from Alaska to “the states” for competitions, he called Morrison for advice on where to move. Morrison suggested Summit County.The progression within freeriding since Quinlan arrived in Summit has been staggering. He followed in the footsteps of pro snowboarder Jim Rippey, a Lake Tahoe-area daredevil who, in May 2001 in Utah, performed the first and only back flip on a sled before Quinlan did his in 2003.
Rippey’s successful flip earned him ESPN’s “Action Sports Feat of the Year,” though those who voted on that award worried about giving it to Rippey. They felt if they rewarded a flip on a sled, others would try, and injury or death might follow.Three riders before Rippey had tried the back flip, and all ended up in a hospital. Rippey himself attempted to flip a dirt bike in a gravel pit a few months after flipping his sled, and he broke his femur and nearly lost his arm.Almost singlehandedly, Quinlan proved to the world that it’s possible to flip safely on a consistent basis. He helped his cause by sticking one in competition – a feat driven by his desire to “bring it to the people.”Quinlan has company, to an extent Today, six riders in the world are landing back flips. Heath Frisby is one of them. A baby-faced, 150-pound 20-year-old from a tiny farming community outside Caldwell, Idaho, Frisby learned from the best. Quinlan taught him.Jay met Heath when Heath was 13, the year before he turned pro. Frisby grew up idolizing Quinlan, watching him in videos and wanting, more than anything else, to be just like him. “He’s pretty much the original badass,” Frisby says.A little more than a year ago, Quinlan heard that Frisby wanted to learn how to flip. Jay called Heath and told him to meet him in Bozeman, Mont., so he could teach him. Heath had a race in Fargo, N.D., and couldn’t make it.Undaunted, Jay told Heath he would drive from Colorado to Fargo, compete in the race, then give Heath a ride to Bozeman so Heath could learn to flip. Jay didn’t compete, and as he tells it now, he never truly intended to; he simply wanted to give Heath what he had.It’s not uncommon for Quinlan to do something like this. He’s known as the Godfather because he’s seen as a pioneer, but he serves the title’s social meaning equally well: He watches over his sport and those within it.
Before the Red Bull Fuel and Fury competitions caught steam, the biggest event in freestyle snowmobiling history took place in 2000 at Mammoth Mountain, Calif. The Winter Gravity Games took a chance on the up-and-coming sport and staged a ramp contest among the skiing and snowboarding main events. Quinlan won, but took home a fraction of the prize money given to the winning skiers and snowboarders.Seth Morrison served as a judge for the freestyle competition. As he remembers it, “Everybody had their own style, but it was night and day” between Quinlan and the rest.The other riders have since caught up, but Quinlan’s inventive approach still amazes. Competing on a course made of dirt and wood chips at last year’s Fuel and Fury in Milwaukee – where there was no snow – Quinlan landed back-to-back flips, the first time anyone had done that.This week, Quinlan will lead the freestylers into the mainstream that is network television. To promote the second-ever Winter Gravity Games, which will be held at Copper Mountain beginning on Wednesday, Quinlan is performing on the streets of New York City for the Late Show with David Letterman on Monday night. He will attempt a back flip over two upside-down Dumpsters on snow trucked in from New Hampshire.Freestyle snowmobiling is only a demo event at the Gravity Games, yet the Outdoor Life Network and Octagon Marketing preferred Quinlan to promote their event, not a snowboarder or skier.This is consistent with the role in the winter sports world that the freeriders fill: The stunts they do are dangerous enough to attract attention, yet they often remain on the outside looking in when it comes to big-money contests.Quinlan is more fortunate than most, understandably. He will make about $90,000 this year, by far his best ever. “And that’s working my ass off, making all the calls,” he says. Still, his ambitions are not without virtues. Two weeks ago Quinlan turned down a potential major clothing sponsorship because he didn’t believe in the company he was going to promote.
The biggest money for freestyle snowmobilers has always come from films. Matchstick Productions, the most successful ski filmmaker this side of Warren Miller, put Quinlan in its videos for five years. It was the first time any major skiing filmmakers had featured freestyle snowmobilers.Quinlan met the job requirements.”You want someone who’s crazy, but you want someone who’s crazy and smart,” says Steve Winter, the Matchstick president who has done most of his company’s filming of Quinlan.Quinlan also was the No. 1 rider for the “Slednecks” series, which annually chronicles the freeride movement. Their catalogue of films includes a simply titled documentary, “Quinlan.”Jay stopped riding for Slednecks this year. He was sick of helping the owners get rich.Equipment on their ownThe film companies have embraced the freeriders, but the sled manufacturers have not. Unlike the snocross racers that compete in events such as the X Games, freestylers get no factory support. Companies such as Ski-Doo and Arctic Cat don’t want to take the risk of backing such a dangerous sport – despite all the exposure the freestylers bring.Jay gets his Ski-Doo 121 Rev sleds from Alaska Mining and Diving Supply (AMDS), a snowmobile dealer in Valdez. It gives him some of the 400 or so “race” chassis (frames) the factories produce each year. Every freerider would kill for the sleds Quinlan rides, but not everybody can get them. Until he inevitably wrecks it on a nine-story cliff drop or an 80-mph gap jump, Jay treats his snowmobile like a woman treats her pearls.
Earlier this winter, a mother asked for Quinlan’s autograph while he was eating at a family restaurant. She knew about Quinlan through her son, and she wanted to give Jay’s signature to him. Jay obliged, unfazed that it happened in the middle of Nevada.Despite instances like this, snowmobiling as a whole is in trouble. You talk to Nick Olzenak, a Valdez freerider and AMDS manager, the man who carries out the Nike role in his sport: He sponsors Jay Quinlan. He’ll tell you what’s wrong.”The average age of snowmobilers is growing,” Olzenak says. “It’s 44 right now. If that stays the same, snowmobiling’s going to die. So we want the kids to get involved. We need them to get involved.”Just the other day, Olzenak received an e-mail from a 12-year-old boy in Maine, 5,000 miles away, asking for an AMDS sticker “like the one on Jay Quinlan’s sled.” Olzenak says he gets them every day.The idol, meanwhile, continues to work in a trackhoe during the summer to help pay bills. He’s been “running equipment” at excavation sites for eight years.Lately, he has also been attending school in Broomfield to get his commercial helicopter pilot’s license. Someday, he says, he hopes to move back to Alaska with his wife, Julene, and run tours.Snowmobiling is in Jay’s blood, like Hawaiians and surfing. You get the feeling, maybe in a couple years, when he’s had enough of the broken vertebrae and enough of the doctors telling him he just lost 10 years on his knees, Jay Quinlan will ride off into the backcountry for good.That’s where he wants to take the sport anyway, into the great wide open.It would be nothing new.Devon O’Neil can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 231, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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