Although BMX Big Air was only introduced to the X Games in 2005, the pursuit of the highest quarterpipe air on a BMX bike stretches back to the early 1990s, when BMX Vert pioneer Mat Hoffman decided to build a bigger ramp on an open lot on the outskirts of Oklahoma City.
Hoffman, then in his early 20s, was well on his way to creating a revolution within the BMX industry. He had redefined BMX Vert riding, and quickly did the same with then-unknown disciplines such as BMX Street (Hoffman grinded the first handrail on a BMX bike) as well as the evolution of BMX technology (through his own brand, Hoffman Bikes, he pioneered stronger BMX bikes that could withstand the demands of his riding).
But there was one revolution left to conquer -- that of high air. In mid 1990, Hoffman met a Hollywood stuntman named Johnny Airtime.
"We talked about something I dreamed of for years -- a 20-foot aerial on a bike," said Hoffman. "On an 11-foot ramp, I could air about 13 feet. Airtime reasoned that by applying that same formula toward a larger ramp at a greater speed, it would be approximately the same amount of g-forces ... My mind was ablaze with possibilities."
In 1992, Hoffman began constructing a 20-foot-tall quarterpipe outside the Hoffman Bikes warehouse in Oklahoma City. In order to reach the ramp at his desired speed, Hoffman employed the help of friend and business partner Steve Swope to pilot a used dirt bike with a tow rope towards the ramp.
"I held a ski rope with one hand and steered my bike with the other as Steve towed me down a 200-yard plywood sidewalk. The process sent me flying out of the quarterpipe over 20 feet," said Hoffman. "And it felt amazing."Hoffman eventually adjusted to the new ramp, citing wind as a major variable, and shot photos of himself riding the quarterpipe monstrosity for a Hoffman Bikes ad in the June 1992 issue of Ride BMX Magazine.
"When the ad debuted, there were people who didn't believe it. Even though I had a reputation for doing high airs, I was also notorious for having a goofy sense of humor," said Hoffman.
Two years later, Hoffman's quest for Big Air brought him to a new chapter in ramp construction -- the world's tallest halfpipe.
"I could drop in and clear 18 feet on the first wall. The only problem was, my bike was too small -- the 20-inch BMX wheels would reach their maximum velocity too quickly. After my first air, the ramp would slowly bleed my speed. I needed another solution," said Hoffman.
This is one way in which living in Oklahoma worked to Hoffman's advantage.
"Oklahoma is probably the the best place in the entire world to convert a bike to run on a reverse-engineered weedeater engine. Nobody ever questioned the ridiculousness of it," said Hoffman.
It took him a few attempts to get used to the altered weight of a BMX bike with an engine duct-taped to the frame, but within a week, he was riding the halfpipe and blasting aerials in the 23- to-24-foot range. Not long after, while filming for MTV Sports, Hoffman crashed on the halfpipe, taking the brunt of the impact to his abdomen. Hoffman's spleen burst, and he lost four pints of blood within 20 minutes. Not wanting to pay for the ambulance ride to the hospital, Hoffman asked Swope and girlfriend (later wife) Jaci to drive him to the hospital.
"The doctor said that if another 20 minutes had passed, I wouldn't have made it," said Hoffman.
A year later, Hoffman returned to the original 20-foot quarterpipe, still located on the Hoffman Bikes warehouse property. It was Labor Day weekend in 1994, and Hoffman's promotion company had organized a BMX competition on the warehouse grounds.
"Mat had never ridden the big ramp in front of crowds, and even with the community of hardcore BMX riders, a lot of them just thought it was fake," said Steve Swope. "But Mat wanted to ride and prove it was possible to break 20 feet."
On that weekend, Hoffman aired in the 24-foot range on the 20-foot high quarterpipe, breaking his previous records. Days later, according to Swope, a windstorm knocked down the quarterpipe in the Hoffman Bikes warehouse lot, but the legacy that Hoffman had created, on the backs on the weedeater engines and an emergency spleenectomy, persevered to create one of the most groundbreaking disciplines to grace the X Games.
BMX Big Air returns to X Games Foz do Iguaçu on Friday, April 19. Invited athletes include Chad Kagy, Kevin Robinson, Steve McCann, Zack Warden, Morgan Wade, Vince Byron, Colton Satterfield and Andy Buckworth. Hoffman, now BMX sport organizer for the X Games, will be overseeing the event from the judge's tower, marveling at the spectacle he helped to create.