On Tuesday afternoon, Josh Sheehan made history by being the first person to ever land a triple backflip on a motorcycle. The Australian freestyle motocross rider had spent months preparing for the feat by conducting a number of test flights off a nearly 40-foot tall ramp into a massive airbag landing pad, set up at Travis Pastrana's Maryland motorplex. With the bag in place, the risks because limited but not totally eliminated, and Sheehan was able to learn the feeling of flipping his bike three times while flying through the air. Once everything had been perfected, Sheehan and the crew were ready to pull the bag and ride it out on a massive landing ramp.
We scored an invitation to see the feat, along with mainstream outlets like Sports Illustrated and the Associated Press, but happened to be the only motorcycle media outlet. NBC was on hand to film the flip as a special event for a television special (set to come out sometime in July), Pastrana's backyard was treated as a closed filming set. Thus, we were barred from bringing our own camera equipment to the location and had to turn in our cell phones to security guards just before Sheehan hit the ramp. Still, it didn't kill the mood in the Maryland woods, as everyone in attendance waited with bated breath for the moment to finally take place.
Sheehan carried a handful of personal parts (FMF exhaust, suspension, GPR stabilizer) with him from Australia to tailor a borrowed Honda CRF450R to his liking, and his small crew of mates worked through the morning to put the final touches on the bike in a corner of Pastrana's massive garage amid the chaos. Of the few dozen people milling about the barn through, Sheehan was missing from the group, undoubtedly preparing for what was about to take place. Around 10 in the morning, the mass started the trek through the woods to the cleared plot of land that served as ground zero and we had our first glimpse at the towering takeoff ramp. Pushed right up to the hillside, the vertical lip made it be impossible not flip backward once the rider reached its peak. The landing looked just as unforgiving; a steep 20-foot tall assembly of metal covered in wood, virtually void padding to soften the blow.
Since we drove to Maryland from New York on Monday morning, we missed Sheehan's final leaps into the airbag. Those that witnessed the test jumps stated he had every single detail of the jump worked out, that landing on a solid structure wouldn't be too difficult because the setup was pretty much the same as before. Through the trial runs that spanned the last few months, the crew knew the exact speed needed to pull the flip flawlessly and added a small display to the base of the jump that signaled just how quickly Sheehan was traveling.
When Sheehan came it to location, the mood instantly changed. Everyone knew a moment months in the making was about to occur, that there was only one chance at the triple backflip, that the difference between Sheehan riding away unscathed or a horrifying injury was very small. A long path was cleared through the woods to get the proper speed needed to hit the ramp, with the roar of the four-stroke engine serving as the only indicator of his approach. After a few glances at the takeoff, Sheehan disappeared back into the dark brush as cheers from the Nitro Circus crew echoed from the landing area.
The jump itself was a blur of speed and noise. First came the thundering engine noise from the forest when Sheehan sped out of the woods and towards the ramp, then the revs of the engine during the jump, and finally the boom from the metal and wood when he touched down on the ramp. The first flip happened almost as soon as the wheels left the lip, the rotation finished as he reached peak height some 80 feet above the ground, and the third occurred just as he fell from the sky.
Although you cannot see it on film, Sheehan drifted slightly to the left during the rotations and landed off-center on the ramp. No matter, the stunt had been accomplished. During post-jump interviews for television, Sheehan managed to describe the jump to a staff of still-bewildered viewers. The celebration really started back at the garage, where he burned the rear tire down to the cords with donuts and a burnout in the driveway.
Will we ever see another triple backflip? Nine years ago we thought the idea of someone matching Travis Pastrana's double backflip was insane, but it's been landed with regularity lately during the Nitro Circus Live tours. What may keep the triple flip from becoming routine isn't just the danger, but the unusual ramp setup required to fling a man and a motorcycle almost 80 feet into the air. It's a massive series of structures, impossible to fit into roofed stadiums and transport around the world. For now Josh Sheehan is the only person to stick what was once an impossible feat, and for all we know, could remain the sole person forever.