Thacker returns to snowmobile racing roots

Joe Wiegele/NSP

"Since my injury I have done pretty much everything except slow down," Paul Thacker says.

Paul Thacker had a storied Winter X Games career as a freestyle snowmobile rider and for a long time held the distance world record on a snowmobile at an incredible 301 feet. He was always one of the most fun and engaging characters at X Games and an innovator to the extreme.

In November 2010, Thacker was at his friend -- and fellow X Games competitor -- Justin Hoyer's house getting things warmed up for the coming winter season. His world changed dramatically when a simple practice jump resulted in a spinal injury that rendered him a paraplegic.

Thacker, 35, has been undaunted by this unfortunate turn of events and this year is coming back to X Games Aspen, returning to his roots as a racer. The man who used to spend his time banging bars with Snocross legend Blair Morgan and jumping against Levi LaVallee and Heath Frisby is now back to take on the SnoCross Adaptive field. It has been a little while since your accident, so what else have you been doing out there since we all last saw you at X?
Since my injury I have done pretty much everything except slow down. I do a lot of work with different companies, ambassador stuff. I do some stuff with Monster Energy and their Give Back program. Work with a company called Ekso Bionics, helping to develop an actual robot suit that I strap myself in that allows people, in a similar scenario to mine, to get up and walk around. That has been pretty cool, as well as doing some personality stuff, some announcing and a little bit of TV. Just doing the best I can to figure out how to re-invent and make a living without getting a real job (laughs).

Mike Roth/ESPN Images/Shazamm

Paul Thacker competed in Winter X Games snowmobile events from 2008 to 2010 before the training accident changed his life.

That whole Ekso suit -- it sounds very science fiction.
It's like the "Six Million Dollar Man" (makes "Six Million Dollar Man" moving sound), it really is. It's pretty cool technology. It's all gyros and sensors. It senses body position and takes a step when I am in the right place. It actually walks at a pretty good clip.

At this point it's about what you would be if you were out with a stroll on the bike path with your grandma or something. It's about a mile an hour. The technology is fairly new. It's like the first cell phones that were like a brick -- Zack Morris, "Saved by the Bell" type phone -- and now they are a full-on supercomputer in the palm of your hand.

Been great to see where it starts, and I can only imagine where it's going to end up. Hopefully in the next couple of years we can have this stuff in our house and, who knows, maybe after that you and I will be going for a jog. It will just be a pair of pants you can put on and it will walk you.

So now you are coming back to X Games and it's for racing. How will it feel to have a finish line to judge your performance instead of a group of guys judging you in a tower?
I'm sure stoked to be getting an opportunity to go back to X. Obviously folks know I have been going there quite a few years and never quite been able to squeak out a medal, so I think we have got a pretty good shot this year. I definitely like the fact that there is a start and finish line and I will be deciding my own fate this year -- there won't be anybody in a judges booth telling me how I am doing. That is a bit of a comfort.

You have raced in the past so you are used to this format, but how much practice did you get on the sled since you decided to come back?
I got to ride a little bit this past couple of years just standard where I would throw myself on a sled and hang on for dear life. Now a couple of the engineers from Polaris, Rick Bates and Cory Wimpfheimer along with race director Tom Rager Jr. built me a race-specific seat. So I am strapped in with a little bit of extra travel and I have probably had the better part of a week riding, testing and beating myself into submission on the snocross track again. Not a ton of time, but a little bit. Fun to get back on the sled and rip again.

What are the differences on the sled that you are riding and the normal race sled that -- say -- Tucker Hibbert is riding.
I run a race sled, it's got all the race stuff on it, but minus the seat. The normal race seat that you would see on a stock sled is gone. Now I have a modified Sprint Car seat that is built up on a platform with some extra shocks. I'm actually seat belted in it so I am on for the ride now, there is no bailing off. I've got to make sure I'm on point! (Laughs)

Joe Wiegele/NSP

Engineers at Polaris have built a race-specific seat that allows Paul Thacker to return to competing on a snowmobile.

You see racers moving back and forth across the seat to make the sled turn, how do you achieve that without moving your weight over the seat to make the sled move?
I have ridiculous upper body strength (laughs). No, the seat actually rolls on an axis so I can lean into the corners. It's kind of like shifting and dragging a knee on a street bike, I can lean over and get into the corner. It's designed so not only does it have suspension up and down, but it actually rolls side to side so I can corner more like a normal racer.

It's a pretty fabulous set-up that the Polaris guys put together, I have to say. I'm super stoked and they did a great job. I gave them a checklist of the things I wanted it to do and they went above and beyond what I could have imagined it was going to end up looking like.

When you first got back on a sled -- how differently did you have to work the machine to make it do what you wanted?
I couldn't obviously do the same things when I got back on the sled after my injury. You don't really realize how much legs and torso you use while riding until you are not able to use them. Now I am actually able to ride aggressively and jump and all of that stuff again. It's miles and miles above what I would have to do if I just strapped myself on a seat.

The adaptive field at X Games gets heavier and heavier every year. Who do you think your main competition is out there?
Well, it's a pretty stacked field and everybody involved has got some sort of race background. Mike Schultz obviously is the defending X Games gold medalist and he's wicked fast. If you can keep up with that guy you are doing good.

Doug Henry is always fast. He's done pretty well in the past as well.

Garret Goodwin is a snocrosser, young kid, ripper. Got hurt just six months or a year after I did. He is fairly new to the whole para world, but I know he is going to be fast.

Darryl Tait a kid from up in Whitehorse (Yukon Territory), I know he has been working on different seat set-ups and riding a lot as well. Going to be fun to watch and just as much fun to compete in.

You were famous in the past for running your freestyle sled with a remote control. Wouldn't you rather just sit in the lodge and race the sled by remote?
(Laughs) Not a bad plan really.

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