Interview: Semi-paralyzed wild man Tanner Godfrey prepares for a third UTV jumping world record
Twice now, Tanner Godfrey has jumped further in a UTV than anyone in history. Since he doesn't have full use of his legs, he's done it by literally poking the gas and brake pedals with a stick. And on Monday, armed with a new stick, he's lining up for the biggest jump of his life.
It probably looks like "just another" daredevil long jump attempt on the Diesel Brothers event poster, wedged in between a monster truck jumping over an airplane in flight and another monster truck attempting the world's first forward-momentum backflip. But the mountain Tanner Godfrey has had to climb to get where he's going is of proportions just as epic as any of the stunts he's done.
Injuries are part of the extreme sports game, but Tanner has copped it harder than most, breaking his back and being diagnosed as paraplegic. With a bit of luck and a hell of a lot of hard work, determination and positive attitude, he's managed to fight his way back to the point where he can now walk with canes.
With family ties to the Nitro Circus crew, and extreme sports flowing through his veins, he's also back on the motorcycles, somehow getting around a motocross track faster than I reckon I could do it with all my spinal nerves intact. And, more or less by accident, he's managed to find an extreme performance vehicle class he can not only compete in, but be a world beater: UTV jumping.
He's held the world record twice before, his best being 205 feet (62 m) in Butte, Idaho at the Evel Knievel tribute day. Now, a competitor holds it at 223 feet, and Godfrey's going to try to take it back at the Diesel Brothers: Monster Jump Live event, which will air at 8pm Monday on the Discovery Channel.
I had a very entertaining chat with Tanner over the phone, talking about his injury, his recovery and his crazy extreme sports habits. What follows is an edited transcript.
Loz: You're semi-paralyzed. How did that happen?
So in 2007, I crashed on a dirtbike, went over the bars and landed on my head. I pile-drived straight into the ground head-first at 50 miles an hour, and it fractured my T6 vertebra, which is about nipple level, and dislocated my T7, and broke eight ribs.
I didn't lose feeling immediately, but after 15, 20 minutes my left leg went numb. Once I got to the hospital, they did a CAT scan and X-Rays and stuff, and my left leg came back while they were doing that. Then they put me on a plane to get to a better hospital, and… I don't remember anything after that.
I woke up the next morning and I was paralyzed from the nipples down, and had two eight-inch rods in my spine.
Loz: They say it's often not the original injury that kills the spinal cord, it's the swelling of the cord within the bones of the spine that causes it to get cut off and damaged.
That's your body's natural defense. It wasn't the crash that got me, it was the swelling, it swelled up and just shut everything down.
I still had my top abs, but everything below there was just numb. I couldn't move it or feel anything. The docs said I got real lucky, because I had such a thick neck. I'd just graduated high school, and I wrestled and played football and lifted. I was in really good shape, and my neck was thick from all that. They said if I didn't have such a thick neck, I would've broken my neck and died from the impact.
Loz: Ouch! And when you say riding a dirtbike, were you just out in the bush having a fang?
No, I was racing. I was on a motocross track. I hit a hole with my back tire that kinda shot my back end out, then hit another one with my front, and over the bars I went! I didn't have a concussion or anything, though. I have a really hard head.
Loz: What else were you doing before the crash, your family's involved in this whole Nitro Circus business?
That was right as Nitro Circus started to take off, as far as the live show stuff. I had done some smaller stunts with them, just because it is the family. So I'd filmed some with them, but right when I broke my back was basically as Nitro kind of exploded and got really big.
Loz: What's the family connection there?
My uncle Greg started Nitro Circus with Travis Pastrana, basically. So my family, we'd grown up doing the Nitro and all that jazz just from my uncle being the ringleader of it. We were all kinda drawn into doing all those things. The extreme sport world came very naturally to my whole family, cousins and all that.
Loz: I guess, out of everyone, you've paid the highest price?
Yeah, I'm the one that's been hurt the most. I was always the one that never crashed. And when I did crash, I figured that muscle bounced a lot better, so being in shape, you tend to get hurt less. My cousin would always crash and get concussions and whatnot, but I never got hurt until I broke my back. That's been the worst accident we've had in the family.
The funny thing was, the day before, my Dad had a crash on the same part of the track, and he compress-fractured his T6, 7 and 8 vertebrae. No spinal cord damage, he just compressed the bone. He had to wear a big ol' brace for a while.
Loz: I know that brace, it's like wearing a toilet seat!
Haha yeah - and the night before, it's super strange to say, but I was watching a video of a guy, and something had gone wrong for him and he was in a wheelchair. And it kinda hit me that I was gonna be in a wheelchair. And it wasn't a scary thing, it was just like "that's gonna be me." I kinda saw it ahead of time.
Once it happened, I knew immediately that I broke my back. I was lying on my side and I tried to roll over because it hurt so bad, but I couldn't.
Loz: Did you feel in that moment that your whole future had changed?
All I could think about was the pain. It was all happening in the moment, I couldn't think about anything else. I wasn't thinking "oh no, what am I gonna do." Even the next day, everyone came to see me, and they were crying and I was OK. They'd leave and tell my mom "we came to lift his spirits, but he lifted ours." My attitude never went to a poor me, it was straight away about overcoming this. I wanna get back on a bike and ride, and just live life.
So I've molded and adapted my ways for how I do things. I could sit there and feel sorry for myself, or I could get on with figuring out what I wanted to do and how I was gonna do it.
Loz: It's funny when you're in a hospital bed like that, in a terrible condition. It's almost like other people coming in and feeling all that grief means you can be the strong one somehow.
Yeah, it's weird how that happens. Honestly, I was mostly just drugged up on pain pills. The first day that I cried was like two weeks in, when I had to order my wheelchair. That's when reality set in, like this is for real. They're taking measurements and all that stuff.
Loz: And now you're back walking on canes, right?
Yeah. So I did that in 2007 and started rehab immediately. You have to perform certain tasks before they allow you to leave. I was in the hospital for a month before I got out. I started therapy from there.
I had really bad spasms in my legs, and I had medication to keep those under control. But I took myself off that, because it gave me fuzzy vision, I'd sit there and stare at a wall and go blank for a half hour without realizing it.
The way I looked at it, these spasms were keeping my muscles strong, so that when I did start walking – and it wasn't a matter of if, it was a matter of when – then I'd still have my strength.
So I kind of started working out how to use those spasms in my favor. Standing was the first thing I did, that took a couple months to figure out. The first thing that started to move was I found out I could twitch my left toe. That was the beginning of everything.
Once the toe started to move, other things started to move. I went to this place called Neuroworks, and they had this contraption where they put you in a harness on a little crane that could take some weight off you. I was over a treadmill, and they'd have someone on each side of my legs, and somebody behind me holding my hips, to set my leg positions for me.
And that would trigger my spasms, and my legs would kind of start moving. It was the strangest thing. And I learned to walk up stairs before I figured out how to walk on flat ground.
Loz: It's almost like your legs knew what to do by themselves.
Yeah, it was kind of like autopilot.
Loz: What a strange feeling.
So I was in a wheelchair, then a walker, and now I walk using canes. It's still progressing, I just get a little lazy at times. But as long as I'm working at something, it gets a little better every day. Minimal things, though.
Loz: What about sensation?
No. That's a long way off. And I only really have the ability to control my big muscles. Standing up off the ground or a chair, I need to have something to grab onto. I can't tell temperature, unless it's really hot or really cold. Touch is kinda normal, but it's kind of like you have a leather glove on.
Loz: I can imagine the battle it took for every inch of that progress. So at what point do you go "hey, let's start getting in high powered vehicles and doing huge long record breaking jumps again?"
Haha! I got outta hospital in December 07, and on Easter we'd always go ride motorcycles out in the desert. And I wanted to drive a side-by-side.
We didn't have anything for me to hit the gas, obviously I can't use my feet. So me and my grandpa rigged up a driving stick from a tent. We just kinda bent a handle and put duct tape around it, and duct taped the bottom until a water bottle would fit onto it, and stuck the water bottle on.
That became my driving stick, and I'd just use that to hit the gas and the brake.
Loz: Jesus! That sounds sketchy!
Oh it was! I'd tell people "I've got three options, I'm either gonna hit the brake, the gas or the floor, so you better hold on!"
Loz: You're taking people with you???
Yeah, that's the fun thing about side-by-sides!
Loz: You've got some brave friends!
You know, a lot of people say they're more comfortable with me driving that with other people. And I'm driving with a stick! There must be something wrong with other people haha!
Loz: Haha! Oh, man! Those things are just hysterical fun to drive, aren't they? I mean, they're not as much fun as a dirt bike, but for four wheelers, they're unbelievably capable.
Yeah! The extreme performance stuff, the Polaris RZRs … I mean they're not a bike, nothing's gonna replace that feeling of a motorcycle. But they come pretty close. You can still go fast, you can still scare yourself – and that's the fun part of it haha! And the better part is you've got another seat, so someone else can enjoy all those "oh shit" moments with you!
Loz: Haha! And they're a bit safer. You've got your roll cage, and your five point harnesses and that kind of stuff. So at what point did you start thinking about going for records?
The first time I went and did the first jump, my uncle was putting on an event down… Actually, where I broke my back, in Mesquite, Nevada. And they were throwing around some ideas about doing a record jump. I kinda just got roped into doing it.
They called me up, like "hey, you wanna come jump a side-by-side and set a record?" And I was like "sure."
Loz: Oh my god. I guess there's no-one better to be setting this stuff up, this is what they do every day, planning and executing these kind of things, right?
Well, yeah, if we'd had the right people … It was just my uncle and this other guy. I was the one who knew more about what we needed for the jump.
Loz: Oh, shit.
When I did that one, I jumped like 105 feet. But it was a sandy kind of soil, and it was at night, so when I had to go up on top of the platform, I couldn't really see. I had to turn around on it, and I just about went off the edge, like a 20 foot cliff, because I missed the brake with my driving stick.
Loz: What? You're still using the driving stick?
Loz: I thought you'd've had some hand controls, something much less sketchy by then!
I just barely got hand controls figured out this past year. It only took me about what, eleven years.
Loz: Eleven years! You drove with a stick for eleven years!?!
Oh I still have the stick. That's what I'll be jumping with on Monday.
Loz: Are you kidding me??
No. But it's not the driving stick with the duct tape on it. This one, I actually welded. Mind you it's the first time I really welded anything, and it's aluminum, so it kinda just looks like a bird shit all over it.
Loz: (uncontrollable laughter) So is that attached to a fulcrum on the floor or something? So it operates kind of like a gearshift lever?
No, it's literally just a stick with a platform on it.
Loz: You are literally just poking the pedals with a stick?!
Loz: You're a wild man, that's the craziest thing I've ever heard.
Haha yeah, so that was the first jump. And the second one was kinda the same thing. My uncle Greg called me and asked me "hey, you wanna set another record up at Evel Knievel day?"
I was like "I'll think about it." And next thing, I get a text from Evel's daughter saying "hey we're so excited that you're gonna come up and jump!" And I was like well, I guess I'm doing it!
And I was having some suspension work on my RZR at that point, so I got the car back on the Monday before I was supposed to jump. And I was planning to test jump it on this ramp out in our yard. My dad was practicing jumping a semitrailer on it, actually - he came up short. His back axles hit the front of the landing ramp and it pitched forward and he rolled it.
So then I had a go in the RZR, and I did like 165 feet and I didn't roll. But that was my first and only test jump. And we were like, "OK, I guess we're ready to go up to Butte and do this."
Loz: (more uncontrollable laughter)
So when we got there, we were supposed to get a practice jump on the Thursday. But this jump was in the middle of the road. They were supposed to shut the road down for us, but they didn't.
So me and my brother were just gonna go, he was gonna jump it on the dirtbike and I was gonna follow. So we're screaming down the road, dodging the traffic and heading for the jump, but somebody ran out in front of us and said we couldn't do that. That was at 3pm and the jump was at 7.
Loz: How do you figure out the speeds for something like that?
Well, you kinda have a ballpark. I like having one of my brothers hitting it on a motorbike, that makes it easier to judge speed. The bike's easier to test, especially with the lips. Some lips cause the side-by-side to nosedive more than others. Bikes can over-jump it and still land and be OK, so that's the best way for me to work out the speed.
Loz: With the bikes, you can hit the gas or the rear brake in mid-air, and you've got some control over your rotation, yeah? Do you have any control with a side-by-side?
Yeah. You can hit the brakes and it'll do a little bit, it'll bring the nose down just a touch if you're nose-high. But once the nose starts coming down, you're kinda shit outta luck and along for the ride, basically.
That's where the suspension and the angle of the lip really comes into play. If you get that wrong, it's likely gonna buck. Those things buck by nature, anyways.
So that's what I look for with the bikes, and if it looks like I might buck, I can make some adjustments.
Loz: What are you adjusting?
You can change the lip, or you can change the shocks. The high and low speed compression and rebound.
Loz: So it doesn't spring the back up so hard.
I'll usually stiffen the front end up, the springs, so that gets a bit of extra bounce. But I don't really know what I'm doing, I just assume that's what it'll do.
Loz: Jesus, Tanner! (laughs)
I mean I've got a gist … But it's not like I'm an expert in it.
Loz: You're just a two-time world record holder. Hahaha!
Yeah. So for that jump, I kinda backed up as far as I could, and just gassed it, and I ended up hitting about 71 miles an hour, and went 205 feet on that jump. I was in a t-shirt, shorts, and a motorcycle helmet for that one.
Loz: So that sets your second world record? Who's taken the record off you now?
A guy named Al McBeth has it right now.
[edit: Here's McBeth having a nasty crash trying to break the same record Tanner's going after]
Loz: Driving a Polaris as well?
Yeah, another RZR. He's gone 223 feet.
Loz: So what exactly are you driving?
It's a Polaris RZR Turbo S.
Loz: How much power does that make?
168 horsepower. That's a soft number. I've put an exhaust on, and taken off the speed governor. They'll go about 75 mph stock.
Loz: What else has to be done to it?
I'm putting the HCR suspension on it, it's just a lot stronger. I'm putting Method wheels on it with beadlocks, if we land a bit sideways I don't want the tires popping off. I'm putting BFG KM3s on, nice tires, they're a little lighter and narrower.
Then we put a Sparco racing seat in, with the harness system - I wanna be held in there really good. My core isn't as strong as it should be, it's still weak, so I need a seat that'll really support me so I don't go side to side. That Sparco seat really hugs me in there.
And we put a different cage on as well, the ZR Motorsports cage, just preparing for worst case.
Loz: It doesn't sound like you've made massive changes to the vehicle though.
All we've done is taking the stock components that have the highest chance of failure, and replaced them with something stronger. But it's very capable. I just jumped it about 190 feet the other day on my first jump. I was going about 70 mph, and it had the stock suspension on, and it landed just fine.
Loz: So if 70-odd mph gets you 190, 200 feet, do you need to be getting into the 80s for this attempt?
It's more a game of angles. In practice, I hit it at about 14.5 degrees, but we're going to lower it to more like 13 degrees. My uncle Greg was talking with Travis Pastrana and Ken Block at a press conference for the Nitro World Games, and they're saying that 13 degrees should be the magic number. So that's what we're shooting for.
The flatter the lip, the less likely it is to nose-dive - but the faster you have to hit it to get the distance. So it's a fine line. It'll be a 140-foot gap, with a 20-foot tall takeoff and a 20-foot tall landing.
I'm not very good at math, I just tend to put my hands up and make a few angles, and see what looks about right. and I go off gut instinct. You really have to rely on that gut instinct. But sometimes it's right, and sometimes it's wrong.
That's the scary thing about the first jump - the nerves start kicking in. But once you've got the first one out of the way, the confidence starts coming in and it's all right. It's always the unknown that scares the shit out of you!
Loz: I bet! What do these landings feel like for you, as someone without much sensation under the nipple line?
Well, I've got some feeling for body movement, so it can be painful if I land wrong, but if I land right, it's pretty normal.
Loz: Look, I've never done anything like this, jumped that far in the air. What does it feel like? Can you take me through a jump?
It's pretty nerve-wracking. You're going 70, 80 miles an hour towards a wall, basically, and you're gonna jump off and be in the air for about 3 and a half seconds, maybe. It's kind of a weightless feeling.
There's not much you can do, you're just strapped in there thinking "well, I hope we land good." And then when you land, that's when you really get excited. Well, you do if you landed good.
Loz: I wanted to ask you, what does your mum think of all this?
Well, she's nervous. But my parents both know I'm not going to do something I'm not comfortable with. We've been through a lot. And they know that if anything, I over-think things. So they worry, but they also have confidence in me, because they know I've done the homework.
Loz: When you say you only do things you're comfortable with … Can you give me some examples of things you're not comfortable with? Haha!
Well, it used to be talking to girls … Haha! It's funny, I struggle with committing to doing things. It's like it's one thing to say you're gonna do it, and another thing to go out and do it. So I just do a speed run or two, and then get out and hit it. I don't allow myself to think.
It's like going diving, jumping off a big cliff. If you climb up and then look down, you start second-guessing yourself. The longer you're up there, the less likely you are to do it.
Loz: I know that feeling intimately.
Yeah, so I don't allow myself enough time to stress out. I've done the thinking, now it's time to line it up and go for it. It's a calculated risk, I've done my homework, I know more or less what I need to do.
And a lot of it's just being comfortable with the vehicle. I know the RZR pretty well, I feel like I know how it'll respond. There's a video of the last practice session I had, I kinda got a bit sideways in the air. So I landed pointed over to the left, and it kicked around to the right, and I had to drop my driving stick and grab the wheel with both hands, just saying to myself "don't roll, please don't roll …"
Loz: Why do you keep the driving stick? Why not a twist throttle somewhere up on the steering wheel, maybe with a brake lever? Something?!
Up until a couple years ago, there just wasn't anything that was even possible. Everything I'd seen would just break. And if something like that breaks, you've got a real big issue.
With the driving stick, my chances of hitting the gas or the brake are like 90%. And even if I hit the floor, I can pull up and have another go. I know it's not going to break. I know for sure I can brake with that thing.
But there's a hand control setup now I do really like. Like a motorcycle twist throttle, on a pole that I can push forward to hit the brake. I just didn't get the car until recently, so I didn't have time to set that up. And I'm not going to have to go from the gas to the brake very fast one this one.
Loz: Mate I'm thrilled for you. What a life. What a family! You're way out there. Best of luck for Monday, I'm looking forward to seeing how it goes!
Thanks! Just having fun with life! I walk real slow, so I guess I gotta drive fast!
To see Tanner and his family speak about his journey, and to watch some of the crazy high-octane antics he gets up to, check out an old video below. And if you get the chance, tune in to "Diesel Brothers: Monster Jump Live"on Discovery Channel, Monday May 27 at 8pm ET to catch his latest record attempt, among a bunch of other wild stunts.