By Joe Nesbitt
What’s more fun than racing head first towards the ground at speeds in excess of 160mph? How about doing it just a few feet away from three other friends, smiling and laughing as you all race towards the finish line? Head-to-head wingsuit racing is my favorite.
Welcome to the Wide Open Wingsuit Series, or WOWS. You’re competing against the people in the air along with you, so the only thing that matters is flyer faster than them. WOWS is a test of speed and skill. Every heat is unique due to different competitors and ever-changing conditions. The head-to-head style is distinctly different from the Paralog Performance Competition (PPC) currently used as the FAI and USPA National competition format, where competitors are flying by themselves and racing the clock.
How it Works
Competitors are arranged in heats in a bracket, according to how they did in past events such as previous WOWS races, RedBull Aces, and even PPC competitions. Every heat has four competitors. To move onto the next heat, you need to place 1st or 2nd. If you placed 3rd or 4th then you race again in a “win or die” heat in which you must place 1st to move onto the next round.
How it Feels
Four amped up, adrenaline-fueled, and sometimes cocky wingsuiters get in a plane. They are joined by a “rabbit” (another wingsuiter). The rabbit exits the aircraft and the competitors follow, forming up on the rabbit tightly, slightly back, and slightly below. This is the starting position of the race - any competitor above or ahead of the rabbit, or more than 150 feet behind the rabbit when the start is keyed, gets disqualified (DQ'd).
When the rabbit feels the moment is right, they spasm with a full body convulsion that would be hysterical to watch except no one is, because that’s the cue to start the race. Instantly the competitors rocket out of the gate flying towards the finish line as fast as they can.
As their speed increases, so do their mental calculations. You’ve got to fly at just the right angle to move forward as fast as possible without losing too much altitude, because you can’t blow the hard deck. Oh yeah, there is an preset altitude you can’t fly below or else you are DQ'd. Sorry Maverick, but if we just wanted to fly at the ground as fast as we could then we would go freefly with all the other pretty boys and girls!
But wait...there’s more! Want to REALLY spice things up? How about exiting four people at once out of a tailgate? Welcome to the National Championships! Protip: Come out of the gate fast and learn how to take a hit and fly through it. Maybe...maybe….just MAYBE (but I doubt) you will get a clean exit. The trick here is to keep your eyes on the finish line, take the hit, and fly your body around your head. Just another awesome element of the unknown to keep everyone on their toes!
Oh yeah, there’s distance too if you’re into that sort of thing. Dive for a bit, flatten out, hold a great glide ratio, fly till your arms hurt, try not to land off.
What to Wear
Right now it’s a big suits only kind of race. Since the race starts in formation behind the rabbit, the first requirement is obvious: you must be able to fly a big suit in a group of other people with varying speeds. So if you’re not quite confident on flying a few feet away from someone else really fast in a big suit then let’s do some training first.
How to Train
How do you train? This is a head-to-head comp, so train with a coach or a buddy. Have a solid flight plan and take turns doing two or three little races in the sky. Wear cameras to film each other and FlySights to see how you’re doing. Remember, this is a group sport so fly with each other! My best training days are when all the WOWS competitors are practicing together before a comp, giving each other advice and feedback.
It's All About the People
This brings me to my final point about WOWS. Yes, we use a lot of technology but this is a race about people. I’ve never been in any other competition where there is so much camaraderie. During training days we are coaching each other, between heats we are laughing and comparing notes, and post-race we all get together to talk about how we can make it better and get more people involved. If you want to join us, look for our training camps throughout the year or reach out for coaching!