Felix Baumgartner, one of the greatest skydivers in history, shares how he survives the toughest of missions to tell the tale.
Two and a half years ago, Felix Baumgartner promised his mother that he would slow down after his super-famous supersonic skydive from the stratosphere. "I told her I'm not going to do high-profile jumps anymore," he says. The Austrian pauses. And then with a cheeky grin, he adds: "I never said anything about racing."
The Red Bull athlete is back in the spotlight, this time under the intense glare of the race car circuit. Felix, now 46, is getting the chance to fulfil a childhood dream thanks to a programme called the Audi Driving Experience, in which a "gentleman driver" (as amateur racers are known) is slotted into a team of professionals.
"I'm not selected because I'm one of the best drivers around," says the fit and photogenic ambassador of an Austrian energy drinks company, with an intriguing attitude that's self-deprecating and self-dramatising at the same time. "I was chosen because I'm Felix Baumgartner, and it's a win-win situation when you put a big name in an Audi car. I'm having a good time, and Audi gets a good promotion worldwide."
Driving a high-powered Audi R8 LMS race car, Felix and team finished an impressive 9th place in Germany's Nurburgring 24 Hours race last year (out of 175 cars). They also clinched another top-10 finish at this year's Bathurst 12-hour race in Australia, beating 41 cars to finish 9th. Not bad for a middle-age rookie driver. Any doubt over Felix's racing credentials was put to bed.
However, that's not to say the daredevil takes his death-defying successes for granted. There is a method to his madness.
Practise, practise, practise
For a start, Felix is no slacker when it comes to preparing for whatever tasks lay ahead. "Putting a skydiver into a race car, in one of the most difficult race tracks in the world, is dangerous," he says. "I needed to practise and practise and practise."
For the Nurburgring race, he says he'd hit the racing simulator whenever he got the chance, including sessions in the middle of the night, to get a taste of round-the-clock racing. "I need to know every corner by hard, because there's so much going on during a race, so many cars behind and in front of you. When you're going 270km/h up a hill, you have to know what's coming up behind that."
He also competed in the German VLN series races on the Nurburgring circuit leading up to the 24-hour race. "I needed every race," he notes, "because you learn something new every time."
Don't gamble with your life
Felix accepts a certain degree of risk in his daring endeavours. But only 10 per cent, he concludes. "I want to stay alive. I don't do 50-50. That's gambling."
It took over five years of preparation before the commercially backed Base jumper leapt from 39km above Earth to set three world records in 2012 - of which only one was broken last October by Google executive Alan Eustace, who beat Felix's free-fall height by 2.4km.
In other words, by the time Felix stood on the step of the capsule in lethally thin air, there was little doubt about his survival.
"I have to be 90 per cent sure everything goes as planned," he says, noting parallels between Base jumping, extreme skydiving and motorsport. "There's a 10 per cent chance I'll hurt myself or, even worse, die. But that 90 per cent is my preparation: surround myself with a good team, listening and learning, and making sure I've done my homework."
No challenge is too great
You're only as good as your next challenge, Felix says. "It's very important to leave your comfort zone and sign up for new challenges, whether it's a new job or travelling around the world to see different cultures. This shapes your mind and expands your horizon."
That said, having a little fear is necessary. In spite of his nickname "Fearless Felix", the world's most famous parachutist is still human after all. "Ending up in a wheelchair because of a serious injury was my biggest fear," Felix reveals. "Every jump, every skydive could land me in a wheelchair. That was always weighing down on me."
And perhaps the biggest challenge of all is to have the courage to end your career on a personal high. "I've been parachuting for 25 years, and even if I'm always well-prepared, I still need a lot of luck to survive. Now, it's time to move on. I'm a commercial helicopter pilot, and in future I hope to work as a search and rescue pilot."
To read the rest of this article, get a copy of the April 2015 issue of Men's Health.
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