Wingsuit Racing in China

How an off-the-beaten-path park in China became the epicenter for Wingsuit racing By: Norman Sklarewitz
Wingsuit contestant Joby Ogwyn free falling above Zhangjiajie National Park // © 2013 World Wingsuit League
Wingsuit contestant Joby Ogwyn free falling above Zhangjiajie National Park // © 2013 World Wingsuit League

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World Wingsuit League
www.worldwingsuitleague.com

As China becomes one of the world’s most important tourist destinations, it follows that savvy agents are learning more about the country’s top attractions. Still, it’s likely that relatively few people are familiar with one of China’s most spectacular natural attractions: the Wulingyuan Scenic Area.

Wulingyuan (pronounced Woo-ling-juan) is a region of some 229 square miles in southwest China’s Hunan province. The area is made up of scenic attractions, most prominently the Zhangjiajie (pronounced Jhang-ja-je) National Park, which is famous for the beauty of its mist-shrouded peaks, mountain forests, karst caves and sandstone pillars.

Spectacular as its scenery is, Wulingyuan hasn’t enjoyed much attention from the international travel industry, but that might be changing soon thanks to the efforts of local and provincial tourism bureaus and a high-flying Hollywood media outfit.

A Sport Is Born
The Hollywood connection is Pan Pacific Entertainment, headed up by cofounders Iiro Seppanen and Frank Yang. Pan Pacific engages in a wide range of ventures that includes producing action films and television series as well as staging special events.

Two years ago, Seppanen happened to see a photograph of an acrobatic pilot flying a small plane through a cave opening in Tianmen Mountain, located in Zhangjiajie Park. Seppanen had never heard of the area before — let alone been there — but he was struck by the spectacular scenery as well as the death-defying stunt. Yang, his partner, did some research and discovered that the same location had been used as the setting for the floating mountains on an alien planet in the movie “Avatar.”

With no readily available sport suitable to the location, Seppanen, himself a veteran professional parachutist, created one — the World Wingsuit League. Wingsuit flying is one of the growing body of “extreme sports” that includes variations of skydiving and base-jumping (jumping off buildings, cliffs or bridges). A wingsuit looks a bit like something Batman might wear: a jumpsuit with air-inflated airfoils in the legs and arms. When worn by a pilot who jumps off a suitably high location, it permits him or her to essentially “fly” their bodies like a glider, going forward three feet for every foot of descent, then popping open a parachute to land.

Over the next two years, Seppanen and Yang went all out to interest commercial sponsors in helping to finance their plans. Early on, the energy drink Red Bull became a key sponsor. At the same time, Seppanen and Yang sought the support of the relevant Chinese provincial and local tourism bureaus. In time, they won the support of a host of official Chinese agencies.

It took two years to make it happen, but in mid-October, Pan Pacific Entertainment organized and carried out the Tianmen Mountain Grand Prix Wingsuit Race. Elaborate rules for the competition were drawn up, but the basics came down to this: Each pilot would leap off a platform 900 feet up the face of the mountain, then glide down the race course for a vertical drop of 2,600 feet. The pilot with the fastest time would win. First prize was $20,000.

While Seppanen declined to give a precise cost for the project, he estimated its budget to be in the millions of dollars. Involved were 16 racers — all professional international sky-divers and parachutists — and a Pan Pacific support crew of 30, plus hundreds of Chinese workers involved in crowd control and road closures, emergency service personnel and crews from a half-dozen Chinese language television networks that broadcast the events live throughout China and back to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. There was no television coverage to the U.S., but Pan Pacific fed nonstop reports via Facebook and YouTube to fans everywhere.

The event was a great success, leading to the planning of a second Wingsuit Grand Prix this year in Zhangjiajie Park, tentatively scheduled for sometime in September or October. This time, the event will be covered live for U.S. viewers, plus there will be an eight-episode documentary series filmed about the event.

With so much going on, this scenic region may soon no longer be called one of China’s undiscovered tourism treasures.

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