WHAT THEY SAID: A Thrill Ride Down an Icy Chute

The following is an excerpt from a blog published at NYTimes.com:

Speeds topped out at about 35 miles per hour on the Utah Olympic Park luge, skeleton and bobsled course. That is about one-third as fast as Olympian lugers. It was fast enough.

During reporting for an coming story, two of us from The New York Times were invited by USA Luge to steer a sled down the track used for the 2002 Winter Games. While it provided useful perspective for the story (it will run in February, if the suspense is just too much), it also offered a glimpse of what it takes to slide feet-first down an icy, banked chute.

I don’t think I have it.

The first run included a “should-I-have-told-my-wife?” moment of fear when the sled caromed from one side of the track to the other (a heart-racing, speed-killing mistake called “ping-ponging”) in innocuous Turn 13. The second run was smoother until oversteering led into the wall just before the finish. Another jolt of nervousness arrived when we were told that the third run would start higher up the mountain.

After signing ominous waivers of responsibility, Times video journalist Jigar Mehta and I were driven about midway up the nearly 1-mile serpentine track. We joined about a dozen employees of Utah-based USANA, the official nutritional supplement provider to USA Luge. Everyone was fitted with helmets and elbow pads.

Jon Owen, a 1988 Olympian luger and the first one to go down the track when it opened in 1997, provided a quick tutorial. The sleds, much like those used in the Olympics, feature a pair of silver, metal runners that are the key to speed. Riders lay on their backs in a sort of sling between two other supports above the runners. The contraption looks airy and flimsy. It is solid and heavy.
Point your toes downhill, Owen said. Keep your elbows in. Keep your shoulders down and your chin up, just enough to see. To turn, turn your head that direction. To turn more, tilt slightly to that shoulder.

To stop? Good one. There are no brakes. Once started, speed is generally controlled by gravity and how “clean” the run is — how few brushes against the wall and, for pros, how straight the line is through the curves.

We did not want to go over 90 m.ph. or pull 5 Gs, like world-class lugers do. We mostly wanted to survive to tell about it. For a couple of moments, even that seemed in doubt.
Officially, the track has five starting spots, called skeleton start, bobsled start, men’s women’s start and junior start.

Below the junior start is one called “tourist start.” The first two times, we started below that, above Curve 12 of the 15-curve course.

The racing order was announced over the public-address system. A giant scoreboard over Curve 14 showed our names and times. There was a lot of nervous chatter.
One by one, after given the all-clear, we plopped a sled onto the track. Owen offered final words of comfort and advice. Then he let go.

Exhilaration was almost immediate as the sled picked up speed. While it felt fast, it was too slow to force the sled high on the banked turns; the inside wall always seemed too close. But the sleds are surprisingly responsive. Just as Owen predicted, we found ourselves doing less and less “driving” with each run.

Click here to read the entire blog post.


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