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Extreme sport isn't for amateurs -- or the faint of heart

Posted: Thursday, August 23, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- It's been said the best teacher is experience. Sometimes, though, a lot depends on which experience you let teach the lesson.

When he was 3 years old, Erik Shafer sneaked his tricycle out the fence and rode it down a big hill near his house. Little Erik took a nasty spill, messed up 15 teeth and broke his nose.

What lesson did he learn? ''I found out I loved speed,'' Shafer said. Shafer now is 20 years old and is one of the up-and-comers in the street-luge scene. In April he qualified during a race in St. George for ESPN's extreme sports X-Games held in Philadelphia this month.

The street luge is akin to the ice luge, but it is performed on what seems to be an 8-foot-long skateboard. Utah is quickly becoming a popular spot for street luging due to the wide and steep roads. The International Gravity Sports Association held its Xtreme Grand Prix in St. George this past April, and lugers Tom Mason and Billy Copeland were in Draper racing for new records and in Copeland's case setting new records in the rocket luge in May.

Watching Mason and Copeland gun for new records on their home turf was hard for Utah street luger Mike Houston. ''Jealous,'' was the way Houston summed up his feelings as he watched Mason go down the hill chasing the street luge world speed record of 81.28 mph.

Houston said it was he and his friends that told Mason about Traverse Ridge Road in Draper and that he and his friends had clocked themselves going down the road at 90 mph on earlier occasions.

The street luge is a natural extension for most of these riders. Houston, for instance, has been into most every sport that requires a gut of steel. Sky diving, motorcycle racing and hang gliding have all been past diversions for him.

Houston, who has been married for eight years and has two children, said that initially his wife had some reservations with him street luging.

''She wasn't very excited about it at first, but now she feels better about me street luging because there is no possibility of a big fall involved.''

A big fall no, but crashes are part of the race when there are six street lugers racing at the same time. Shafer said he cracked two ribs and tore the muscles in his arm during the St. George races.

Houston said he has been involved in the street luge for some time. Back in 1981, when he was a student at the University of Utah, Houston and his friends would make wooden luge sleds to run during the summer when there wasn't any snow for skiing.

''Really I've been doing the luge since I was a little kid,'' Houston said. ''I would just go down the hill laying on my skateboard. When you're that close to the ground, the sensation of speed is dramatic.''

Houston says the origins of the street luge are a little sketchy because ''everyone thinks they invented it.'' But everyone agrees that it began in Los Angeles. Houston said it remained fairly underground until the X-Games.

Draper police officer Lt. Rod Lowry said that because the street luge is so new, there have not been rules written specifically for it. Lowry said that for now, the rules they hold the lugers to are the same as those for a sled and in some cases a bicycle. Riders have to operate in a safe, reasonable manner, stay on the right ride of the street and lugers will be cited if they exceed the speed limit, Lowry said.

Making the jump from just being interested in street luge to actually doing it is a big step. Shafer said it's easy to get interested in street luging but it's something else to become a serious rider.

''A lot of younger guys don't get into it because it's so expensive. I had to save up money to make a $2,000 investment into a real luge board and another $800 for the leathers,'' Shafer said.

Although he is almost always the youngest of the riders at the races, Shafer said, there is a camaraderie among the street lugers that isn't found with a lot of other sports.

''That's what's great about the sport is everyone loves newcomers,'' Shafer said. ''One of the old-school guys was telling me the other day that he's glad he can pass his skills on to the other guys.''

Make no mistake, though, once they are racing down the hill it's every man for himself. Most street luge races are done with four or six racers all going at the same time, which makes for a lot of high-speed crashes.

Shafer has his own strategy when it comes to racing. ''I hang back and let everyone wad (when the racers crash into each other) and hit the hay lining the course and then I try to fly through because I'm so skinny.''

Houston said that when racing against others, just one touch from a competitor can spell doom.

''We use skateboard wheels so there are real limits to the adhesion of the wheels to the ground,'' Houston said. ''You get tapped and it throws your whole back end out.''

Shafer hopes to make it to the podium at the X Games if for nothing else than to get what every other street luger wants: a sponsor.

''When you get a sponsor they pay for airfare and hotel for the racing events,'' Shafer said. ''It helps them, too, because all these different companies want to get their name out in an extreme way.''

While Shafer has high hopes for his racing future, Houston said that he was more serious about the sport a few years ago; he now does it more for fun than anything.

He has taken his wife for a few runs and said when his kids are old enough, he'll teach them, too. Even though Houston is 38 years old, he said he has no intention of stopping any time soon.

''I think I'll be at least 60 before I'll start thinking of stopping.''

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(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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