It might be the fuel-deprived future from a Mad Max film. On this bleak stretch of road high above a sage-filled canyon, four figures in tattered leather jumpsuits recline on aluminum sleds. Donning metal-studded gloves and helmets with smoke-tinted visors, they paw themselves forward onto the incline above a hairpin turn.
``Here comes a truck, don't let him follow us,'' says Ken Kinnee, 29, a former auto detailer from Thousand Oaks, Calif.
With one final thrust forward, each settles back horizontal to the pavement, inches above the four orange-urethane skateboard wheels that begin to whirr with gathering speed.
As the truck passes, the recumbent quartet shoots down the road behind, feet first, heads inclined as if to watch TV, hands to the side.
Reaching about 55 m.p.h. in 400 yards, Kinnee lifts his left foot off its three-inch perch and jams it onto the pavement. Blue smoke flares. He tilts his body to the right, padded elbow grazing the road. As his sled swerves right, the trio of followers mimic in unison and disappear with a flash.
The foursome, known as the ``Max Racing Team,'' is here to demonstrate the future of what they call ``dry-land luge,'' a cross between the Olympic ice sport and skateboarding. After 15 years of languishing in the underground, the sport is trying to go legit.
``We're tired of cheesy, unregulated events that take all sizes and shapes [of boards and sleds] and where people get hurt all the time,'' says Kinnee. His alternative: a worldwide professional racing circuit like NASCAR, Formula One, or American Motorcycle Association. Three years ago, he and best friend Bob Pereyra formed the Land Luge International Racing Association (LLIRA), a nonprofit organizing and sanctioning body that claims 300 members worldwide.
Though the group has staged no races as yet, they have adopted a full complement of racing and safety guidelines to standardize vehicles, equipment, and apparel. They also have several sponsors (Bell Helmets, Kryptonic Wheels, Field Sheer Leather), have hired a full-time marketing director, and are devoting both personal funds (about $50,000 in two years) and full time to the enterprise.
They are also supported by a host of devotees who think the advent of the '90s means the time for dry-land luge has come. ``It will be the sport of the decade,'' says Ron Amos of UFO Sports Inc., a sporting equipment and accessory manufacturer who has invested heavily in designing wheels and sled prototypes. ``We think it's going to skyrocket,'' says Lee Jason of Bell Helmets, who has been monitoring worldwide media interest. His company is designing special helmets.
``The potential is unlimited if they can get the money behind them,'' says Paul Dunn, editor of Power Edge Magazine, a skateboarding publication. ``Before, the sport has been just a bunch of loud-mouthed people trying to get notoriety. [Max Racing] is going about it the right way.''
The right way, as Kinnee sees it, is to create an image of safety and competitive fairness the sport has lacked in its various incarnations since it was invented by Stan Puccio in 1976. Because of liability problems, civic sanctioning of luge-like racing fell dramatically after 1978, when a series of annual races in Long Beach resulted in several critical injuries.
A group known as the Underground Racing Association (URA - since 1980 the United Racers Association) has continued staging about eight races annually for various size sleds, bicycles, and stand-up skateboards. About half of the races are without liability insurance or blocked-off roads. Severe injuries have been numerous and commonplace. Various sponsors - Moet Champagne, Tracker Trucks - stage events worldwide, bankrolling about 40 top names such as Roger Hickey and Don Baumea.
LLIRA has a more populist approach, in which the average Joe can enlist in more frequent events under several classifications - and without huge investments in highly stylized equipment. To attract a following, they want to project normalcy.
``We want people to stop looking at us like we're a bunch of Evel Knievels,'' says Pereyra. ``We're not crazy and we don't do crazy things.''
Upon first observation, sane is not the word that comes to mind. With no brakes, no steering (they are ``lean activated''), and no motors, Max Racing sleds are welded from three-by-two-inch aluminum beams about eight-feet long. A widened seat, foam props for the head, and a ``T'' bar for the feet all sit on two pairs of 70 mm wheels (one beneath the neck, the other beneath the thighs). Plastic models with brake wheels have been marketed in New Zealand for about $500.
``They are actually quite controlled,'' says Don Bostic, president of the National Skateboarding Association, who has been luging for 15 years. With a low center of gravity, the sleds can corner twice as fast as a car, he says. ``You can do all kinds of slides and drifts - it's a real pure form of racing.''
Excluding the danger of passing cars, luging is safer than skateboarding on ramps, he adds. Lightweight, no more than 125 lbs., the sled can be stopped easily in half the distance it takes automobiles. Regular tire treads glued to the bottom of the operator's tennis shoes provide the friction.
Because luge-sleds don't have motors, speed limits don't apply, says Kennee. But luge-sleds usually don't exceed 60 m.p.h. because the wheels begin to break down at really high speeds.
The Catch-22 for these pioneers is attaining the widespread acceptance needed to attract the backing that will help them stay off public roads.
``There really are no places to go other than a perfect mountain road,'' says Kevin Thatcher, editor of Thrasher Magazine, which has featured Max Racing on its cover. ``Since nobody's building tracks, [the sport] may be destined to stay underground forever.''
Roger Hickey, who is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest luger ever (78.3 m.p.h.), is most often mentioned as head of the present underground. He has run dozens of nonpermit races without cordoning off racing areas or diverting traffic. He has won 132 races in a row with a luge-sled some liken to a dragster: fairing in front, air foils in back, special suspension and customized, five-inch wheels.
``We want to use equipment that everyone has access to,'' says Kinnee. ``So that it's the driver that makes the difference, not the sled.''
Kinnee, Pereyra (27), Darin Beebe (23), and Shawn Gulart (24) are out every day of the week trying to hone those differences. On mountain roads north of the city, They spend up to eight hours a day racing in pairs, one-on-one, and solo. Besides balance and self-control, the skills they must master are tactical: ``drawing lines'' into and out of turns, and ``drafting'' their opponents.
``When you are behind another sled you are not pushing air,'' explains Pereyra, ``and since we have no motors, this is what increases your speed.'' The rest is learning how side forces work against the sled - and, for now, staying out of the sight of police.
``It is very unsafe for someone to be shooting down a hill in prone position without control or brakes,'' says Sgt. Terry Enright of the California Highway Patrol's Malibu station. He has ticketed Kinnee because of a Los Angeles County statute prohibiting skateboarding in any form on a county road with more than a three percent grade or in excess of 10 m.p.h. Other southern California counties are less restrictive.
``We just move elsewhere where it's legal,'' says Kinnee, who in May broke several bones in a collision with a truck. ``We don't want to thwart the law.'' Professionalism and the ability to attract sponsors depends on a good public image, he says. Besides equipment, the group needs about $6,000 cash to block off a hill for a single event, and $2,000 more for liability insurance.
Kinnee needs to watch his image with fellow lugers as well, say many observers. By enforcing regulations which exclude established luge-sled designs, LLIRA has alienated some key players.
``They have the right idea, they can just be too heavy-handed at times,'' says Hickey, who has dominated the sport for over a decade.
``The LLIRA will have to find a middle road that can accommodate both stock and modified classes,'' says Amos. ``If they don't welcome and accommodate innovation, they will stagnate and become passe.''