Darwin Award Qualifying Trials

Nah, it's just street-luge races. Down De Haro Street. At 70 mph. Well, like we said ...

Some already have, but it's difficult to consider any of the day's athletes old.

Well-tanned and wrapped in leather from head to foot, the competitors grab their luges and jump in the back of a flatbed truck that takes them to the top of the hill. They come tearing down the course in batches of six, speeding across the pavement at 60 mph, flying through the air, and all too frequently slamming into one another. Chris McBridecatches air and lands on his hands; even with gloves, his knuckles are raw and bloody after the race and he is unable to remove his own helmet; landing sideways, Darren Pineauis rammed at 50 mph by Beagle Jarvisand carried off the track in a golf cart. Baz Bazzelslides down the track on his stomach, tearing holes in leathers that have made it through competitions halfway around the world.

Lee Dansieof Renton, Wash., places first. Chris Chaput places second. And Pamela Zoolalian's boyfriend, Brent DeKeyser, places third.

"Those are some really tough guys," says Michael Bermudez, an EMT from Bayshore Ambulances who shakes his head in wonder. "Some of those cuts look really bad, but they act like they don't even feel it."

And it's not over. Not by a long shot.

During the four-man race, Chris Chaput takes first. Brent DeKeyser takes second. And Jeff Schonzeittakes third.

Then a 5-inch ramp is added to the track.

For many of the competitors, it's too much (live to luge another day, they say), but more than a dozen athletes -- McBride, Jarvis, and Gilder among them -- rise to the challenge. And during the Big Air event, another world record is broken, this one by old-school skate legend Waldo Autry, who soars 93 feet to a safe landing.

"Street-luging is safer than riding your bicycle," says 60-year-old Steve Pearlin the parking lot overlooking San Luis Reservoir at Dinosaur Point. I glance between my feet to catch the twinkling eyes of the snowy-haired man standing at the foot of my street luge. He's completely serious. "With this, you're only a few inches off the ground. If you fall, you're in full leathers and a motorcycle helmet. Nothing to worry about. Safer than skiing or rollerblading, and a lot more fun."

In 1998, Steve Pearl was lying on the floor in front of his family's television, pretending to ice-luge along with Olympic athletes. A short time later, his son told him about the street luge; Pearl got on the Internet and bought one, along with Darren A. Lott's book. He taught himself to ride and got in contact with other local street-lugers; soon enough the second-generation photo restorer had opened a side business called Wild Fro Racing.

"It's the happiest I've ever seen him," says his wife, Marilyn Pearl, who sports brilliant multicolored fingernails and a red-and-white-starred hat, "and I've seen him every day for the last 36 years."

"We'll be lying in bed," says Marilyn, "and all the sudden Steve goes straight as a board and he starts rolling his body side to side, practicing. He loves this. He wants everyone to love this."

The point of Wild Fro is, indeed, to share the joy. On weekends, Pearl invites street-lugers and potential street-lugers to ride a 2-1/2-mile downhill stretch of open road just off of Highway 152. Pearl's family -- children, nieces, nephews, and their children -- handles the paperwork and passes out Cokes, water, and pretzels so Pearl can spend time teaching newcomers how to ride.

Pearl gives instruction on the only permitted recreational street-luge road in the United States. Of course, that doesn't mean there aren't cars on the road, or rattlesnakes ...

"Or deer," says 35-year-old Brian Kiggins, having just soared down Dinosaur Point Road on a butt-board, a classic street-luge shaped like a very large skateboard.

"I almost hit a fawn," says Kiggins with a flushed grin. "It jumped across the road about three feet away from me. It freaked my ass out!"

More than 20 lugers are gathered in the parking lot, including a slew of Red Bull competitors, two newbie lugers whom Pearl trained only last week, and Darren A. Lott.

"Pearl's like the rest of us," says Pete Love, a world-class competitor from London. "He loves the sport so he's trying to figure out ways to get other people involved. It's great." As is the route, which Love describes as "very American."

"It's very fast," says Love, "with sweeping turns that don't require much braking. You just have to stay smooth and loose and take advantage of the aerodynamics. It's very nice."

During time trials someone breaks 75 miles per hour. It's not even close to a record, but it makes one of the younger riders hungry.

"Let's race!" he says.

"I raced yesterday," says Kiggins. "And we'll both race next week. Let's just ride. I just want to ride. Take it easy."

"I'm the future of this sport," says the 17-year-old buck. "What do you have? Maybe three years left. I've got 20."

Kiggins shrugs and says, "It's true: If you live out your natural life, you'll be riding long after I'm dead. Better to be safe, live long, and ride again."

Behind the pack of athletes, Steve Pearl runs alongside his 9-year-old grand-nephew, who is lying on a yellow luge wearing a bright red crash helmet and laughing.

"Isn't it fun?" asks Pearl. "Isn't it fun?"

Folks interested in street luge can call Steve Pearl at 1-866-584-3888.

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