Hardy and foolhardy take plunge in Maine

Tobogganing: Winter sports competition is one-part athletics, one-part costume party.

February 07, 2000|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

CAMDEN, Maine -- It takes gumption to rocket down a 400-foot chute of ice at speeds fast enough to melt a pair of nylon ski pants.

It takes a little something extra to do it at minus-10 degrees wind chill in a sleeveless sequined wedding dress.

Nearly 1,000 gumption-filled grown-ups and children filled a hillside on the outskirts of Camden over the weekend to streak and shriek their way through the U.S. National Toboggan Championships -- a winter sports wingding that's one-part athletics and one-part costume party.

In teams of two, three and four, the snowsuited hardy and the scantily costumed foolhardy took the 8 1/2-second plunge down the wooden chute.

And the locals came to cheer and clang cowbells for teams with names that included Fat Bloated Idiots, Kevorkian's Alternative and Hodgepodge (three Coast Guardsmen in those sequined wedding dresses and a female colleague in a business suit).

"I think of it as a big family reunion on ice," said Beth MacDonald, one of the race organizers.

Not all the competitors are there for the fun of it. Some, clad in serious winter wear, discuss aerodynamics and toboggan-waxing techniques in an effort to slice an extra 100th of a second off their time.

Teams began arriving Friday night for practice runs, and by Saturday morning, the Camden Snow Bowl, the town ski area, was overflowing with spectators and competitors from as far as San Francisco and Grand Prairie, Texas.

For a seacoast tourist town that makes its living on cool summer breezes and vibrant fall foliage, the races are a way to help make ends meet during winter. The three-day event fills hotels and restaurants that otherwise would be empty and reaps more than $25,000 for the local government to help operate the Snow Bowl.

But the genius of the event is this: Hundreds of adults get a chance to go bonkers and maybe win a trophy.

Crowd-pleasers

Just ask Robert Chasteen Jr. and John Sammon, two-thirds of the Georgia on My Mind team and both past presidents of that state's bar association. The lawyers and their dentist teammate, Gee Merritt, learned of the event in a men's magazine and signed up sight and toboggan unseen.

"This time and once more will be twice," Chasteen said of his experience level just before his practice run.

Their matching vests cost $9 each, but the fancy embroidered names and peach logo added $100. And their sled, a gorgeous slab of curved ash crafted by the Camden Toboggan Co., set them back $300.

Although clearly a crowd favorite (locals begged all weekend, "Just say something," to hear their Southern accents), they never made it out of Saturday's preliminary rounds.

"We're from Georgia. We don't have much to practice on," Chasteen drawled.

It's not only the inexperienced and snow-impaired who lose. Team Wurst, representing wiener-maker Jordan Meat Co. of Portland, Maine, is just that. Year after year, its squads have spunk and great names (there was Linda Wurstheimer -- a play on the name of a National Public Radio show host -- and Wurst Case Scenario), but mostly lousy finishing times.

Still, Mainers took most of the prizes for speed yesterday. The four-man team Head of the Boards, from Pownal, won the top trophy with a combined time of 16.92 seconds for two runs. Tops-ham's Abdominal Snow Women won the female division, and Benno's Team, from North Yarmouth, won the family division.

And the judges were clearly impressed with the fashion statement of Hodgepodge. The Coast Guard foursome -- including Shannon Riley, a man who was raised in St. Mary's County, Md. -- won honors for best costume.

Ridiculously fun

The Nationals began in 1991 after townspeople rebuilt the decrepit toboggan chute on Ragged Mountain.

"We were looking for something to raise money that was so much fun and so ridiculous that no one would take it seriously," said event timer Bob Chace.

Despite the grandiose name, the Nationals were strictly a local event for the first few years. Then word got around, and coverage by a cable television network, Sports Illustrated and an airline magazine brought out the curious and the morbidly curious. The crush has become so great that organizers cap entries at 300.

For those used to sledding on the local golf course or schoolyard, riding the chute is a shocker.

Volunteers spend days dribbling water on the 2-foot wide wooden trough to build up a glassy surface. Rough spots are melted off with a blowtorch.

Teammates stack up one behind the other on their toboggans, their limbs entwined in a death grip. Failure to keep arms and legs tucked in tight slows the sled, and touching the sides of the chute at 40 mph creates enough friction to melt ski clothes.

Chute operator Mark Haskell intones, "Good luck, God bless, goodbye," before the loading ramp pitches down, giving the prone riders their only glimpse of the finish line.

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