Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Speed

Robert Burns -- no, not that one -- shows our intrepid reporter that the new sport of road luge is poetry in motion

By Phil Campbell

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  I met Robert Burns at a party, shortly after an Australian occupational therapist named Kristine shoved a handful of vodka Jell-O shots in my mouth, a goodwill effort to encourage a more festive atmosphere. The party celebrated the departure of a number of people who were running in the Boston Marathon. Those people drank nothing and left early. Burns, however, was not running in the marathon (neither was I). That seemed obvious by the way he was acting: His arms flailed this way and that when he talked, and he grinned most of the time. His voice was a dozen or so decibels higher than everybody else's, and when he laughed he overwhelmed conversations all over the house. He didn't leave early.

With the help of Kristine's Jell-O, Burns and I quickly established a rapport. "I've got a street luge," he boasted, arms spread wide, mouth even wider. After some confusion, he painted an image in my head, and I was intoxicated. Everyone knows the luge at the Winter Olympics, those ride-'em-on-your-back sleds that race down the same ice-covered chutes the bobsledders use. Take that luge, rip off its blades, install skate wheels, take a big hill anywhere. Ride down it. Fast.

"Oh-ho-ho. Ma-uhn," Burns said, shaking his head. It was a rush, he asserted, and nothing beat it. I agreed to do a story, telling him that I would luge, too. "I started out at 12 miles an hour," Burns told me, "but I think we can get you up to 50 real soon." When I fell asleep that night, my pained head was filled with camera-lens visions of an Olympic luge whipping around an s-curve, the stripped-down, razor-sharp sled cutting through the ice as it disappeared from view.

Momentum had been building for road luge's acceptance in sports culture for some time. ESPN pushed it for the last two years in its X Games, where road luge and other "extreme" sports (wakeboarding, downhill in-line skating, bicycle stunts) are presented with dizzying camera angles, instant replays, big-dollar advertisers, and serious-sounding play-by-play sportscasters. Some 500 athletes competed last June at the 1997 X Games in San Diego. More than 40 nations were represented, with 169 athletes from California.

In another setback to the Bluff City's sports reputation, not a single one of them hailed from Memphis.

Thus emerges Robert Burns, the local who promises to give Memphis a stake in international street luging.

The poet Robert Burns, of course, was born in a clay cottage in 1759 in Scotland. It was a time when writers used phrases with lots of apostrophes, when everyone said ramfeezled when they meant to say sleepy and bonie when they meant to say pretty. Burns the poet wasn't into taking risks. Most references to taking a chance in his poetry seem to end in death in later stanzas. Mostly, he wrote about dainty lasses, with frequent allusions to sword battles, Scotland, and alcohol.

I couldn't find any references to street luging in any of his poems or songs, but this stanza comes closest, if one takes the "Foul Thief" to be Satan:

Ye little skelpie-limmer's face!
I daur ye try sic sportin,
As seek the Foul Thief onie place,
For him to spae your fortune
Nae doubt but ye may get a sight!

Robert Burns of Memphis is 29 years old, a maintenance worker at a local hospital. The skin around his eyes is permanently etched by laugh lines. When he talks, he often speeds up to get to a killer punchline, and when he's listening, he smiles at you with anticipation, hoping that he'll be able to explode with laughter from a joke you deliver. Unlike the Scottish bard, the Memphis Burns' syntax and interests are decidedly post-modern: "Man, I got up to about 50 miles an hour out of my car, just cruising. I said, `Shit!' I'll just go down once [on the street luge]. Man! I was fucking flying. It was the fastest I've ever been in my life. I was the only one out there. I was like, `Shit!' The back of the luge started wobbling, and I was like, `O-ho-kay!' I felt like Steve Austin in the Six Million Dollar Man when he's breaking up."

Burn's ultimate goal is to make it to the X Games, corporate sponsorship and all. That won't be easy. For one thing, he doesn't have a lot of money, and so is forced to put his luges together out of spare parts rather than expensive, high-quality materials. Unlike Californians who have plenty of slopes to practice on, Jackson Hill in Meeman-Shelby Forest State Park is the only decent hill for riding around here, and the rangers recently chased him away from there. He watches with envy those Californians, who've got it all -- the all-leather body outfits, the financial backing, and the speed.

Still, Burn keeps trying, always thinking of new techniques and designs. He's driven throughout Shelby County and neighboring communities to find other hills, steep ones with a smooth surface and little or no traffic. He's videotaped this year's X Games and has memorized all the key parts, taking careful note of the 53-mph speeds the racers achieve down official luge tracks: winding hills devoid of automobiles and surrounded by spectators. With his trusty luge sidekicks, Burns pushes onward toward his goal of fame and speed. Along the way, he fights hangovers, destroys a luge or two, and tries not to get killed by oncoming vehicles.

I make Burns nervous. As a sober reporter, I do not talk much. Burns, however, is always hyper, and he likes people who talk. Behind the wheel of his station wagon, he constantly shifts in his seat and drums his fingers against the dashboard, anything to break the monotony. He imitates the main character from the new Fox cartoon, King of the Hill. He fills the air with the radio and his own chatter, singing along to whatever the deejay is playing, changing the lyrics as they please him. He talks about his favorite things: stunts, luging, and drinking.

"I don't want to die," he declares as he pulls into the Exxon at the corner of Union and Cleveland. Someone taking a left onto Union almost kills us, and Burns takes a moment to swear at them before finishing his thought. "I just want to fucking haul ass." Today we are joined by Ray Jackson and Lane Hollis. Jackson is a short, barrel-chested auto mechanic in his late 20s who lives in a modest home in Raleigh. Hollis is a hefty 24-year-old with wispy blond hair who gets little slack from his friends for being unemployed. With him is Steven, a talkative, somewhat awkward 14-year-old who looks up to the guys with a glimmer of hero worship. Later, we are joined by Cory Valentine, an easy-going 26-year-old Mississippian with a face that always appears to be squinting. Jackson, Hollis, and Valentine all own pickup trucks, so transporting the luges is not a problem. Flyer photographer Roy Cajero trails us to record the day.

There are both good and bad omens. It's warm out, and everyone is in a good mood. When Jackson buys gas, however, he is stopped short by the digital reading on the pump from the previous customer: $6.66. This apocalyptic sign is discussed, but no one seems swayed. We are driving out to Mississippi. A stretch of Highway 301 in DeSoto County has just been paved. Burns had eyed it with luge lust weeks before. If only it didn't have that layer of small stones to ruin his Abac 5 wheel bearings, he initially thought, it would be an awesome hill for running down. Now, through some mysterious and wonderful act of God, via the Mississippi Department of Transportation, the hill is smoother than the bottom of a steam iron. Burns doesn't want to wait for the adrenaline rush of luge racing, so at the gas station he buys a caffeine-riddled drink. "Surge plus luge equals death," he philosophizes, loudly. Then he laughs.

Some weeks before, Burns tells me about his near-death experience on a luge. He was slamming down Jackson Hill at speeds exceeding 40 miles an hour, in his own lane. Then he came around the bottom of a hill, where a car was heading toward him. Burns swerved hard right off the street into the mud. The luge stuck immediately, but inertia turned him into a human cannonball, shot from the road and flipped into two mid-air cartwheels for 30 feet. Miraculously, Burns landed on his feet and walked away, not a scratch on him. It was like being picked up by a tornado and set gently on the ground, unharmed.

"Every time I think about it, I get jazzed," he says. "Oh, wow, that was so cool! Gollee! I can't believe I survived that one."

The seven luges Burns has built are made of slender pieces of aluminum. The frame is one long, square tube, which bends downward for a few feet in the middle to make room for a metal plate, a traction-stripped back rest for the luge "pilot." Burns used bolts and braces to attach the skateboard wheels and bearings to the frame. He also attached two thin metal tubes for the foot and hand rests. Hollis, Jackson, Valentine, and Burns have their own luges, all of which Burns built. The only work that was not Burns' was some welding; he pays about $40 for professionals to do that. Combing through aluminum scrapyards and finding parts through personal connections has kept his luges low-tech but affordable. Burns estimates that a professional luge, with ceramic bearings and state-of-the art trucks, which hold the wheels and control steering, would run about $500.

To get me ready for the hill in Mississippi, Burns lets me take a few practice runs on streets in his neighborhood. I quickly learn the basic techniques of straight, downhill riding. On a small hill, there's really little to it; just get on the luge and roll. If the trucks are tight, there's no wobbling at all, no sense of danger of falling off. It's laid-back, literally. After that, we drive out to another hill in Raleigh, this one outside Raleigh-Egypt High School. The street here has a steeper grade and stretches out three times as far, but the only real sense of excitement comes from a four-way stop sign in the middle of the hill. You have to make sure no one's coming and maintain your speed at the same time. The rest of the trip down is a leisurely 28 miles an hour. Today there are no problems, so the rides are filled with a vague sense of satisfaction, but no adrenaline rush. I tell myself that it must get more exciting as you tackle bigger hills.

A problem emerges during a practice run. Burns cracks his luge where it bends downward near the hand grips and the body plate. He was trying to take a turn when he glided over a small manhole grate. Burns and Jackson have an emergency repair session, bracing the crack with small metal plates. More intense surgery will come later.

We peer down from the top of the hill on Highway 301.Far off and to the right, there is a large grain silo, a target to reach for the amateur luge pilots. A few houses dot the left side of the hill, but the rest is wide open fields. The road dominates this scene. Two yellow stripes streak into the distance. The new black asphalt sits above the old road like a smooth sheet of ice, a comparison that only gains more relevance as the sun gathers strength; don't keep your bare hands on the surface for long.

Burns decides that he's going for speed, so Jackson puts his arms flat on Burns' back and starts running. Burns uses his own arms to paddle against the concrete for an additional boost. After a dozen feet or so, Jackson sends the luge off with a final heave, then hops on his mountain bike to follow it down. Valentine and I get in the pickup to trail Burns and shield him from behind; a negligent driver could easily overtake Burns on his luge, and a semi could easily drive over him.

From our seats we see Burns adjusting his position on the luge, shifting around for about 20 yards to balance. Finally, he settles in for the steepest part of the hill and finds his way to the middle of the road, just right of the double yellow lines. That's the street's sweet spot, Hollis asserts, the smoothest patch of asphalt on Highway 301.

"30," Valentine says, glancing at the speedometer.

"35." I take my eyes off Burns and stare at the dashboard. The thin, rising needle is mesmerizing.

"40." The needle stalls slightly, then continues upward. Valentine keeps Burns a car-length ahead of us.

"45," Valentine says. But he shakes his head. "See. 46, and I'm catching up with him." Burns knows this without the help of a speedometer. He has maxed out on this run. He throws his feet down on the pavement before he even drops below 10 miles an hour. "I couldn't get comfortable on it," Burns complains as he gets back in the truck for the ride back up the hill. He is clearly disappointed. "I couldn't get comfortable," he repeats. Those first precious moments at the top of the hill were more crucial than he imagined.

"Cop," someone calls after we reach the top of the hill. There he is, a DeSoto County sheriff's deputy, coming out of a small side street and turning onto Highway 301 right in front of us. I clutch the media photo-ID that I have in my right pocket. A TV camera right now would be nicer, the media equivalent of an Uzi to my BB gun, but I don't have one. We make no effort to hide the street luges that sit so illicitly on the pavement. Behind me, Steven whispers, "Oh, it's over. It's over."

The deputy looks at us for a moment, then passes us by, barely lifting an index finger in acknowledgment. We wave back. I breath a sigh of relief and take my hand out of my pocket.

Now it's my turn, my fourth ride in all, and I'm still not sure if I'm getting into this new sport. Somehow, I haven't been finding the same rush the others have. The whole experience has been like a kid coasting down a hill on a Big Wheel. Maybe it's exciting to watch the ground move under you and see the handlebar tassels flail in the wind, but most kids get bored and want to do something else after a while. Nevertheless, the group's energy is infectious, so I ask Hollis to give me a push. "Remember," he says, just before he shoves me, "ride just to the right of the double yellow lines."

With Hollis at my back, I work my glove-protected hands hard on the asphalt, flat oars against an asphalt river. I lean a little left and try to find the sweet spot Hollis has been talking about.

Then it happens. I discover speed.

Relationship problems, career worries, money concerns, fear, pain, insecurity, and unhappiness fall off the luge and skid off the road, exploding in the background like victims in a 3-D video game. There is only speed, asphalt, and the double yellow line. For a moment, the word speed bobs around in my head, stylistically printed in my synapses. Ahead of me, I see Roy the photographer leaning forward, but I am moving too fast to try leaning away. I hold on tighter. I miss him by several feet, but it still seems too close. The hum of my wheels is so loud I can't hear his camera click. I turn my attention back to speed and bending my feet down for better wind resistance.

I glide to about five miles per hour before I put my feet down. I don't walk to Valentine's truck. I run.

"50!" Valentine says as I poke my head in the truck window.

"I was fucking flying!" I scream.

The clouds are turning dark, and the traffic is beginning to pick up. When we had arrived, there had been five-minute intervals of no automobiles. Now there is one coming almost every 45 seconds; the church crowd must all live nearby. We decide to call it a day.

Afterward, we eat lunch at a Wendy's in Southaven. There had been vague talk before, but Jackson's articulation of the idea gives it a sense of destiny.

"We need to go back to Jackson Hill," he says.

It's 8:15 on a Sunday morning, and Burns, Hollis, and I are hung over and running on only a couple hours' sleep. Today is the day we are to attempt Jackson Hill. We get up early to avoid the traffic, the heat, and hopefully the rangers. Jackson, more family-oriented than the rest, seems rested and relaxed. Valentine can't join us, but Burns' younger brother Chris does, as does Kelley, another friend of Burns'. We pile the luges into Jackson's truck and head for a Circle K to find fuel and caffeine. On the floor of Hollis' truck is a bottle of BC Fast Pain Relief. We take turns draining its contents.

Everyone is relatively quiet during the drive, except for Burns, who is as loud as ever. "Shit, man, I just drank a whole liter of Surge," he says from the back seat. "Two things are going to happen. I'm going to get really hyper, and I'm going to pee for a long, long time." He grabs his head with both hands and laughs. "O-hooo, man. I'm getting a head rush. Talked too fast. It's bad when you talk too fast."

Jackson Hill is a violation of nature. The road doesn't wind naturally around the trees and kudzu as much as it snaps through them like a cracked bullwhip. It's intimidating, steep, and narrow. Weeds crowd greedily along the concrete, a variety of hardwoods arch overhead. The civil engineers responsible for the road apparently never considered the idea that someone might want to use it for something other than a leisurely drive through the park.

The luge is ready for Jackson Hill, but I'm not. The moment I see it, I know that I am too inexperienced to try it. The s-curve is too serpentine, and so is the smaller tail of a curve near the end of the run, when you have built up to about 45 miles per hour on the straightaway. A brief conversation with Hollis completely ends my luge aspirations.

"Isn't anyone going to stop traffic?" I ask.

Hollis looks at me strangely. "No." Noting my terror, he adds, "You just stay in the right lane and you'll do all right."

Burns is anxious to get going. "Hoo-iee! I'm all jazzed up," he yells, putting on his elbow and knee padding quickly, adding hip pads under his jeans and a leather jacket over his shirt for extra protection.

I get in the back of Jackson's pickup with Roy, ducking branches as we ascend. Burns barely waits for a large green truck to get ahead of him as he drops the luge and starts paddling. Because there's no way to tell if traffic is coming up the hill, he will just have to stay in the right lane, cutting his turns as tightly as possible.

He handles the s-curve with precision and speed, and we all lean forward because it looks like he's hitting everything right this time.

Once we follow him into the straightaway, however, something unexpected happens. The green truck is parked in the middle of the road, blocking the entire hill. By the look of the license plate, the vehicle belongs to the state park. We can see the driver staring hard at Burns' luge, which is zooming right toward him.

Burns does the only thing he can do: He leans hard right into the grass. Just like his previous accidents, the luge stops, but Burns doesn't. Fortunately, he hadn't built up too much speed. Instead of going airborne, he just slides off the luge and tumbles for several feet. After a minute, he gets up and kicks the dirt off himself. Without saying anything, the driver of the truck guns the ignition and heads back up the hill.

The incident pretty much destroys everyone's mood. The guy in the truck, we believe, is going to fetch the ranger. Jackson, the only other person to try a run this morning (he keeps his feet on the asphalt to slow himself down), doesn't want to go anymore because traffic is too heavy today. "It's fishing time, man. Everybody wants to go fishing today," he says.

"Let's go one more," Burns says. He tries to drum up support. "That last corner, coming around that turn, I was flying! Anybody else wanna go?"

"No," says Hollis. "There's too many cars." No one else says anything. But Burns wants one more ride, so we position ourselves for him to make one final run. Once again, I stand at the corner of the s-curve, watch traffic, and signal Burns that he's clear to go. He rolls by so fast I wonder if he even saw me.

I don't even see the final accident. Near the end of the hill is a point where three different layers of concrete meet. An automobile would never notice this, and a bicycle would only protest weakly. For a luge, though, this is high-stress shock. The abrupt, uneven ride sends tremors through the wheels of the luge, up the trucks and into the frame, snapping it in two. Burns slides off, steadying himself sideways on his now-broken toy before the broken luge leaves the pavement.

Once again, Burns is dumped unceremoniously in the bushes and mulch. Fortunately, he once again emerges unscathed and hyper. But Jackson Hill has won today, and Burns has to deal with a setback.

The X Games, it seems, will have to wait, and for once Burns is at a loss for words.

"Oh-ho-kay! I guess it's back to the drawing board," he says.

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