The Leisure Luge

by Mark Stosberg

I'm lazy.

One morning recently while waking up slow, I was contemplating how I could kick my Nintendo-64 addiction. The solution had to take up large amounts of my free time, plus some when I should be working, and the solution had to be somewhat absurd and imaginative-- the same allure that Super Mario 64 has. In these moments the Leisure Luge was born.

The name actually came much later, but at the moment I knew that I wanted to organize an event of skateboard-propelled armchairs. Inspiration came in part from A Day in the Life of Mark, a lazy lounge-chair adventure around my hometown. I also had a memory of rescuing an old beat up chair from a dormitory dump by pushing it on a skateboard with a rider on board. From this, I knew Leisure Luging was possible. It was only a matter of some organizational details.

The Maiden Voyage

Living in a house near a college campus, our basement was a magnet for cheap, transient furniture. Among the dying chairs and sofas in the basement, I found a recliner that would be perfect for the maiden voyage. It had a "comfort selector" handle with a pop-out footrest, and could recline to be fully aerodynamic on the street. Beneath it was a strong steel frame, with a square that fit perfectly on top of my skateboard. No connectors needed--just a bit of balance.

Finding the right soul to share the maiden voyage with me was harder than I thought. Who wanted to hoist the beast up the stairs and race it through the streets? My answer was Matt Woida (a.k.a. "The Chef" at Clear Creek Food Co-op). Known for his large collection of Nerf guns, the Chef embraced the rewarding mixture of absurdity and danger of leisure luging.

We choose Earlham College campus for our test track. It's flat land and vast networks of wide sidewalks were ideal.

We carried the recliner to the parking lot closest to my house. The Chef donned the requisite helmet, and we carefully balanced the recliner on top of a skateboard. The Chef took a seat and activated the foot rest while I steadied the chair. I stood behind the chair and started pushing and we were off! I could steer by leaning the chair a bit to the left or right. I ran faster and faster reaching top speed as we passed the security office.
"What the heck was that?" The officer on duty didn't know quite what to think. 50 yards later, I slowed to a stop and switched places with the Chef, to see how riding would work out. Scary at first, but smooth, and fun as hell!

As we rounded the corner onto the Heart of the campus, the chair pitched forward when the skateboard hit a large crack. I was tossed into the air and landed quickly on my feet. The Chef rammed his shin against the steel structure beneath the chair, which raised several inches off the ground as the front pitched forward. I heard The Chef cursing, indicating our first wreck. The chair was unharmed, although the skateboard had come dislodged underneath it. The Chef's shin was swelling and bleeding. Shin guards, we decided, should be recommended for the Pusher.

Ok, It Works, Now how to do we get together a race?

The Maiden Voyage was a success by all measures. Good cornering, top speed of 15 or 20 mph, and tolerable equipment performance. Beyond that, the Chef and I had a gut feeling Leisure Luging was fundamentally a Good thing, and should be shared with the Masses.

We needed to assemble a core team to organize the event-- people who shared our vision of comfort and speed. People who dared mix America's favorite sedentary activity with the velocity of a slow moped. Ultimately, I would have four conspirators. The first was the Chef of course, who was always willing to get out of the kitchen for Luge work. "Shotgun Jimmy" Dilts accepted the title of Chief Photographer and core member. Documenting the event would be key in generating publicity and exposing a maximum audience to the event. Andrea a.k.a. "Loveseat Luger" and Sean Mount (call him, "The Rockeeter"), rounded out the group.

We had an initial meeting and the event began to take shape. The Luge is fundamentally about style rather than speed, and we needed to develop a corresponding system of judging. We needed rules that encouraged absurdity and ridiculous costumes. I wanted to see weirdness I hadn't imagined. We decided to judge in the categories of moxie, skill, theme, speed, and cumbersomeness. Those with moxie displayed pep, and embodied the Southern tang inherent to the event. Skill is that inevitable, ambiguous Cub Scout term. With the theme categories, teams were rewarded for who well they wore their favorite ideology. Speed was reserved for the team that crossed the finish line first, and cumbersomeness rewarded those who raced a big-ass chair, or maybe even a couch.

Then came the rules.

  1. Each team must have to at least two people, one to push and one to ride.
  2. The contraption needs to involve at least one skateboard, plus something for somebody to sit in. We had armchairs in mind, but we aren't going to be picky.
  3. The Pusher and Rider can switch as often as they want, but no fair pushing an empty contraption.
  4. The whole team has to cross the finish line to win any prizes.
  5. Anyone violating any other rules we should have thought of will be disqualified.
  6. Helmet and shinguards are recommended, but not required.

Each of the five core team members would be responsible for procuring a judge. Each judge would be assigned a single category to judge and would be stationed at hir own checkpoint along the course. Teams would shout out their team name as they passed, and the judges would hold a sign numbered 1 to 5, and then make a note on their scorecard.

Now there was the matter of prizes. I wanted people who would enter for the experience of the event, rather than for any prizes they might win. I didn't want to just give away junk, though. The prizes should be items I'd actually want myself. So, I examined my innermost desires that fell in the ten dollar range, and came up with the following five prizes for the Leisure Luge.

  1. One dozen chocolate eclairs from the Joy Ann Cake Shop.
  2. A case of Farley's Fruit snacks.
  3. A box of Abbott's handmade caramels.
  4. Autographed copies of the Beaver Dam Rocking Chair Marathon and Blue Collar Boom.
  5. And of course, a pair of classy long-sleeve "Extreme Leisure" t-shirts, courtesy of Charged.

The largest organizational hurdle was not the judges or the prizes. It was the course. We needed a surface that skateboards could roll on smoothly that was 2 or 3 armchairs wide. The course should be a quarter to a third of a mile, and should be primarily flat or downhill. The challenge was to find some luger-friendly streets in Richmond.

After some thought, I mapped out what seemed be an ideal course in my head. It starts on top of a downtown parking garage. At three stories tall, this location provided a scenic vista of Richmond's skyline. In the distance, you could just see (and smell) the landmark Purina tower. The course spirals down through the parking garage and turned right on 7th Street. One block later, it turns left on Main Street and snakes through the downtown shopping district, which you could mistake for Smalltown, Anywhere USA. After three blocks, the shops fall away. Main Street tips town a hill towards the river heading directly between the courthouse and the police station. Two downhill blocks later, the course finishes as it passes under a railroad trestle.

Before we could use this course in the race I would need to test it personally to make sure the route was acceptable, that it was safe, and last but not least-- legal. By the time I figured out the right people to call regarding the last item, the race was slated for the next day. The right people turned out to be the Chairman of the Board of Public Works and the Traffic Safety Captain within the local police department. Both these people displayed some enthusiasm for the event, but stressed that there was a particular process to get the City's approval. They hadn't dealt with a Leisure Luge before, but they easily put it into the category of "events that disrupt regular traffic flow." It was clear that the process would take longer that 24 hours to complete, especially when it was initiated on a Friday afternoon. So there I was, the day before the race and stuck for a course. I'd taken the liberty of trying out the intended course the night before with Chef. That's a story all on it's own.

According to the officials, using the downtown course for the race would mean that the streets needed to be barricaded, and that act required an amount of organization that we just couldn't rush-- or fake. Since I contacted the officials now, getting caught running the course the following night would look exceedingly poor for me, and would jeopardize any chance I had working with the City to produce a larger, official event in the future-- one with the roads actually barricaded. This was something I was already dreaming of.

I needed to find a new course fast-- and one not in public view. I called an emergency meeting of the core organizational team. Over veggie burgers and potato wedges we worked the problem out. After dinner, I set out with Chef and Jordan, my housemate, to test drive a new course in a local park. We arrived at 10 PM and there was practically no traffic. The course was a scenic, mostly flat road around a pond totalling about a 1/3 of a mile. It lacked the all-out thrill of a downhill course through Main Street, but the park lamps and the reflective pond contributed an ambience that was appropriate for Leisure Luging. The race would held at the park.

The Big Event

There was a mass of enthusiasm for the Leisure Luge (which of course pleased me as an organizer). However, only a handful of people were actively planning on racing. Clearly, Leisure Luging is not for everyone, and for many who were interested, procuring the necessary equipment (a skateboard and a suitable chair) was a formidable task. I developed a page on the official Leisure Luge site called the "Collaboration Station", where people without equipment might easily get connected by those who had it. The service was not a magic bullet though, chair-less lugers remained.

On the day of the event temperatures were in the low 30's and snow was predicted for the evening. Two hours before the race, snow was beginning to fall and I had three confirmed teams. The first was Bonnie & Clyde. This was Chef and his partner, the Loveseat Luger. The second team was The American Dream, featuring The Rockeeter as "Truth", his partner Adam Sanchez as "Justice", and our favorite practice recliner as "The American Way". Justice wore convincing Army attire, complete with Kevlar helmet, while Truth draped himself in an American Flag. Truth mysteriously had juggling torches on hand, and there were rumors that the Truth would be fully revealed at race time, if you know what I mean. The third team was "Fueled by Freezee", with team members freezee-consuming team members Andrew Wheeler-Berliner, Carl Smith, and Scott Limbird. Four hours before the race they reported having no chair in hand. I gave Andrew some suggestions, and by race time he had produced a chair. One hour before race time, The Rockeeter called to tell me that he'd found another team, but they were lacking a chair and a skateboard. I unscrewed the legs off another chair in our basement of transient dorm furniture, hauled it up the stairs and set it by a spare skateboard I had. OK, four teams now. I dumped the clothes out of my heavy plastic laundry basket, and dug up a vintage 70's skateboard I had. I'd convince two audience members to use this equipment.

As organizers and racers gathered at the park, a fifth team materialized as I had hoped. Jordan Taylor and Courtney Samco would be "Team Bucket". The newly formed fourth team was now "Team Gadfly" and sported a homemade HelmetCam. It consisted of a camera set to take photos at intervals liberally duct-taped to rider Matt Young's helmet. Enthusiastic Damon Hearne would push.

True to the spontaneous nature of the event, none of the teams about to race had ever practiced, nor had they bothered to fasten their skateboards to their chairs in any binding way. I liked that.

Just as the crowd had swelled to it's maximum size, about 25 people and a dozen cars, the Richmond Police Department appeared to investigate. There was clearly something happening. I approached the cruiser with judge Chris Hardie as backup. The officer was smiling. This was a good sign.

"What are ya'll doing? Going for a polar bear swim?"

"No Sir, this is the Richmond's first Leisure Luge, a race of skateboard-propelled armchairs."

"What's the course?"

"We'll do one lap around the pond, sir".

"That doesn't sound too leisurely to me."

"I think it will work. Would you like to stay and watch the race? We expect it to start in about 10 minutes."

I proceeded to explain how I was hoping to work with the City for a future event, the people I'd talked to, and how this was a warm-up for the official event. It seemed to make a difference that I'd talked to the right people, even if I hadn't gotten their endorsements for the current event. The officer left without further questions. There were no threats on his part, or begging on our part, or handcuffing. It was a positive encounter.

Although Leisure Luging is by nature a safe, fun-loving sport, the friendly officer could have potentially shut us down. I emphasize the importance of gaining approval from appropriate authorities when organizing such events. Having an event shut down minutes before the start time could be a real downer for everyone.

The racers lined up on the starting line, and I explained the basic rules to them. I then began the official countdown to the race. "ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, HOLD ON, WAIT FOR THIS TRUCK TO GO BY. ON YOUR MARK, OH WAIT FOR THIS FORD. ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, OK, AS SOON AS THE CHEVY GOES BY, WE'RE STARTING. ON YOUR MARK, GET SET, GO!" And they were off! Four armchairs and a laundry basket moving with speed and moxie like you've never seen before.

I ran along with the racers, trying to take in all the commotion at once. Team Gadfly and Team Bucket took an early lead, and stayed ahead for the whole race, taking first and second for speed, respectively. Bonnie and Clyde were loaded with Nerf guns and a Han Solo squirt gun, shooting other racers and judges alike, earning themselves the number one spot for Theme. Fueled by Freezee was staying true to their name and eatting Freezee's with both hands as they luged. With their Freezee power, a third team member as mascot, ski poles for enhanced pushing and steering, a flashlight for better navigation, and a second skateboard for pure speed, Team Fueled by Freezee would win in the Moxie category. Team Bucket, despite, Jordan Taylor, their pusher, who ate 25 hot wings just before the race, took first place in skill and second for speed. Team Gadfly would bring home the prize for Cumbersomeness as well. The American Dream crashed near the beginning and hte end of the course, and crossed the finishing line dragging their chair. The chair and skateboard both appeared to be working fine, but perhaps the team was anticipating their reception with the judges: The American Dream won nothing at all. The Rockeeter felt cheated: "Bonnie and & Clyde, those bastards, cut us off. I was thrown into a ditch, and tore my t-shirt And The Gadflys, those bastards, they didn't know about this race until an hour ago, when I told them about it!"

At the awards ceremony directly after the race, I handed out the prizes in no particular order to the lucky winners. From the reactions of racers, I don't think most even knew what they might be winning. These people were clearly Luging to be Luging. Team Gadfly member Damon Hearne announced that he would be donating the dozen chocolate eclairs they'd won to charity: "I'd like to give these eclairs to the hungry. I donate them to the charity of any hungry college students that may be present." The audience, composed almost entirely of hungry college students, cheered.

After the awards ceremony, with the snow falling just noticeably faster, the crowd dissipated, each armchair returning to it's own home. None of the chairs were visibly damaged, but something had changed. It was the perception those present held of the chairs. They had the spark of whisking chair and skateboard into the street for that mystical union of speed and sloth, the Leisure Luge. The revolution was under way.


Sidebar: Choosing a racing recliner

(fine print: The conversations in this document have been reconstructed from memory. The quotes may not be accurate.)