David Dean on the guts and glory that come with racing street luge

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

David Dean talks about as fast as he shoots down closed streets on a glorified skateboard, leaving out bits of sentences as if they're slowing him down. Dean's had an obsession with speed since first trying out street luge as a teen. When I interviewed him a couple weeks ago for this week's Things We Love at House Beer in the Short North, we spent nearly as much time discussing his street luge career as we did the stuff he's currently digging (which you can read about here). As promised, here are some choice excerpts from our interview.

I got into [street luge] in the mid to late-'90s I was 14. Ice luge is hard to get into and at the time the X Games, Gravity Games were big. There's an X Games qualifying race in southern Ohio, and they had a rookie division anyone could enter. I was the very first person to go down the hill on that event. I wrecked halfway down and broke my hand my very first run ever on the street luge and the very first run on this event. I continued racing from there, and as I got better and better I started to pick up more sponsors and travel internationally.

To be able to play in the road and go as fast as you want and go nuts is cool, and I was doing it next to guys who were competing in the X Games, and they're at the bottom of the hill having a party. Their sponsors are there throwing out swag, and I'm 14 just wanting to play in the street. It was a very cool experience, and that's part of what hooked me onto it.

In 2005, I won the world championship for both luge classes. The next year I went back to repeat and broke both my legs in the first practice run of the first race of the season. Somebody wrecked in front of me, and I bounced off them off over a small hill or a large cliff - depending on who I'm telling the story to - and landed and broke my legs. That was the end of the full-time racing career. I've continued racing on a professional level since, winning a couple of World Cup events.

I still compete professionally, but not full-time. They have a full season of World Cup races, anywhere from 10-15 all over the world. The last few years I've gotten to a handful of them whenever I can, whenever it fits into my work schedule or they're offering prize money. This year I'm going to go back to full-time. I'll do the full World Cup series and try to win that championship back.

To get back into racing full-time costs a lot. There are nine World Cup races scheduled this year - there will be more, they're all over the world. I have no sponsors, so I'm trying to raise money with Indiegogo. I'm also relying on friends, family and strangers to see how much support I can get. That's the one nice thing about Columbus - it's a very small, big city so everyone knows everyone, and the companies out of Columbus are huge and like to give back.

There are hills in southern Ohio I practice on. It's a dangerous sport; there's a lot of control to it. I've been doing it long enough I can stay in my lane. I can basically keep up … actually I pass most traffic. It's relatively safe to train, but training can be a little hectic.

You have to have a strong neck and ab muscles - you're legs are in the air. Other than it's a lot of experience in the field. I train when I can, where I can. The races are nice because there's a lot of practice time where the roads are closed. That's where we get the most practice time. You can train alone all you want, but it'll be like a quarterback learning to throw alone but never in the game.

When you're losing control at 80 miles an hour coming around a corner, you don't consciously think, "All right, I need to put more weight on the back so it stops sliding." It happens so quick that it's something where you need years and years of wrecking very hard for your body to learn it doesn't want to do that and for your muscle memory to kick in.

Street luge is unique in that it's not powered by anything but gravity, so all you have is aerodynamics. You can push at the start, which sets you up in your positioning, and then it's four men at a time - the top two usually advance out of the heat. Other than that it's controlling your speed around corners - you can only take them so fast. It's like a car, you have to break going into them; it's being able to ride that fine line between too fast and too slow and to keep your top speed.

When it comes down to it, it's balls, aerodynamics, how you want to race against everyone else and how much you want to put yourself out there.

This is the first year I've crossed into ice luge. I went to two competitions - one of them was last weekend. I did really good, put up a personal best time going into the last corner of the last heat. I wrecked at 60-some miles an hour, broke the shield off my helmet, smashed my face into the ground. A bad day, but it's something I'd like to explore the options of getting into.

It just so happened to be an Olympic year, so a lot of people are wondering about ice luge too. I know a lot of the athletes and coaches, and I'm a little past the age range of when they usually develop, but I also come from a similar sport that could be adapted. It's a thought I'm stewing over.

If one of the coaches called and said, "We're going to train you and help develop you if you're willing to move out here [to Lake Placid or Salt Lake City]," I'd be up there tomorrow and I'd sell my house later. But I don't know if they're ready to commit to somebody who just crashed on the last corner of their last race.