Stevenson Projects' most recent foray into the honored sport of downhill coasting began as an argument over how much the power of nostalgia clouds the memory. One faction was telling everyone that coasting downhill in a tiny car that weighs less than the driver was the best four-wheeled fun they'd ever had, (even after a long career of driving some reasonably potent machines).
The other faction was shaking its collective head and saying that this opinion was the result of looking back through decades of nostalgia filters, which were giving the old downhill races of our youth a rosy glow they didn't have in the actual action.
Since whatever side of an argument is first to shake its head and smile patronisingly usually wins, we came away beaten, but unconvinced that we were wrong. Those memories of downhill coasting, of abject terror, freezing at the wheel, over coming freezing at the wheel, and various slow-motion crashes and mishaps that brought with them a feeling of living at the edge (while actually producing only a skinned elbow here and a sprained wrist there) were still too vivid not to have been one of those near-life experiences we cherish through the years.
Then came some downhill Luge-Board events on the Extreme Sports Channel. It looked like just the same kind of fun, but without the steering wheel, -and we were getting the old urge to Coast. And then those "Levis" commercials, with a bunch of stalwart young bloods obviously having just the right kind of afternoon, skidding down a hill around San Francisco in all sorts of home made coaster-cars. It was too much to resist. We had to see whether coasting downhill around treacherous dirt-covered switchbacks was as much fun as we remembered it to be.
The idea of coasting downhill might just be four-wheeled sport at its best. There's something of hard-wired fear (read "fun") about a hill, when you're looking down it. Our primal hard-drive tells us there's danger there, and that's what adds to the fun in skiing, tobogganing, bob-sledding, -even surfing when you look down the face of a heavy.
Mix in with this, the lack of engines to fiddle with, the lack of cost, the lack of rich geeks with more expensive engine gagetry to leave you in the dust, and the extremely small weight of the coaster car that makes your driving much more of an athletic event than it is in a hurtling two-ton motor monster, -and you may just have a good bit of fun coming your way. We had to find out if years of driving "real cars" would dim the excitement of downhill coasting.
And the only way to find out was to build one. You just don't go down to the local Coaster dealer or custom Coaster shop and order one up. Plus, if you're a so-called adult (read "A-dolt"), people tend to look at you weird after they find out you're building yourself a coaster-car. And therein lies the real failure of western civilisation (but we'll get into that later).
To keep the men in the little white suits at bay, we had to make it a top-secret project. When poeple asked what we were building there, we'd tell them it was some sort of new personal security device, or a new kind of computor cabinet. And they'd nod approvingly and go away, satisfied that we weren't just wasting our time.
Finally, as the car shaped up and was obviously what it was, we took to keeping it under a tarp to avoid embarassing probes. But eventually we got sloppy and a sudden visit from an engineer brought the watching world face to face with the true meaning of the project. "It's a coaster-car for grown-ups," I admitted. The viewer took it square in the face like a custard pie. There was an awkward pause, and then the engineer said in all solemnity, "You tell me when you're going to try that, ok? I want to see if it's as much fun as I remember it to be." So maybe we weren't on such a mad bit of research as we thought. A second opinion always dilutes the madness.
We'd rigged the car up to replicate what we'd run as kids as much as possible, -with the exception of a disk brake. Although this was obviously a concession to brittler bones and calmer blood, we rigged it so you had to reach outside the cockpit to apply the brakes so that everyone could see when we were chickening out.
The brakes, as it turned out, were none too effective. They'd stop the wheel ok, but on the dirt and grass we were sliding around, the wheel wouldn't do much to stop the car. However, it did supply that nice feeling that, if things went wrong, you wouldn't end up hitting terminal velocity at the bottom of the hill.
Time to try out the theory and push off from the top. The old rumbling noise of a coaster over a rough dirt track brought it all back in a second. The impaired vision due to a combination of no springs and rough track made it tough to see the action (a seat pad fixed this in later runs) and the reassuring feeling that your hips had a lot to do with the actual sterring reminded us of what a blast it is to careen in a car that weighs a lot less then you do.
First corner, and the old adrenalin-crazed feeling was back. I could do ANYTHING in this car. Well, at least you got that feeling. Then quick down a turn I hadn't planned on taking earlier, but which in the new, crazed light of things suddenly seemed like a good idea, and then it was over, leaving us with a profound thankfulness for being alive on such a great little planet as this.
Later, pushing the car back up (each driver has to do his own uphill pushing. It helps build hyperventilation which prevents reluctance to get in the cockpit. Once you're in the cockpit, you're ok and anxious to go) I found I was having to back and fill to get the car around that turn that suddenly looked so fun to try on the way down. This was puzzling. How could the car make the bend going downhill, and not be able to turn it going uphill. I tried again. Nope, it couldn't make the radius.
Then we looked at the tracks of my downhill run and saw that the rear wheel tracks didn't follow the front. A little twitch of the hips at the right moment had sent the rear skidding outwards so the car was re-pointed in a direction to be able to make the turn. The adrenalin-crazed mind is a wonderful thing to watch, even if it's your own.
On the next runs we added another new twist- video-taping. Immediately after a run the driver would hurry over to watch the instant replay on the monitor. It multiplied the fun and settled a lot of shouted arguments (especially when a front wheel had somehow come loose on one run) and it was all down on tape.
The verdict, once the votes were in? Downhill coasting is definitely a true, unique sport that stands on its own, no matter what sort of iron you happen to be driving in "real life." The thrill of the hill, the lightness of the machine, the instant steering, the unhampered visual imput, the good excercise, the complete lack of any possiblity of anybody taking this enterprise seriously, -makes it a sport in the truest sense.
Another great sporting truth was brought home by the quiet riot that is downhill-coasting: -since the steering was so frighteningly quick, since the race course was so frighteningly tight, and since there was so little padding, springs, course smoothing or any other of the modern comforts no one would dream of going racing without today, we were able to generate a lot of peril-borne excitement at a very low actual top speed, (and a very low actual risk). Maximum sensual input/per mile an hour, in other words. It's a new approach (or is it an old one?) to getting kicks without getting killed. A lot of the fun is spinning out, crashing into bushes, and generally getting dusted up, and we could do this, and have fun without calling out the paramedics. When we bundle ourselves up in so many layers of padding, cages, bars, and nets that we have to go two hundred miles an hour just to wake up, we end up in trouble when the slightest detail of one of the safety systems fouls up. And things foul up.
As if to prove our point one of the drivers flailing down the course disappeared behind a row of protective aloe cactuses. Suddenly we heard the rumble of the car stop abruptly and the top of one of the aloes suddenly waved back and forth like a banner. The man had missed his corner, but "break-neck speed" on this tight course was actually so slow that a head-on into the bushes meant nothing more than an embarrassing grouping of the crowd around the car to marvel at the impact absorbtion of the aloe plant (aloe also cures cuts, so there's that extra safety device).
True, there's not much glory in downhill coasting, -nothing to bring the babes a-running, or the self-image hounds out from under their rocks. But , give it enough tv play, and the ego-chasers will probably show up with a more expensive way to make sure they're taken seriously.
Like most research, in answering one question, we'd only raised others. The foremost of which was, "why did we feel we had to hide our experiment away from the "real" , "adult" world? Why does a world that feels that sitting in a smoke-filled room eating packaged foods and watching aberrated, obscenely paid freaks bobble a ball around on a vacuum tube is somehow a grown-up thing to do, while trying new fesh-air ways to suck a little adrenalin is cause for psychotherapy? Well, let them be 'sane", we say. See what fun it brings them!