Red Bull's Downhill Ice Racing League Is Comically Dangerous
Ice Cross Downhill is the coolest sport you've probably never heard of.
Over the weekend, America's biggest sporting event took place in Texas.
According to Houston's tourism board, over one million people gathered over a 10-day span to celebrate a game that will undoubtedly be talked about for generations to come and likely played on highlight reels for the rest of our lives.
A little under 1,200 miles north of the Super Bowl, though, 100,000 Minnesotan spectators spent that same weekend celebrating a sport so bizarrely intense and unknown that it took me around three minutes to explain it to my mom, who then spent five minutes instructing me how I was forbidden to get on the track because she didn't want to spend the rest of her life feeding me while I was stuck in a wheelchair.
(Granted, this is the same woman who said the reason I'm not married is because I've smoked pot before. So she may have been exaggerating, a bit.)
Rather than explain the sport I'm talking about, I think it would be better if I just showed you the championship race from Saturday night's competition.
That's four men going down a 340-meter modified ice luge track at the same time, wearing minimal padding and ice skates.
It started with racers shooting themselves out of a start gate that sits just in front of the Cathedral of Saint Paul, extending halfway up the building, which then leads right into a 35-foot ice drop sending racers into an uphill wallride, a hairpin turn, another smaller drop, ice moguls, two ice hills and a downhill straightaway to the finish line.
The sport is called Ice Cross Downhill (ICD), and with the exception of smaller qualifiers (named “Riders Cups”), the St. Paul race was the last event before the series championships in Ottawa in March and the only race of its kind to take place in the US.
I don't care about bull riding, Nascar or any other sport that is sort of based around the idea of how dangerous it is.
I can tell you with complete confidence ICD is the single most exciting 30-45 seconds you will ever watch, and I will Venmo $17,000 to the person who can prove me wrong.
To be honest, I was already a little familiar with Crashed Ice (which is the premier league for ICD) when Red Bull invited me out to see the sport live. I was an extreme sports junkie as a kid (purely as a spectator) with a specific love of winter competitions.
I vaguely remember watching some of its racers profiled on either OLN (or whatever that channel was called back then) or some illegal video stream I found online back when I was in middle school or high school.
I remember instantly thinking it was one of the coolest things I had ever seen, and continued to every few months check out the website to see if the sport was still active.
That's sort of what ICD is to a lot of its fans. It's something really cool you accidentally stumble across on whatever your personal version of ESPN 8: The Ocho is, and then spend every few months showing your friends and hoping they find it as cool as you do.
It's like competitive wiffle ball or Avril Lavigne's new music in that way.
And it's that very hurdle the sport is currently hell-bent on trying to get over.
While talking with reps from the USA Ice Cross Association, I found the main focus for the sport today is clearly growing it to more than a series of YouTube videos you find while in an extreme sports internet video rabbit hole at 2 am.
They want this thing to be a globally recognized athletic competition with athletes who care about the sport and fans from more than just icy areas of every country.
The question is obviously, how?
Most American ICD competitors have the same backstory. They usually live in Minnesota, probably played hockey as a kid until their skills or size became a handicap and then stumbled upon the sport just by living around a city where America's top athletes train.
During a sit down with Max Dunne (who was the points leader before St. Paul) and Cameron Naasz (currently ranked number one in the world and widely viewed as the sport's top athlete), it became clear if you want to get involved with ICD, it's nearly impossible to live anywhere not near the Twin Cities.
You need that buddy system in place where someone is always behind you pushing you to become better.
This is also probably why a lot of the world's top competitors tend to have siblings also competing in the majors, with the Croxalls, Moriaritys and Dallagos known as the Williams, Mannings and Sedins of going really fast down an icy hill.
While the idea of a central training hub located in Minnesota, in a way, led to America becoming a dominant force on the ice track, it's also the biggest problem ICD faces.
It is now easier than ever to get involved with the sport thanks to the introduction of Riders Cup races, but the barrier to get involved is still just really high.
It requires such a specific set of skills, training and facilities that it can seem remarkably daunting if you're not within driving distance of other racers.
It's not impossible to be alone and train for ICD, even qualifying for bigger races; it's just a lot harder to do it in a state where Al Franken isn't a senator.
You can practice on flat ice and do standard ICD workouts (which tend to be along the lines of CrossFit and core training), but at the end of the day, it's like trying to get in the NBA by only shooting free throws alone with a volleyball in your backyard.
All four of the current top-ranked US competitors are from Minnesota. They all train together, and according to Naasz, it is not uncommon for some of the vets to take younger athletes under their wings.
There's a local Facebook group chat where practice sessions are posted, and because Crashed Ice is so popular in St. Paul, riders tend to be exposed to the sport at a significantly younger age.
The sport is so tight-knit, this is how word got out about this year's Junior's Division tournament:
Reed Whiting is the US All Terrain Skate Cross (ATSX) chairman. (Fun fact: When he's not organizing ICD tournaments, he's a claims adjuster and a turtle farmer. He also has a really cool Prestige Worldwide jersey that I would pay very good money for. Reed, if you're reading this and are feeling charitable...)
The US is sort of alone when it comes to this setup, though, and it's what has led to America's domination of the game. No other country has a base for the sport, which gives American competitors a major advantage.
In order to keep Crashed Ice from being 50 North American-ers and 14 randos from around the world at every event, only eight racers per country can compete per tournament.
While this rule is great for the sport's exposure to the rest of the planet, it tends to keep anyone not from Minnesota from having a shot at competing in the Crashed Ice circuit if they're from America.
(If you are interested in competing, by the way, you need to sign up for Riders Cup tournaments, rack up enough points based on your placing during those events and then hope to place among national ratings to get a bid at one of Red Bull's Crashed Ice events.)
The sport itself has seen a quality overhaul over the past few years. Athletes now spend the entire year -- aside from the two-month season when they are actually competing -- with at least a partial focus on improving their run times.
This has specifically translated into a major boost in talent for the female division of the sport.
According to Naasz and former competitor Charlie Wasley (whom I may or may not have seen wearing his own Crashed Ice onesie under his equipment. Sorry Charlie, this is payback for ruining that last Snapchat I tried to take) the competitions themselves are now taken a lot more seriously than they were in previous years.
The tracks have been improved to increase competitive play and safety for the racers. The athletes also spend more time focusing on their heats during tournaments.
While in previous competitions some racers would spend the nights before qualifying runs and tournament races out drinking with other competitors, now everyone is solely focused on making a podium appearance.
During my time in St. Paul, I heard the word “Olympics” mentioned about five times, so it's very clear what the longterm outlook is for the sport.
In order to get a bid in the Olympics, though, ICD needs to expand to a few more countries and then make it through an IOC submission process, which ties back to the original barriers-of-entry problem.
This shared goal of having the sport succeed directly feeds into how big camaraderie is among the athletes.
As much as everyone is competing against each other, they all know they are doing it to benefit the growth of the game.
They drive each other to go faster, jump higher and make the game that much more entertaining to watch.
It never gets negative, though. Rivalries off the ice don't really exist, and with the exception of some shoving at the finish line between the Dallago brothers, Cameron Naasz and Scott Croxall after a controversial move during the wallride portion of the track, I never really saw any animosity between the racers.
They all travel to competitions together and, based off the three minutes I spent in the athlete tent before time trials, it was easy to see, as much as everyone there is competing with each other, everyone is also there to make everyone else better.
When all was said and done in St. Paul, 22-year-old Dean Moriarity took home the first place trophy, with Austria's Marco Dallago taking second and top-ranked Cameron Naasz taking third. Max Dunne did not quality for the championship race after suffering a series of injuries during the tournament.
Derek Wedge of Sweden took home the freestyle competition trophy (this was the first time to have a freestyle element), Myriam Trepanier beat out top-ranked Amanda Trunzo for the women's division and Mirko Lahti took home gold in the junior's competition.
If you're feeling bummed about your chances of competing, just know France's Martin Barrau put on ice skates for the first time a few months ago and took home bronze in the juniors, so there is hope for all you rookies out there.
After a week off, a large chunk of these racers will head to La Sarre, Quebec for the next Riders Cup, before heading to Bathurst and then the championships in Ottawa.
Crashed Ice and ICD are unlike anything you will ever watch. It's not a subset of a larger sport like BMX racing or speed skating. It's so its own thing, and that's part of why it's more than just a sport.
It's why the people who are involved dedicate so much to the growth of the league with little to no financial benefit (Dunne, for instance, who is the LeBron James of the sport at the moment is sponsored by CrankyApe.com).
It's why it has such a pronounced hometown feel to it and why 100,000 Minnesotans mark it on their social calendar every year.
It's also why the sport is growing at the rate it is.
According to Christian Papillon, sport director at Red Bull Crashed Ice, at the end of this season there will be almost 1,000 registered competitors across the world -- compared to just a few hundred a few seasons ago -- all hoping to secure a slot in next year's championship.
Oh, in case you're wondering, I did end up trying the track, by the way.
That's a picture of me with Cameron Naasz. I will let you guess which one is me and which one is him.
Let's all make a pact not to show my mom.
Also, let's make a pact not to show the event organizers the hole I put into the wall when I fell skate-first going downhill near a mogul.
Big thanks to Red Bull for bringing me along on this bad boy!