By Tom Schad, The Baltimore Sun
2:39 PM EDT, March 23, 2013
Over a tall cup of coffee in Southeast Baltimore, Reed Whiting explains why and how he zips down frozen racetracks in the middle of cities, navigating jumps and turns while jostling with three other racers from around the world.
He says he goes as fast as 40 miles per hour in front of more than 100,000 fans and a national television audience. He once canceled a week of appointments at work and booked an $880 overnight flight to Switzerland for the opportunity to compete.
"It was a fun little ordeal," Whiting, 33, says.
He knows all of this might sound crazy — and it does — but when you're a former Division I hockey player, kite surfer and bull rider who also owns a turtle farm, crazy is good. If Whiting wasn't crazy, he wouldn't be competing in ice cross downhill in the first place.
The sport, which was created in 2001 and is sponsored by Red Bull, is a combination of hockey, motocross and downhill skiing. It requires the perfect mix of skating skills and racing skills, the core strength to control your body during a jump and the mental strength to recover from a fall in the qualifying round.
"There's just a lot of little things to it," said Whiting, who played hockey at Ohio State. "You have to have those quick muscles off the start and stuff. You're jostling with guys. It [takes] a lot of leg strength to go through all the compressions and stay composed."
Ice cross downhill is wildly popular in Canada and Europe, but it's still relatively unknown in the United States, where Red Bull has only scheduled two races since 2004 — both in Minnesota. The sport's world championship, Red Bull Crashed Ice, consists of five races on two continents and ended last week in Quebec.
Whiting, who has spent most of the past two years in Baltimore but travels frequently for work, first heard about the sport in 2012 and qualified for his first race in St. Paul, Minn., in January. After finishing 57th out of 155 competitors, he was hooked.
"I love what Crashed Ice is all about," Whiting said. "I love the people that are in it, and I want to be successful, athletically, one last time and see what can happen."
After that first race, Whiting begged his American teammates for an invitation to the next event in Lausanne, Switzerland. When the team decided to bring a more experienced racer, Whiting returned to his work as an insurance adjuster and thought his season was over.
He was investigating insurance claims in Washington, D.C., one morning when he heard the ping of a Facebook message on his iPhone. It said there was a last-chance qualifier in Airolo, Switzerland for the penultimate race of the season, but it was in two days.
Whiting called Red Bull, Team USA and some of his fellow competitors to gather more information. When his calls weren't returned, he decided to go to Airolo and hope for the best.
"I thought Reed was insane," said Cameron Naasz, a Minnesota native who won the race in Lausanne and finished third in the world championship standings this season. "There's one qualifier left, and he just decides to spend almost $1,000 on a plane ticket to fly over here to maybe make the cut? That's gutsy."
Said Whiting: "If you go for it, people are going to see that, and they're going to make it work."
He was right. Impressed with his impulsiveness, Red Bull officials allowed Whiting to compete in the qualifying race. He qualified fifth and stayed in Switzerland to practice for a few days, then flew back to Baltimore to investigate claims for a weekend and returned to Switzerland on Monday.
Whiting described the experience as "the biggest [mess] of a two weeks ever," but he finished 31st in the race. He was invited to compete last weekend in Quebec, where he finished 72nd but positioned himself for a strong season next year.
"The main thing is [Reed's] confidence level," Naasz said. "He knows that he can take certain obstacles, whereas before he was hesitant and being hesitant in this sport means you're going to crash."
Ice cross downhill was created as a marketing event to promote Red Bull, but Crashed Ice sports director Christian Papillon said the sport has transformed over the past five years. Fan support has swelled, qualifying races have grown and Red Bull is beginning to open the sport to outside sponsors. It also has added women's and team competitions.
Papillon said the organization is hoping to build three permanent downhill tracks in addition to the three that already exist worldwide. Permanent tracks will allow newcomers to try the sport and help current racers hone their skills.
"We're really working on developing a sport. It's not an event for marketing. It's really in motion now," Papillon said. "It should be something you see grow in the next couple years, for sure, in North America."
Naasz, 23, said the construction of one permanent track in the United States might be all the sport needs to pick up steam. Whiting said the International Olympic Committee already has expressed interest in the sport and sent representatives to two races this past season.
"When you're drawing this many fans and you get national TV on every race, it's just a matter of time until it takes over," Whiting said.
The sport has traditionally attracted hockey players such as Whiting who already have the necessary skating skills to compete. But Papillon said the sport has recently began attracting different types of athletes, from skiers and mountain bikers to motocross racers and other extreme-sport enthusiasts.
Whiting, for example, has experience in skiing, kite surfing, speed flying, wakeboarding, scuba diving and bull riding, in addition to hockey. He says all extreme sports require you to face fears and remain mentally tough, and ice cross downhill is no exception.
"The whole mental component of all these sports, from hockey to bull riding to this, your mind is so important," Whiting said. "You got that figured out, that's 90 percent of the battle."
Baltimore summers aren't ideal for ice cross downhill training, but Whiting says he plans to prepare for next season by staying in shape, watching film of last season's races and practicing in skateparks. Whiting might also spend time at his turtle farm in southern Iowa, which he founded with a friend and which now accounts for half of his annual income.
Whenever Whiting does something, he goes all in — no matter how crazy it might sound.
"There's not too many opportunities in your life where you'll get to compete in a sport on an international level that could be in the Olympics in a few years," he said. "I'm going to work harder than any single guy in this and see where it gets me."
Red Bull Crashed Ice: Quebec (taped)
Time: 8:30 p.m.
TV: NBC Sports Network
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun