I'M TRYING TO be totally frank" says Derek Pierce. He's succeeding. A half-dozen knockwursts are strung around his neck, and a papier-mâché red hot, about the size of a dachshund, is sausaged into a pocket of his parka. "Every dog has its day, and this is mine," says Pierce, a 37-year-old school principal, waving a wiener that serves as a sword, a wand or a scepter, depending on the point he's making. ¶ Pierce is one of the weaker links in Team Wurst, a band of irregulars that for the past nine years has competed at the National Toboggan Championships in the coastal town of Camden, Maine. He and his teammates represent the best and the wurst of this two-day ice capade, Down East's most popular and peculiar midwinter sporting event.
A cross between an Alice in Wonderland costume ball and a family reunion, the nationals claim to be the only organized wooden toboggan races in the country. "We figured that because there wasn't any other, we might as well call it the nationals," says Camden hotelier David Dickey. "So far no other town has sued or challenged us."
Last year's 13th installment attracted hundreds of weekend sledders, some from such tobogganing hot spots as San Francisco and London. Many were decked out as cows, soup spoons, beer cans, crash-test dummies, cream puffs, saloon girls, nuns, Mexican federales, chickens, SpongeBobs, scuba divers and assorted grotesqueries that even Dr. Seuss wouldn't have concocted. "Actually, only some of my teammates are wearing costumes," said a member of the Gloucester (Mass.) Gorillas. "The rest just have a lot of body hair."
Team Wurst competed in the two-and three-person divisions as well as the marquee four-person event. The team's various configurations have had terrific names—Couldn't Be Wurst, Curst Be the Wurst, My Kingdom for a Wurst, Whistle While You Wurst, Men at Wurst, Wurst than Evangelical Telemarketers—and horrific times. In a decade of shooting the chute, the self-styled Wurstafarians have never advanced from the Saturday qualifier heats to the Sunday finals. To finish last in class is almost a point of pride. "We're going for the Triple Crown: dead last in every category," said Pierce as "It ain't the meat, it's the motion" blared from the team's CD player. "We're an epic squad of mediocrity with the lack of talent and equipment to lose it all."
He was saying this from behind a pyramid of baked-bean cans at the entrance of Team Wurst's yurt. Pierce and his bundled cohorts had set up camp on frozen Hosmer Pond near the end of the glazed 400-foot slide. The smell of franks 'n' beans hung thickly in the chill February air. "First in tailgate," said Pierce, "last down the chute."
Every few minutes the chute operator would yank a lever to release a squad of screaming, supine tobogganers on their plunge. Limbs tightly entwined, bodies stiff as corpses, they flashed past the yurt at 45 mph—about half the speed of Olympic bobsledders—before fishtailing across the ice below. The breakneck, brakeless joyride, with a drop of 70 feet from start to finish, generally lasts about nine seconds.
It's been all downhill in Camden since 1936, when town fathers and mothers decided to try to turn their hamlet into a winter resort that would rival Lake Placid. On an eastern slope of 1,300-foot Ragged Mountain, facing Penobscot Bay, volunteers earned free meals for clearing space for a ski jump, a lodge and a skate house. In a stand of birch they built a toboggan chute out of wood. The municipally owned facility was called the Snow Bowl.
Alas, Camden never did become Maine's Lake Placid, and by the early 1950s the chute had rotted. It was rebuilt in 1960, only to rot again by '64, the year it was shut down. In 1990 the slide and its launching platform, which sends tobogganers onto the track at a crazy angle, were rebuilt again. Collective 'bogganing was revived the following January, and the nationals were born. "We wanted to do something silly that no one could possibly take seriously," says Dickey. "One of the world's stupidest ideas took on a life of its own."
Now the nationals raise upwards of $25,000 to help offset Snow Bowl operating costs. The registration fee for participants is $15 per person per sled. The cheering, cowbell-clanging spectators who line the flume are admitted free.
The first running of the nationals was a ragtag affair contested by a few dozen locals, mostly carpenters, waitresses and schoolkids. In that year and every year since, neither age nor gender nor athletic ability has been much of a factor. "Everybody's on the same level," says mechanic Art Dinsmore, 35, of perennial top seed Throbbin' Boggin. "Anybody can pull a toboggan out of the garage or find one in the trash." The prevailing attitude has always been cheeky irreverence. For the record, the worst culprits were not Grateful Sled, Planck's Constant or Haulin' Ash, but an early team named the Nads. Before take-off, the P.A. announcer led the crowd in a robust cheer: Go Nads! Go Nads!