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Wok Racing

As I continue to catch up on items I meant to write about last week, let me draw your attention to the Wall Street Journal’s front-page feature two weeks ago on wok racing. When I first saw it, I imagined it was about dumb people sliding dangerously down ice courses on metal. Of course, that’s exactly what it’s about. But these aren’t just any dumb people. Some of them are the same dumb people who win Olympic gold sliding dangerously down ice courses on metal, such as Georg Hackl, the German luger who won Olympic silver in 1988, gold in 1992, 1994, and 1998, and silver again in 2002. After trading in his luge for a wok, Hackl has had continued success:

Wok racing began in 2003. As a guest on a game show called “Wanna Bet?” German comedian and TV emcee Stefan Raab joked with the audience about riding a wok down a bobsled run. The audience laughed, so he did exactly that.

“It was really amazing. I thought, ‘Why not create a new sport?'” said Mr. Raab, who has a penchant for dangerous stunts on his television show. He once wrestled a wild boar and emerged unscathed. He twice fought a German female boxing champion. She broke his nose.

Woks, which have been in use for hundreds of years in Asian cooking, weren’t designed for easy handling on ice. The rounded bottom rocks in all directions, and racers who don’t use their hands and feet for stability can find themselves spinning in circles, slamming into the track’s walls, or keeling over and sliding wok-less.

Mr. Raab staged the inaugural 2003 contest in Winterberg, Germany, after convincing reluctant track officials that racers’ body armor made it safe. Mr. Raab won, beating a motley crew of B-list celebrities, including a choreographer and an Irish-German folk musician.

Then Georg Hackl arrived. A three-time Olympic gold medalist in the luge, Mr. Hackl, now 43 years old, is that sport’s most decorated champion. Known as the speeding weisswurst, after the veal sausage, Mr. Hackl has always looked lumpy in the lycra bodysuit used in competitions. But what the beer-drinking Bavarian lacked in athletic appearance he more than made up for with drive and technical skill. He once took a job as a metalworking apprentice to figure out new ways to improve his steel-and-fiberglass luge sled.

Mr. Hackl has brought the same nerve and resourcefulness to wok racing. He beat Mr. Raab in the second championship in 2004 at Innsbruck, Austria. He has won every title since then, except in 2006 when Irish-German folk musician and weekend warrior, Joey Kelly, lined his wok with lead to turn it into a stir-fry missile.

Mr. Hackl reclaimed his title in 2007 after polishing his wok with wax and heating its base with a blowtorch before runs.

More Olympic lugers and bobsledders soon signed up for the championship. At last year’s wok championship, Mr. Hackl edged out Felix Loch, who won the gold medal in the luge at this year’s Olympic Games.

This year featured a re-match between Hackl and Loch.

This year’s championship was held in Oberhof, once a training ground for East Germany’s winter athletes. The day before the race, as spring sunshine started to melt the track, Mr. Hackl was confident he remained tops in the wok.

“The venue is like my living room. I know the track and I know the curves,” said Mr. Hackl, who retired from the luge after the 2006 Olympics.

Mr. Loch, fresh off his gold-medal performance in Vancouver, liked his chances in the wok. He said Mr. Hackl’s heckling hadn’t dimmed his confidence.

“He tells me that I can win at luge now, but that I can’t beat him in a wok,” Mr. Loch said.

Against these sliding Olympians, Mr. Kelly, who comes from a family of noted folk singers, complained he didn’t stand a chance. “I am getting better, but there are professionals here,” he said.

Still, Mr. Kelly held his own in the two runs to determine the championship. He made it to the bottom with friction burns in his lycra suit, but posted quick times.

The Olympic athletes were in a different class. They were low, flat and aerodynamic in their woks and traveled smoothly through the turns. Mr. Loch looked composed on the course, but he struggled to find speed, finishing in fourth place.

Mr. Hackl, stone-faced as he donned his plastic face mask before his first run, kept his feet pointing straight all the way down the course. In his second run, he glanced off the walls a couple times, but kept up a searing pace. He beat the runner-up, Mr. Kelly, by 10 seconds overall to hold onto his title.

In addition to solo wok, there is also competition in four-seat woks. This year, wok-race creator Raab and his team, which included four-time Olympic gold medalist bobsledder Andre Lange, won over a team of Olympians. The article closes with Raab’s wish that wok racing become an Olympic sport. It doesn’t sound quite so silly after you read the article. And if you can, watch the accompanying video.

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