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The Jet Luge: Meet Bob Swartz

The Jet Luge: a modern marvel that married Bob Swartz’s engineering expertise and passion for gravity sports. Tyler Topping visited Bob in Southern Maryland last July to find out more about the Jet Luge and how it came to be.

Since the 1970s, street luge has been a tight knit community of gravity sports enthusiasts who want to push the sport and science to a faster and more technical playing field.  In 2004, Bob Swartz took street luge to the next level by creating the first jet-powered street luge.

Bob Swartz has always had a knack for speed.  Starting as a child, he was always known as the neighborhood’s extreme snow sledder.  He would take anything from a Flexible Flyer to cardboard down his local hills trying to reach a new top speed.  Fast forward to the Mid-1990s, Bob was sitting in his living room watching TV with his wife and getting his first glimpse into the world of Street Luge.  He saw people like Lee Dansie blasting down hills powered only by gravity and he knew he had to get started.  After this pivotal event, he built his first luge based on the sleds he saw on TV.

Bob’s collection of buttboards and street luges that he brings to Jet Luge events.

Bob found out more about the sport and gained some early insights from websites like Tim Novak’s Skate Luge site and streetluge.com.  After building his first luge, he started practicing in local neighborhoods in Maryland.  He hit 50mph for the first time in these neighborhoods and was craving higher speeds.  At the time, X-Games was hosting luge races which set a challenging but possible goal for Bob.  Bob started to travel to places like West Virginia and the Appalachian Mountains in Western Maryland.  From this time training, Bob was able to attend his first X-Games Qualifier as a competitor.  This was a big deal for Bob, having not excelled in traditional sports growing up.

Bob Swartz (left) with Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer, ABC reporter Don Dahler, and X-Games Gold Medalist Bob Ozman (right).

After attending his first few events, Bob found himself being mentored by people like Bob Pereyra, Lee Dansie, and Darren Lott – all legendary street lugers of their time.  Despite finally lining up against some of the same people he first watched in his living room – Bob was failing to qualify for races and did not know why.  Bob Pereyra gave him a bite of wisdom at the top of the hill that would stick with Swartz for the rest of his days on a luge.  Pereyra told him, ‘Relax because all of the preparation was already done during practice and at home.’  Bob just needed to focus on making it through the hill clean.  After receiving this message, Swartz finally started to place in his races.

The engine of the Jet Luge which was originally constructed in 2004.

Years passed and Bob was still looking for the next best thing on his luge.  Bob had become known for his crazy street luge adventures amongst his friends and family but was never able to show them the sport he was so passionate about due to the topography of his hometown in Maryland.  Being so passionate about street luge, Bob needed this to change – he needed to share the good times.  Bob had brought his street luge with him wherever he traveled.  He took his luge to Ascension Island, Singapore, and Guam among other countries he had traveled to for work.  He had seen how readily these communities embraced luging and knew it was time to bring it home.  This is the origin story of the Jet Luge.

In 2004, the technology had advanced to the point where buying a small jet engine to attach to his luge was a (somewhat) reasonable reality.  After endless research, Bob found a small jet engine manufactured in Germany that had an output of 52lbs. of thrust.  It had a light price tag of $6,000 USD.  Having never been done before, the idea of the jet luge was still quite abstract.  Bob wasn’t sure if 52lbs. of thrust would be enough to push the weight of himself and the luge.  This is where things got creative…

To test whether or not the engine would suffice as a means of propulsion, Bob took a deep-sea fishing rod and equipped it with heavy fishing line and set the drag to 52lbs.  He took the rod and anchored it to his truck and held on to the line while laying down on his luge.  He was towed behind the truck and if the 52lbs. wasn’t enough to pull him and the luge – line would let out.  This test proved that the small jet engine from Germany would be the one for his jet luge project.

A couple months passed and Bob received the engine and finally fabricated his dream project.  He could now show his passion for speed on a sled to his friends and family. 

The Jet Luge was born.

Bob and his signature blue smoke.

The small engine, about the size of a watermelon, engulfed his small Southern Maryland neighborhood in a piercing scream.  All of his neighbors came out to see what the crazy next door was getting into this time.  On his first run on the jet luge, Bob hit 60mph… This wasn’t enough.  On his second run ever, Bob hit 89mph on the residential, mile-long strip of road leading to his house.  The theatrics of this event pushed Bob to make a show of the jet luge.  Bob contacted his local quarter mile drag strip to see if he could take his creation to the track.  The drag strip told him to come down to the IHRA President’s Cup; the largest event of the year.  Despite never showing off his jet luge to the public, Bob accepted and prepared to blast down the quarter mile in front of 20,000 people.  He added two small tubes behind the burner to create an afterburner effect.  This allowed his jet engine to shoot flames and smoke to create a more impactful spectacle for the people watching.  Bob successfully went 80mph at this event and the rest is history.

Bob firing up on the strip of the Maryland International Raceway.

Since the inception of the jet luge, Bob has performed all over the East Coast at car shows, air shows, drag strips, and gravity sports events.  Last year, Bob even rocketed up the Top Speed Challenge course, reaching speeds of 75mph on an 18% uphill incline.  The jet luge has provided Bob with the tools to learn a lot more about different aspects of gravity sports.  For example, Bob has found that at speeds over 90mph, aerodynamics play a much larger role than they do below 90mph.  The flywheels he uses on his sleds explode somewhere between 120mph and 125mph – he has a collection of exploded wheels to show for it. 

The Jet Luge conquered the 18% uphill grade of L’ Ultime Descente (Top Speed Challenge) in Quebec.

Being someone that believes good things should be shared, Bob has put this knowledge to use in a way that benefits his community.  Bob goes into high schools on occasion to teach the physics of the Jet Luge.  This provides students with a hands-on and captivating demonstration of the theories they are learning in class.  Additionally, Bob brings helmets to give away at all of his events to help raise awareness for safety.  He wants people who have never seen luging to know that it is easier and safer than it looks.

Bob Swartz with one of the helmets he gives away to raise awareness of safety.

Bob Swartz holds his faith as an integral factor in his adventures in gravity sports and in life.  Bob says, “God is my pilot and I’m just along for the ride.”  While Bob credits much of his success to his beliefs, his message can be appreciated by all.  “If it doesn’t feel right and you aren’t having fun – stop doing it” says Swartz.  He recounts all of the people he has met and the places he has been as a result of gravity sports.  “Gravity sports not only opens the doors for an amazing sport to participate in, but also a spiritual connection to the created wonders of the world for each rider.”

If it doesn’t feel right and you aren’t having fun – stop doing it.

Bob Swartz
Bob’s suburban neighborhood in southern Maryland after being flooded with smoke from the Jet Luge.

After sitting down and talking with Bob about the Jet Luge and his history in the sport, we took to the neighborhood street to try something that has never been done before: towing a skateboarder behind the Jet Luge.

I suited up and tightened down my Flywheels, which felt proper for being towed behind a luge from the mid-2000s.  At first, I was a bit skeptical about standing a mere five feet behind a jet turbine that reaches temperatures of over 700˚F (370˚C). Bob had just shown me a video of the Jet Luge melting a children’s Power-Wheel car just from the exhaust alone. After explaining how the heat quickly dissipates, I was assured that there was nothing to worry about.

As this was a new experience for both of us, we took it easy the first few runs in order to feel out the situation. After warming up, we decided to hit the gas.  We reached 50 miles per hour in just a few hundred feet with no signs of slowing down. 

The sensation of acceleration while being towed by the Jet Luge was unique and something I had never experienced before.  Off the line, it feels as though you are crawling.  The engine is consuming air at a fast and steady rate and the tension on the tow rope starts to increase.  Before I knew it, we were going 40 miles per hour.  The acceleration between 20 and 40mph is so smooth and constant that it is hard to tell that you are, in fact, accelerating.  There are no jerking motions, hardly any increase in resistance and the sound of the screaming engine remains the same.  It is an experience that I believe is unique to the Jet Luge.

Photo by Anthony Swartz.

By the time we finished our runs, half of the neighborhood was out on their driveways watching.  Surprisingly, the banshee-like howl of the engine comes as a welcomed sign of Bob, that crazy neighbor, doing what he loves; putting on a show and going fast.

Photo by Anthony Swartz.

I thank Bob for this special opportunity to become the first person towed by his luge and for giving me a glimpse into his world.   

If Bob wants you to remember one thing, it is to, “Shut the video games off, put your phone down, and go outside and experience this beautiful world with your friends.  You won’t enrich yourself in front of a screen but you will in the mountains”, or on the drag strip in his case.

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