As a professional stuntman, Tom Mason knows all about crashing.
But Mason also makes part of his living going downhill on an aluminum board at more than 80 mph, just an inch off the ground.
The sport is street luge, one of the centerpieces of ESPN's annual X Games, starting today in San Diego, and Mason has made a name for himself for his aggressive style and spectacular crashes. And that's fine with him.
"I love the reputation of being 'the bad boy of street luge,' " the 36-year-old Encino resident said.
That tag was hung on him by ESPN during the X Games in 1996, and it stuck.
But two years later, Mason has crashed the record books.
Last month on Mt. Baldy, Mason traveled at an average speed of 81.28 mph over seven runs, beating the world record.
But that was alone on the road with no competitors.
During competition, increased speeds translate to increased danger. But that doesn't stop Mason from going as fast and as hard as he can.
"When I compete, I don't want to lose," he said. "It's all about who brakes first. If you brake too early, you lose. It's an extremely rough game of chicken."
But his style isn't the most popular with some riders and has brought some severe consequences.
Back at those 1996 games at Newport, R.I., for instance, Mason was in one race in which his opponent ended up in the hay barrier and another in which his challenger wound up in the hospital.
He won both races, but was ruled to have caused both accidents and disqualified twice. The first incident cost him a spot in the gold-medal race. After the second, he was stripped of his bronze medal, which was awarded to German Stefan Wagner.
Mason defends his style, however.
"Wagner tried to run me wide," he said. "We were both being aggressive. He kicked me in the head and I ran him into the hay.
"In the other race, Dennis Derammelaere and me just couldn't hold the turn and crashed. I broke six ribs and punctured a lung in that one."
Officials saw it another way, though, and Mason lost his medal. He responded by announcing his retirement from the sport he had begun only six months earlier.
But it was a short-lived retirement, and Mason was competing again six months later.
"I don't think he was too serious about retiring then," Mason's teammate, Mike Colabela, said. "We were having too much fun at the time.
"He's just very competitive and very aggressive. He makes a move now and then that endangers himself or another rider. But if he wasn't as aggressive, he wouldn't do as well."
Colabela knows about Mason's aggressiveness firsthand.
Last month at the Xtreme Games in Australia, not even Mason's teammate was safe racing against him.
"He ran me into the rail at 70 mph," Colabela said.
Said Mason in defense, "We hit shoulders and the next thing I knew, we skidded out."
Run-ins aside, they are one of the best teams in the world today, according to International Gravity Sports Assn. [IGSA] and Road Racers Assn. for International Luge [RAIL], the sport's two governing bodies.
And although they got into street luge together, they have their differences.
"I'm a little bit more easy-going," Colabela said. "He's more psycho."
Mason's reputation has grown beyond that, however, and he will be among the favorites in these X Games.
Ranked among the top five by both RAIL and IGSA, Mason was given the "Gold Ticket" by both organizations, making him exempt from qualifying.
"I didn't bump anyone last year," he said. "I was overly clean and I didn't do as good."
Mason finished sixth in the dual competition, two lugers on the course, and seventh in the super-mass, six racers at a time, at last summer's games.
"I want to win this time," he said. "Besides, if I start putting my brakes on, my kids won't idolize me at all."
* X MARKS THE POT OF GOLD
To some, the X Games are in the spirit of individuality, to others, it's just defiance harnessed for profit. A1
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
* When: Today through June 28.
* Where: San Diego (Mariner's Point and Qualcomm Hill and Oceanside).
* Events: In-line skating, street luge, bicycle stunt riding, skateboarding, barefoot waterski jumping, skysurfing, wakeboarding, sportclimbing, big air snowboarding.