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Downhill ride delivers big uplift Orchard Park backyard sports daredevil sled run

It's an 18-foot drop, but it looks much higher from the top of John Mastrangelo's sled run.

Higher and steeper. Peering over the lip is like being on the edge of a roof, staring down at a funnel of ice.

It's the seventh year he has built this sled run in his Orchard Park backyard, but it's the first trip down for his mother, Linda Foster.

"I haven't seen anyone my age go down it," she says. This time, though, her friends from work at Fisher-Price are here.

At the top of the 13 steps carved out of snow, she has second thoughts.

"Oh, I don't know," Foster says.

"You can do it -- lean forward," Mastrangelo says. "Trust the run."

Gripping the edges of the plastic sled, she slides over the lip and is airborne for a second, in free-fall.

"Whooo hooo!" she yells.

Her hair streams back as she flies down the straightaway, then her sled tips sideways, almost capsizing as she rides up the banked curves toward the end of the yard.

Some Western New Yorkers know how to make the most of snow, more snow and frigid temperatures. For Mastrangelo, those are the perfect ingredients for a sled run that will provide thrills for his family and friends until green patches appear on his lawn.

"It's been a really good year," he says. "This is the biggest it's ever been."

"I loved it," his mother says, having walked back from the end of the 200-foot run with her sled. "It's just the anticipation, before you start."

What the family calls the luge run -- with its high sides of snow and banked curves that Mastrangelo calls "turn one" and "turn two" -- started out small.

Snow that he cleared off the deck of a previous house built up into a little hill. "I started sledding off the back of the deck," he says. "Then I created a little turn and iced it up a little bit. Then every year it got bigger and bigger."

To build a 20-foot-tall snow hill, he explains, you start with igloolike bricks, made by packing snow into recycling bins. You pile them into a wall to form the back of the hill. When it gets up to 12 feet, you begin filling in the run -- he uses snow from his yard, blown with a snowblower. The wall is a few feet taller than the chute, to prevent people from falling off.

At the foot of the drop, a path is carved through the snow and watered down with a hose to form an icy base.

"He has a party with a bunch of fellas," Foster says. "They have the hose out, and they have a case of beer, and they fill up the bins [with snow] and walk them up."

Throughout the winter, the run is the focal point for parties at the Mastrangelo house off Armor-Duells Road. The gleaming hill topped with flags is an unmistakable landmark.

For his Super Bowl party, they projected the game on the garage door while friends took turns plunging down the icy slope. A local TV crew came out, and the resulting daredevil footage was picked up nationally.

Mastrangelo takes a turn, showing how it's done using a saucer sled and no hands.

"Your son is crazy, by the way," one of Foster's friends says.

"He was eight years old in the Blizzard of '77," Foster explains. "We could literally walk out of the second floor -- I think that's what did it to him. He's always loved the snow."

"We should time it, where's the Swiss timing mechanism?" one onlooker says.

In fact, Mastrangelo expects a friend on the Police Department to come by later with a radar gun, to time the runs. He figures the top speed is 30 mph at the foot of the drop, which quickly dissipates in the straightaway.

It's fastest on really frigid days like the below-zero temperatures experienced this week. At some point, though, the fun must come to an end.

"When we have a handful of 60-degree days, we start getting bare spots, that's when its time to say goodbye," he says.

Is he sorry to see spring come? Well, there's the swimming pool and badminton. "There's always something going on."

Out on the street, the school bus has dropped off Dante, Mastrangelo's 10-year-old son. Shrugging off his backpack, he chooses a saucer sled, climbs the stairs and launches over the edge, facing backward.

This looks frightening even from below. Was it scary? "No."

The first time? "A little bit."

Mastrangelo explains that the high sides of the run keep accidents from being serious. Even if you lose the sled, you just slide to the end, he says. Just avoid scraping your exposed skin.

Dante and his brother, Gabe, 7, have grown up with the run. "They love it -- I get a lot of time with them out here," Mastrangelo says. "That's why I do it."

e-mail: fwilliams@buffnews.com

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