CINCINNATI — Since debuting in 2015, Danger Wheel has brought thousands of people to Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhood. Those experiences have grown over the years into new family traditions and economic opportunities for the historic community.
What You Need To Know
- Since 2015, Danger Wheel has brought tens of thousands of people for a day of raucous Big Wheel racing
- What started as a fun event has morphed into a marketing campaign for Cincinnati’s Pendleton neighborhood
- Over the years, the event has led to entire families taking part in the races
- Proceeds from the event get reinvested into the Pendleton community
Danger Wheel functions like a soapbox derby for adults. Only the racers use oversized Big Wheel bikes, not cars, to speed downhill at a break-neck rate. But there’s also costumes, obstacles and a hilly two-block stretch of East 12th Street lined by thousands of onlookers armed with water balloons.
Now in its seventh year, the event features 64 three-person teams battling in head-to-head matchups. After a day of racing, one team earns the title of “Danger Champion.”
Kyle Lucke with his sons on the Danger Wheel course. (Photo courtesy of Kyle Lucke)
Races go from 2 p.m. until 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 30, but the event kicks off at noon. Plans call for food trucks, beer carts and other concessions. Water balloons are available for purchase, too.
“It’s just a great feeling,” said Kyle Lucke, 32, the driver for team Pickle Rick’s Drifters. “You also get every type of adrenaline junky out there racing for glory, even if it’s mostly bragging rights.”
Lucke got his first taste of Danger Wheel several years ago, first as a fan and later as a racer. The self-described “thrill seeker” loved seeing the ramps, obstacles and fans lining the typically quiet stretch of road close to Over-the-Rhine.
Loaded with armfuls of water balls, many of the fans pelt drivers as they try to navigate their way down a several-hundred-foot course littered with obstacles such as steep ramps and gigantic inflatable balls.
The allure of Danger Wheel, Lucke said, is that it caters to everyone. He feels it’s perfect for someone new to town looking to explore the city or groups of friends out to enjoy an afternoon of night life.
It’s even family-friendly, Lucke said. He and his wife take their two young sons every year.
“My kids have a blast throwing water balloons and using squirt guns to blast drivers on the way down,” Lucke said.
John Hilbert started attending Danger Wheel a few years ago after he and his family “stumbled on it” while walking downtown. Little did he know back then that he’d be racing on a team with two of his sons. Their name, Immortan John and the Warboys, is a reference to the movie “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
Forming the team was a rite of passage of sorts for John’s college-aged kids. Max, 22, and Sam, 20, grew up watching the races as teens. Today, they’re both students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, so they still come down for the races every year.
“I promised them when they were younger that we could do it when Sam turned 18,” said John, 52. “That year was canceled (because of COVID-19), so last year was our first year racing.”
Max Hilbert being held by Captain Danger. (Photo courtesy of John Hilbert)
For Max, the racing is great, but it’s also about the people. Over the years, he’s formed a special connection with a character named Captain Danger, the event’s enthusiastic race announcer who dons an over-the-top, ‘70s-style “Evel” Knievel-style jumpsuit every year.
“The first time I went to Danger Wheel, I felt a connection between Captain Danger and myself. Ever since then, he has been a personal hero of mine,” Max said. The two still get a picture together every year.
“I thought Danger Wheel was one of the funniest and most absurd (events) so I thought I wanted to participate,” Max added. That changed the first time he got to the top of the hill and sat on the bike. “I immediately regretted that decision,” he joked.
People might not think of John when picturing the down-hill-on-a-big-wheel type. During the day, he’s a marketing executive for a large German health care device manufacturer. But after seeing it once, he became hooked.
John called it “a bit scary to race,” but it’s “something weird” that he and his boys can do together, so he’s all for it. His only concern is explaining any injuries to co-workers.
“No one really cares who wins, just surviving,” he said. He mentioned he’s met great people through Danger Wheel, including a team from Minnesota last year.
Jared Fox also returned for his second year of racing. He and his brothers — one older, one younger — initially signed up at their mom’s urging.
Their stepdad screen-printed team shirts that read “Fox Brothers Racing.”
“I’d never been one to shy away from the challenge, so we decided to do it,” Fox said. The Foxes did pretty well, finishing sixth out of 64 teams.
Last year, Fox’s brothers gave him a push off and he drove for every heat. He thinks his body paid the price for it.
“I fell on a ramp and hit my backside really hard on the bike’s metal set,” he said. “I could barely walk, but I had to keep racing.”
After suffering his injury, Fox won his next race. He came up short in the next one, though.
“There’s always this year, right?” asked Fox.
Fox became the team’s driver out of necessity, he said. His brothers were in serious relationships and one of them was about to have a baby.
“I was the most expendable,” he joked.
Fox planned to do most of the racing again this year. His hope, though, was that his brothers would each take at least one trip down the track.
It’s not so much because of the physical toll on his body, Fox said. He just wanted his brothers to experience it for themselves.
Jared Fox (middle) poses with his brothers during Danger Wheel. The three brothers are part of a racing team during the event. (Photo courtesy of Jared Fox)
“I told my younger brother you have to at least do one of the races this year,” he added. “I mean, you’re getting water balloons thrown at you, everyone is screaming — it’s a rush. They should definitely experience it because there’s not much like it.”
Lucke only learned about Danger Wheel because his friends worked at Nation Kitchen and Bar in Pendleton. The burger restaurant becomes “ground zero” for the Danger Wheel, according to Nation’s co-owner Andrew Salzbrun.
Salzbrun also co-founded Danger Wheel. He and a business partner, Judd Watkins, came up with the idea for the races about 10 years ago shortly after moving to the neighborhood.
Pendleton needed investment, Salzbrun said. They brainstormed about ideas for attracting people to the neighborhood who may not visit there otherwise.
“We wanted to draw people to Pendleton and show off the neighborhood, but we needed to do it in a unique way,” he added. “It had to create something that added to the character of Pendleton.”
Salzbrun expected Danger Wheel to be popular. But so far it’s exceeded his expectations. Roughly 10,000 people attended last year’s race, Salzbrun said. He expected just as many this year.
Because of the event’s popularity, the races get simulcasted at nearby Braxton Brewing Company’s Pendleton taproom and other bars and restaurants in the area as well.
All proceeds go back to the Pendleton community through efforts like beautification projects and community cleanups.
Pendleton looks a lot different today than it did back in 2015. And not just during Danger Wheel, but Monday through Friday as well.
Salzbrun wouldn’t give all the credit to Danger Wheel or Nation, but he’s proud of how far the neighborhood has come.
“Our goal with Danger Wheel was to bring people together for an experience similar to playing games in their backyard,” he said. “It’s really fun to see families rally around the idea of having fun and competition, and in support of Pendleton.”
More information about the event is available on the Danger Wheel website.