Dual Slalom is Back!
North American ski racing has a long and storied history, especially in those remote corners where Old Man Winter rules for months during the year.
From the original American Inferno on the steep flanks of Mount Washington’s Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire to a slew of Olympic Games, including Squaw Valley, Salt Lake City, and Lake Placid, as well as Calgary and Vancouver north of the border, ski racing is in our collective DNA. Names like Americans Phil and Steve Mahre, Diann Roffe, Bill Johnson, Lindsay Vonn, Andrea Mead-Lawrence, Tommy Moe, Billy Kidd, Julia Mancuso, Picabo Street, Mikalea Shiffrin, Ted Ligety, and Debbie Armstrong all conjure images of dashing figures flying down race courses at breakneck speeds.
Outside of the quadrennial celebration of the Winter Olympics, however, ski racing is often an “out of sight, out of mind” activity for all but the most passionate fans. A major reason is that the vast majority of FIS World Cup events are held in Europe, the epicenter of the sport. While the United States and Canada are awarded an occasional event (such as the FIS races at Killington, Vermont, last November), our best ski racers typically earn their stripes overseas. And their fans have to be content to watch those exploits on television.
That’s about to change. On the weekend of March 10-11, the long-dormant World Pro Ski Tour returns to the slopes of Sunday River resort in Maine. The event, said organizer Ed Rogers, will serve as a springboard to a series of four to six races during the winter of 2017-18. All will be held in the United States.
“There’s a lot of excitement in the air about this event, and I hope it can continue on a more full-time basis in the future,” said Alaska’s Kieffer Christianson, 24, the United States 2016 National GS champion. “It’s a real breath of fresh air from what FIS and USSA (United States Ski and Snowboard Association) have going on right now.”
The World Pro Ski Tour races will look much different than the FIS or Olympic events, where competitors come downhill one at a time, essentially racing against the clock. Conversely, the Pro Tour will revive the dual-slalom format made famous by World Pro Skiing founder Bob Beattie in the 1970s and early 1980s.
“In skiing, you’ve got winners and losers,” said Rogers, adding that he’s never been fond of “judged” events like snowboarding’s halfpipe contests. “Pro skiing fits that. You race each other until there’s only one guy left.”
Tour racers said they can’t wait.
“I’ve always enjoyed the dual racing format,” said Vermont’s Robby Kelley, 26, the 2012 national champion. “I definitely have a different mindset when I can actually see how I’m doing comparatively during the run.”
As a result, dual slalom “makes for some really dramatic finishes,” said Minnesota’s Michael Ankeny, 26, the 2015 North American Cup Champion. And dramatic finishes often translate to more eyeballs.
“If there is one thing that ski racing in the US has always battled, it would be viewership,” said Ankeny. “So if a tour like this can help bring in more spectators and awareness for our sport, then I’m all for it.”
If the new Tour generates more interest for the sport, it will be a case of history repeating itself. Phil Mahre, one of the greatest ski racers ever produced by the United States (with 27 FIS wins) and an Olympic gold medalist at the 1984 Sarajevo Games, said the former Pro Tour provided an enormous boost for North American ski racing.
“It introduced the sport to a lot of people,” said Mahre, acknowledging that ski racing is perceived in some circles as being somewhat high-brow. “(Ski racing) is alive and well in this country at the grassroots level. There are a lot of people interested in it, but you just don’t ever see it.”
The hidden potential of the World Pro Ski Tour, said Mahre, is to inspire the next generation of racers by providing more opportunities for the current generation to compete.
“So if you can make it viewer-friendly, and bring it to the masses, like the Big Air competition at Fenway Park (in Boston last winter), that’s a huge deal,” he said. “You want to open it up to the masses. You can go to small resorts. You don’t have to go to the big mountains. It’s a great concept, and I think it can work.”
Dual slalom also makes for great television, which is another key component to the long-term success of the new Tour. Rogers confirmed that CBS Sports agreed to exclusive rights for the March race and for next winter, and he hopes the network will grow with the Tour.
“The dual format is the best for spectators, whether it’s in person or on TV,” said Felix McGrath, 53, the Tour’s 1992 Rookie of the Year. “It’s easier to understand who is winning. At times, World Cup racing is impossible to see who is the fastest. The dual format lays it all out for the racer and the spectator.”
Beattie, a New Hampshire native who raced collegiately in Vermont before becoming a US Ski Team coach, launched World Pro Skiing in 1969. The dual-slalom format, with competitors running gates side-by-side, proved immensely popular and quickly gained a national following. Even though the original Tour fizzled in 1982 following a strike by racers, several smaller “B” tours combined to keep dual-slalom racing alive. Rogers and his partners continued to operate the Tour until 1998, when it went into an extended hibernation after the Fox network folded the property.
But former racers said they still have great memories.
“The Tour had a grassroots feeling. We toured to some of the best ski resorts in America – Telluride, Aspen, Vail, Killington, etcetera,” said McGrath. “But sometimes we raced at Boyne Michigan and Nashoba Valley (outside Boston). These smaller races always had many fans watching and taking part.”
In fact, Mahre said the smaller events actually had more cachet, appreciated by local fans who didn’t take the races, or racers, for granted.
“The beauty of the pro tour was that they could go anywhere,” said Mahre, who raced on the Pro Tour from 1979-82. “Oftentimes you had your biggest crowds at the smallest resort. You got to Vail, it’s no big deal. They’d say, ‘we see those guys all the time.’
“But when you show up at Nashoba Valley, a 180-vertical-foot hill and you’ve got a pro race there, people come out to watch,’ he said. “It gives a lot of people an opportunity to compete and ski race when they might not ordinarily be able to do that. It’s a chance for them to extend their careers. It was a fun tour.”
Though the World Cup “amateur” circuit continued to attract the very best ski racers on the planet, the Pro Tour was able to fill its ranks with high-profile racers a few years past their prime, or competitors who were just a notch below the world’s finest. It is the same approach that has allowed Major League Soccer to establish solid footing in North America.
“The new Tour is a great chance for competitors to be able to prove themselves,” said Dartmouth ski coach Peter Dodge. 62, who raced on the World Pro Tour and US Pro Tour from 1980-89. “It gives them a chance to do what they know they can do. Too often the structure of the national team systems just doesn’t work for many racers. This is great for the ski fans who can understand the action and see head-to-head competition up close.”
Rogers said the Pro Tour expects to host, at a minimum, four events next winter, with races in California, Colorado, Maine, and Michigan.
“The great thing about a pro race is that it’s really inexpensive to put one on, because it’s very little work that has to be done” to prepare the racecourse, said Rogers. “It’s a short course, and you can see the whole thing from the bottom of the racecourse. It’s easy to identify guys.
“If we can get the proper amount of sponsors, we can get back” to the hey-day of pro racing, when the top racers were making well in excess of $100,000 per season, said Rogers. “We need to build it up slowly. It’s going to be hard to get back to 14 or 15 big events with big prize money.”
While preaching gradual growth, Rogers said 4-to-6 events next year and 6-to-8 the year after would give the Tour “a big slice” of the winter sports pie. It all starts on March 10-11 at Sunday River.
“It’s not going to look like the X-Games at all, with all the big tents,” said Rogers. “But it’s going to be a first-class event.”
Photo Credit: worldproskitour.com – Skier Robby Kelley