Vail’s ski racing roots
Ryan Summerlin December 24, 2012
VAIL, Colorado – George Gillett, former owner of Vail and a guy who knows a thing or two about business (he has gone on to own other ski resorts, professional sports teams and a long list of other successful companies), points out that following the 1989 World Alpine Ski Championships in Vail, the resort’s international visitors skyrocketed.
Gillett had a large hand in bringing the event to town, in spite of the fact that other ski areas in North America had no interest whatsoever in hosting it. But this large-scale globally inclusive event did great things for making Vail glow on the world map. More than just seeing the world’s fastest skiers bomb down the meticulously designed courses, close to 1 billion TV viewers tuning into the championships also saw the mountain being absolutely blasted with snow.
“The night before the downhill race, we had a tremendous snowstorm – 34 inches,” Gillett recalls. “We had 1,500 volunteers and troops working, shoveling snow. We couldn’t get rid of the snow and conduct the downhill fast enough. Guess what? Vail’s copious champagne powder was known all over the world.”
According to Gillett, before the ’89 world champs, international visitors constituted just 2 percent of Vail’s skier base. The very next year, the numbers leapt to 13 percent.
“That’s a growth that can only be attributed to one thing,” Gillett says. “Television and the world championships. It was in hundreds of millions of homes. That has a tremendous impression on people. At these events, broadcasters take the cameras and canvas around, not just on the racecourse but in the village and other parts of the mountain. All of a sudden the magic and spirit of Vail gets captured. We had exposure to millions of people who hadn’t seen it before.”
In our blood
There is no question. Vail would not be what it is today without ski racing. The sport has given the resort a leg up not just in prestige among ski racing insiders but among skiers in general, and not just following the 1989 world championships, but from the get-go. The sport has essentially been with Vail since its birth in 1962 – given that one of the resort’s founding fathers was a ski racer.
“Pete Seibert won the Roch Cup in 1950. We were founded by a ski racer,” Gillett points out. “The sport has had a tremendous influence on the ski industry, particularly in Vail, from the very beginning. Look at all the greats coming to this mountain, from Seibert to Ski Club Vail to Lindsey Vonn and now Mikaela Shiffrin. What a wonderful exclamation point to the area’s history of ski racing.”
And it’s not just other ski racers who have had their eye on the pros that Vail has wrought. Anyone remotely interested in skiing will naturally cast a glance to those in the know. Vail has a rich history of shining examples.
“The ski racing community is a relatively small community yet it has an enormous influence on millions around the world,” Gillett says. “Skiers and their technique, ski shape, grooming practices on the mountain … to a large extent all of these come as a by-product of ski racing.”
At this point – with another world championships in 1999, a third one coming in 2015 and Beaver Creek a highly touted regular stop on the annual World Cup ski calendar since 1997 – ski racing is officially in the area’s blood.
Passion makes it work
“Vail and the valley has this DNA in the community that we are ski racing,” says Ceil Folz, President of the Vail Valley Foundation, which organizes and delivers the World Cup and the world champs. “Going back to the ’60s, Bob Beattie and the birth of World Cup skiing, the town series was huge and people talked about ski racing. But leading up to the ’89 world champs, nobody understood how big it was, how important it was. That was really the dawn of a new era. With the Birds of Prey [World Cup races], there has been an escalation every year of something bigger and bolder. With the ’99 World champs, we went into that more prepared and with even more excitement. From the minute we bid for 2015 and won, it’s been more excitement still.”
Another event that landed at Vail even before the world championships was the American Ski Classic, a social event bringing international retired ski pros together – both recently retired and long-retired – to partake in a fun, head-to-head competition. Over the years, this event – though not televised – has also accounted for a snowball affect in global visitors.
“You can’t believe how many people involved in that bring back 10 or 20 of their friends every year who then become attached to Vail and bring 10 or 20 of their friends,” Gillett says. “We’ve been blessed with a multi-cultural community from the beginning.”
Folz points out that even before the first ski racing event ever landed in Vail, it was passion that carried it into the resort’s identity, passion from the likes of Seibert, Beattie, Gillett and the current Vail Resorts governing squad – and of course, the Valley Valley Foundation.
“It’s passion that makes it work,” Folz says. “At the end of the day, nothing is easy. Everything costs a lot of money, especially World Cup ski racing. Rob Katz, John Garnsey … if those guys didn’t love ski racing, it wouldn’t be going the way it is for us. This is a community that’s passionate about it. Everything we do is passionate. We are a place that brings the best of everything.”