Roots of Racing series: Ski racing for the crowds
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
This winter, Vail and Beaver Creek are hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships for a third time. The Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum has opened its ski racing archives to tell stories that connect the dots between today’s spectacular made-for-TV competitions and their humble beginnings. This series will feature many of the significant milestones, instigated here in Colorado by individuals now enshrined in the Hall of Fame, which helped shape skiing and international racing. When you are in Vail Village, stop by the museum for a trip through skiing’s past. For more information, go to http://www.skimuseum.net.
When Bob Beattie founded World Pro Skiing in 1969, he did so with the intent of making ski racing more appealing to the masses. His first step was to adopt the “pro format,” a spectator friendly, head-to-head, tournament-style race format.
Traditionally, and in World Cup skiing, each skier takes turns running a course. The skiers trip a shin-high wand coming out of the start gate and cross a beam at the finish, receiving an instantaneous time down to a hundredth of a second. Speed races, like the downhill, use only one run, while technical races, like the slalom, utilize two runs of the same course. The fastest combined time wins. It can be hard to follow for fans, and impossible to tell how a racer on course is doing.
The pro format was an obvious fix. It pits one racer against another in head-to-head battles on two parallel courses set only a few meters apart. The winner of the race moves on to the next round of the tournament, requiring 10 runs in total to win.
Races start with two competitors poised behind steel doors, similar to today’s skiercross. The gates swing open at the push of the starter’s button and the racers leap out onto their respective course. They weave their way down, flying over man-made jumps and fighting to reach the finish line first.
The jumps became a central part of the World Pro Skiing courses. Up to 6 feet high and placed in difficult sections, jumps added complexity and excitement to the fast paced action. Further, they became a medium for sponsor posters and a visual marker for spectators.
World Pro Skiing used a novel approach to timing as well. The first racer to cross the finish line started the timer, and the second stopped it, measuring the time difference between the two racers down to a thousandth of a second. The two racers then returned to the top for another run, swapping courses for the rematch. To win the head-to-head match, the slower skier from the first run needed to win by a greater margin on the second. A fall in the first run brought an automatic 1.5 second penalty to overcome in the rematch, a near impossible feat that earned its own reward — an Omega watch. The prevailing competitor advanced to the next round and the loser called it a day.
Short sprint-type courses arranged at the bottom of ski areas encouraged spectators to watch, while simplifying the setup for ski area hosts and television crews. It also allowed the tour to access more venues. No longer stuck in Colorado hamlets or the Alps, World Pro Skiing traveled to the likes of Boston, Calgary, Minneapolis and even Raleigh, North Carolina.
Racing the pro format on the WPS Tour required more than just great skiing. To win required grit and endurance combined with strategy and tactics. Psychology became much more important, as your competitor raced adjacent to you. The intense mental fortitude, extreme athleticism and in-depth knowledge of the sport separated victors from the rest.
Bob Beattie knew the vital key to racing success: An event needs to engage its spectators. The restructured timing and racing format provided just that. The excitement of watching two athletes vie for the win; the amazement in seeing incredible skiers fly off jumps, maintain speed through the courses, and emerge victorious; and the wonder of it all happening at your home hill endeared the nation to a lesser known and under-appreciated sport.
Despite incredible success from skiers like Mikaela Shiffrin and Bode Miller, ski racing in the U.S. does not have the same national attention as it did in the 70s. The World Cup refuses to learn from the success of the Pro Tour. Meanwhile, freestyle events incorporate similar fan-friendly ideas that Beattie first brought to the forefront of skiing, and they see their sport grow in popularity.
Today, Beattie and the World Pro Skiing Foundation continue to believe that head-to-head racing is the means to securing and expanding fan following for skiing.