The Roots of Racing series: The power of celebrity | VailDaily.com

The Roots of Racing series: The power of celebrity

Michael Sinnott
Colorado Ski & Snowboard Museum
Andre Arnold, four-time World Pro Ski champ, races against rival and countryman Hans Hinterseer.
Colorado Ski and Snowboard Museum | Special to the Weekly |

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, the men’s professional ski racing tour (1969-1981), he was passionate about making ski racing a major spectator sport. From his history running the U.S. Ski Team, and as a commentator for ABC Sports, Beattie knew that the route to a broader fan following for skiing required television. To procure more TV coverage, Beattie elevated the entertainment quotient via the “Pro Format” of head-to-head racing, and later added Hollywood celebrities to bring pizzazz and attention to World Pro Skiing.

By the mid 1970s, The World Pro Ski Tour was going strong. It had sponsors, national television exposure and an international field of superstars. When the tour stopped at Bear Valley, California, Beattie brought along celebrities to compete in fun Pro-Am races as a prelude to the prize money competition.

The concept was simple: Bring in big name celebrities to race with the pros in a made-for-television event. Crowds would show up, and tune in, to watch their favorite Hollywood actress or football star acting on a foreign stage with unpredictable antics and outcomes. The celebrities were teamed up with pros, who enjoyed the new-found publicity and fans. Immediately following the Pro-Am was the pro race for cash. Of course, the promise of A-list musicians and actors, combined with the media coverage facilitated the securing of sponsors to help fund greater prize money.

The most successful of all celebrity ski events was Beattie’s collaboration with fellow Aspenite John Denver. Working with Denver’s organization, in further partnership with Harrah’s Hotel and Casino at South Lake Tahoe, the John Denver Celebrity Pro-Am tournaments were organized by Beattie’s World Wide Ski Corporation for 10 years, part of an NBC Sports special that blended entertainment with ski competition, promoting the sport and its personalities in ways that would expand fan following.

Star-studded events

The John Denver Celebrity Ski Classics became the premier event at Lake Tahoe each winter. Harrah’s would fly in their high rollers to mingle with the racers and celebrities. John Denver would entertain in the hotel theater the week of the races, capped off with a private show for those involved in the event.

A party at Bill Harrah’s Lake Tahoe Villa was always a highlight event, inevitably ending with a sing-along around the piano with the likes of Stephen Stills or Mickey Gilley at the keyboard, singing along with Toni Tenille, Christopher Cross and Steve Miller. Of course, John Denver and Barbara Mandrell would join in a chorus or more. It was a festive ski event like no other.

At the race site, there were party tents full of prime rib, oysters and endless desserts. It was a gala of grand proportions, and ski racing was the belle of the ball. Of course, this type of public party obviously needed to be more than just fun; it also helped raise money for charity through auctions and sponsorships.

After the celebrities had their turn skiing, the pros immediately took to the course for World Pro Skiing action. There were legions of fans, palpable excitement and prize money on the line. Now was the time for the pros to shine.

From their televisions, America watched these rugged athletes laugh side-by-side with Hollywood elite, and then impress out on the slopes. The transitive power of celebrity proved true, and America had a few new darlings. WPS grew with the exposure, as Americans tuned in throughout the winter to continue following their new ski racing super heroes. Sponsors were excited, racers were earning money and fan numbers were growing. Beattie had struck gold once again.

Beattie’s dream grew each year and continued growing after the WPS had run its course. Such was the popularity of the John Denver Ski Classic that it ran for a full six years after Beattie folded up his pro tour. By then, many of his old racers were household names, acting as both celebrity and professional hosts for the Classic. Among those celebrities who regularly attended from 1978 to 1988 were an A-list of musicians, actors and athletes including Tanya Tucker, Steve Miller, Stephen Stills, Barbara Mandrell, Sonny Bono, Christopher Cross, Cliff Robertson, Gregory Peck, Clint Eastwood, Timothy Hutton, George Hamilton, Kristy McNichol, Susan St. John, Morgan Fairchild, Tony Curtis, Sugar Ray Leonard, Lynn Swann, Dwight Clark, Craig Morton, Cheryl Teigs, Jay Leno, Steve Martin, Bruce Jenner, Ed Podolak and Jerry Weintraub.