Vail Valley ski racing: A legacy lives on
Special to the Daily
Editor’s note: This story first appeared in 2015 magazine. Vail and Beaver Creek is hosting the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships Feb. 2-15.
In 1957, former ski racer and 10th Mountain Division soldier Pete Seibert was hiking with his friend Earl Eaton when the two fell upon the breathtaking expanse of land we now know as the sprawling Back Bowls. They immediately began envisioning the terrain as a large, world-class ski resort. The vision became a reality in the winter of 1962 when Vail opened for business. It didn’t take long for the pair and Vail’s other pioneers to realize that where there is world-class skiing, there should be world-class racing.
The problem was that in order to officially host international races, the ski area had to have a ski club. Ski Club Vail was born with Byron Brown as the first president. Brown and his wife, Vi, had moved to the valley in 1964 with the hope of an adventurous new life in a brand new community that they themselves could help shape. Byron had patrolled, instructed and helped run ski races at nearby Arapahoe Basin and was thrilled about having a hand in establishing a competition scene in Vail. The ski area began hosting a regular race series and by the mid-60s, the world’s best racers were turning out for it. Every local in town — all of about 150 at the time — either had something to do with the races or would enthusiastically come out to watch. One of these was Byron’s son, young Mike Brown, who was born the same year as the ski area — 1962 — and has had the unique experience of growing up with Vail. One of Mike’s earliest memories is accompanying his father to the start of one of those first elite international races at the top of Chair 2.
“The most impressive thing was to see Jean-Claude Killy and the world’s best racers. My biggest recollection was watching the guys in the start. It was a stormy day. They’d push out and disappear into the fog. As a kid, that was like a dog watching a fish jump out of water,” said Mike, who went on to become Vail’s first athlete to join the U.S. Ski Team and then served as head coach of the U.S. Disabled Ski Team during the team’s most successful stint in history and also led the hundreds of volunteers for the World Cup races at Beaver Creek. This spring, he was chosen for induction into the Colorado Ski Hall of Fame.
“Back then, ski racing was considered the pinnacle of skiing,” Mike said. “Freestyle was still a couple of years off — that didn’t get going until the ‘70s. There weren’t other disciplines that were vying for market share, so to speak. It was celebrated in a much more robust fashion. That’s what’s so wonderful about racing in Vail. From the very beginning, they always wanted to do it the best. There was always the attitude that if we’re going to put on a race, we’re going to put on the best race.”
After enough of the best races, more and more people in the ski industry were turning their eyes upon Vail. It helped that by the 1970s, the two-lane road to Vail was replaced by Interstate 70, so instead of the four-hour trip from Denver on a good summer day, the drive time was two hours or less. Skiers and racers from across the globe could access the resort much more easily.
“The more races we got, the more interest we got,” Byron Brown said, recalling that other U.S. resorts were turning down international races. “I got everyone in Vail on board with, ‘Let’s do a World Cup race.’ We got everyone’s approval.”
Thus Vail began hosting World Cups and by the 1980s, it was a regular stop on the tour. The Browns and several others began setting sights on bring in the World Ski Championships, a time-consuming task that involves bidding with the International Ski Federation (FIS) against other resorts across the globe.
“Byron and I were on the committee to get the first one,” Vi Brown recalls. “We went to the World Ski Congress in Australia to bid for it and didn’t get it. Then we went to Vancouver and got it. That turned out to be a really fun thing. Mike raced in it. Cindy (Mike’s sister) was the Vail ambassador. I registered the skiers. Byron was a starter.”
‘WE ARE SKI RACING’
The 1989 World Ski Championships were not only fun, but they put Vail and Beaver Creek on the international map. Televised across the globe, promptly after the event, the resorts’ international visitors leapt from 2 percent to 13 percent, according to business mogul and former Vail owner George Gillett.
“That’s a growth that can only be attributed to television and the World Championships,” Gillett said. “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.”
It didn’t hurt that it was absolutely dumping snow during the broadcast. The 1989 Championships played a large role in establishing Vail and Beaver Creek as the premier resorts in the country. The reputation only grew as the valley became a regular host to the men’s World Cup and brought in another ski championships in 1999, in spite of the transformation that took place within the company, going from Vail Associates to Vail Resorts.
“I think ’89 did more for us as a community than put us on the map internationally as a top ski destination. It gave us more confidence in our identity,” said former racer Cindy Nelson, who was chief of course for the women’s races in 1989 and on the bid committee along with local host/organizer the Vail Valley Foundation for the ’99 World Championships. “In ’99 after going through difficult years (of resort staff transition) we showed we were the best again. We were competing against well-known ski destinations all over the world and again Vail prevailed. To be able to come out of the changes in the internal core and once again be at the top of the world in ’99 was a huge achievement. We continued to say, ‘This is Vail. We do it the best every time we put on an event.’”
Since 1999, World Cup racers from every country constantly peg Beaver Creek as their favorite place to race, not only because of the enthralling, perfectly built and maintained Birds of Prey courses, but because of the friendliness and enthusiasm of everyone they encounter. It is this combination of sheer quality and genuine passion that accounts for Vail and Beaver Creek winning its third world ski championships.
“Vail and the valley has this DNA in the community that we are ski racing,” said Vail Valley Foundation president Ceil Folz.“Going back to the ’60s 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. 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.”