Warren Miller: Ski racing goes old-school with skiercross
Vail, CO, Colorado
VAIL ” On Feb. 23, 1934, the starting gun went off and 57 men on skis shoved out of the starting gate at the same time. The finish line was 3,000 feet below, two miles away, and none of the race course had been packed.
There was only a start and finish line with no gates in between. Before everyone got to the finish line, 11 skis were broken, four racers had broken legs, two others broke an arm, but only one back was broken.
Over the years downhill racing would change so that the course is now packed and control gates added that the racers have to go through. Gradually the finishing times would get closer and closer together as the racers’ skills improved.
Today, tens of thousands of dollars are spent and many weeks are taken to pack the course smooth and fast. The time of the 10-place finisher is sometimes less than one second behind the winner.
The race courses are full of long jumps and scary-looking high-speed turns and from a television camera point of view, all of the racers look identical. They are racing by at speeds that are sometimes over 80 miles an hour. wearing what looks like dark, silk, long underwear covered with dozens of each racer’s sponsors’ advertisements.
To make the races look more exciting for television, someone has come up with the idea of making a race course that four racers could try and negotiate at the same time. It’s full of banked turns and big jumps, and within the last few years it has already become an Olympic event.
The skiercross discipline is exciting to watch as they cut corners and occasionally pass each other. In nine out of 10 races, the person who is the first around the first gate is the eventual winner. It is wild to watch them skiing or snowboarding at high speed, making turns on an icy course just inches away from each other.
If the press accounts are any indication of the appeal of the sport, here is a recent report from the Aspen Times:
“Most of the bad wrecks came in the quarter and semifinals. In one women’s semifinal, all three leaders lost control on the jump, including two-time champion Karin Huttary, who came down with a thud on her right side. Medical personnel attended her for about 10 minutes before strapping her to a sled, and then took her to the hospital for hip and knee injuries.
The men had it just as bad with three racers crashing on the same jump in one quarterfinal, including Lar Lewen, who had to be helped off the mountain to a hospital, where he was evaluated for head trauma. Juha Haukkala crashed on the same jump in the next quarter final and was also taken to the hospital for a head injury.”
Oddly enough, the men liked the course because it had a jump with a 50-foot gap, and the landing area 24 feet higher than the take off.
In the middle of all of the carnage, Daron Rhalves, who has won 12 World Cup races, won this race by almost half of a ski length.
Next winter there is talk of having a giant ring of fire part way down the course, which will present a new challenge. The heat of the fire will radically change the snow conditions and introduce new challenges in technical layer waxing, as well as how to keep goggles from fogging up, as the racers try to fly through the ring of fire.
I think about this as I gently glide through the air on a quad chairlift at the same height that these racers fly through the air on their way to fame and glory, or maybe even a few days in a hospital bed.
I also wonder if the $2 billion Olympic Games in Vancouver will use regular gasoline or high-tech aviation gasoline during the skiercross races in 2010. Which type of gasoline would you cast your vote for as the Olympic committee tries to make the ski races more spectator friendly?
They are already approaching the carnage that occurred in ski racing 1934 and they have high speed television cameras to record every gory detail of every wreck in ultra-slow-motion.
Are you raising your kid to be a ski racer?
Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications.