The history behind the Birds of Prey racecourse at Beaver Creek — a course of dreams
In 1999, the Birds of Prey course made its debut in front of 20,000 fans, including Arnold Schwarzenegger
Special to the Daily
“When I first saw Birds of Prey, I told others I don’t want to change the mountain. But I want to listen to the mountain and see what it tells me. I could see this was a well-balanced mountain with all the features you need to ski it.” — Berhnard Russi, Birds of Prey course designer
Not long after the successful 1989 World Championships came to a close in Vail, local organizers started thinking, “Hey, that was fun. Let’s do it again.” The event put Vail and Beaver Creek on the world stage — not in the least due to 30-plus inches of snow that fell prior to the men’s downhill, causing a one-day delay. Course workers started digging, European TV reporters stood waist-deep to send dispatches across the ocean, reservation phone lines were ringing, and no doubt a lot of people had a good powder day.
Two or three years later, the group of visionaries that brought the event to the Vail Valley 30 years ago were unanimous in one major change that needed to occur if the world was to come back: a new men’s downhill course.
The same course feature that created intrigue in the 1989 version on Beaver Creek’s Centennial run — Rattlesnake Alley, a luge-like chicane dug into the earth and shaped with snow and water — was also a major challenge when that big snowfall came. It filled up fast and had to be dug out by hand — lots of hands wielding shovels.
More importantly, the tide was changing in favor of tougher, more challenging courses that played into the hands of the nations that compete regularly on the World Cup, as opposed to a tamer version that could accommodate the countries that only field a team for major events.
“The desire was to the best of our ability put together a kick-ass downhill,” said John Dakin, former vice president of communications for the Vail Valley Foundation, and part of the discussions in the early 1990s.
The bid was secured in 1994 with the prospect of creating a new course incorporating the East Vail Chutes, according to John Garnsey, then president of the Vail Valley Foundation. But establishing a course in Beaver Creek became a priority, and Jim Roberts and Greg Johnson, both longtime officials of the race organization and what later became Vail Resorts, explored the possibilities and presented what is now Birds of Prey at Beaver Creek.
‘All the features you need’
Course designer Berhnard Russi, who earned Olympic gold and silver, World Championship gold and nine World Cup downhill wins for Switzerland in the 1970s, put the visions of local organizers into reality and connected the dots to Beaver Creek’s existing runs.
“When I first saw Birds of Prey,” Russi said to The New York Times in 1999, “I told others, I don’t want to change the mountain. But I want to listen to the mountain and see what it tells me. I could see this was a well-balanced mountain with all the features you need to ski it.”
In one summer, 1997, the Birds of Prey course was constructed, which largely involved difficult work at the top of the mountain to create a start area and the initial gliding section that leads into the steep terrain where the Brink, Talon and Pete’s Arena are located.
“The top 30 seconds are dead flat and you’re just in a full tuck,” said Bode Miller as part of “The Thin Line,” a 2010 film by Jalbert Productions. “And then it goes into some of the steepest stuff we have on the World Cup, at least for an extended period of time.”
Russi said it takes a special mindset to ski his course.
“What the challenging thing on Birds of Prey is you need a different attitude to ski,” he said. “Out of the starting gate you have to be very light and very smooth. And once you come over the Brink, and it changes from heaven to hell. From one moment to the other you have to change your technique completely.
“Once you are over the Brink, those turns come at you so fast. And once the tight turns are over, by the pumphouse, you know it’s getting faster and faster. You have no time to think about what’s coming up.”
What’s coming up is a lot of air time plus a potential deceleration — the Peregrine, Goshawk, Screech Owl and Golden Eagle jumps, followed by a compression known as the Abyss, where the terrain flattens out and can take away a lot of the speed a racer has gained to that point.
“He’s (Russi) built some killer courses. I really like how he’s worked in the natural terrain,” said Daron Rahlves, twice a winner on the Birds of Prey downhill.
The final Red Tail jump is capable of launching a racer “60 to 70 meters,” Miller said. “That’s almost the length of a football field. And it’s where a racer has to just let it go to carry his speed across the line.”
“The Beaver Creek downhill has everything,” said Kjetil Andre Aamodt, winner of the 1999 combined, and a bronze medalist in the downhill that year — two of 20 medals he captured in Olympic or World Championship events. “It’s a modern downhill. It has gliding sections. It has a lot of action — steep parts, turns, jumps — which I think all the racers love.”
The Birds of Prey course underwent its first and only test, prior to the massive 1999 World Championships, during a test event in December 1997, and quickly drew rave reviews. While Italy’s Kristian Ghedina was the winner of the inaugural downhill, the always dominant Austrians soon took charge.
Hermann Maier ultimately won six of 10 World Cup races he started between 1997 and 2003.
“It’s our big home race. It’s the only race we (men) get to have in the United States. It’s very important for us. It’s nice to be able to go to a race here where your friends and family can show up. Beaver Creek is obviously awesome for all events.” — Ted Ligety, American ski racer
‘We didn’t know’
While the combination of the Vail Valley Foundation, Vail Resorts and the local community has earned high praise for its continued success at organizing and executing ski races dating back to the 1960s, there was a natural trepidation if all the moving parts would work as they should in December 1997 at a new venue.
“We had a lot of anxiety about this venue,” said John Garnsey, president of the Vail Valley Foundation at the time, to the Denver Post. “We didn’t know what it would do. We didn’t know if we could get the people here. We didn’t know how the stadium would work. We didn’t know how the course would be perceived.
“The course is getting an A-plus rating. The stadium is getting an A-plus rating. The transportation is working. Therefore, it’s a big relief for us as organizers. Now we can start working on fine tuning and detail.”
Said Russi in 1999, where Maier won the downhill in front of an estimated 20,000 fans — including Arnold Schwarzenegger — and tied Norway’s Lasse Kjus for the super-G gold, “I can imagine that five years ago this course would be too steep, too ‘turny.’ It would not have been acceptable,” he told the Denver Post. But times had changed, and Russi had created a masterpiece. “It is just the right course at just the right time.”
Compared to his days two decades earlier, Russi said: “The racers are 10 times better, and I think you have to give them a chance to show it. If they’re just going straight, no one knows how good they are.”
Birds of Prey was quickly recognized as one of the top courses on the World Cup circuit — right up there with Kitzbühel, Bormio, Val Gardena and Wengen. It became a place where Americans would shine — 11 wins between 2003 and 2014 — which no doubt helped draw the crowds that have flocked every year. It has all of the elements the planners envisioned when preparing for the 1999 championships and beyond.
The wildly successful 2015 World Championships drew just under 221,000 spectators and millions more on TV to watch American stars Ted Ligety, Mikaela Shiffrin, Lindsey Vonn, Bode Miller, Steven Nyman and Travis Ganong mix it up with their European rivals.
“It’s our big home race. It’s the only race we (men) get to have in the United States,” said Ligety in 2008. “It’s very important for us. It’s nice to be able to go to a race here where your friends and family can show up. Beaver Creek is obviously awesome for all events.”