SNOWMASS VILLAGE - The NASTAR National Championships are returning to the Spider Sabich Race Arena this week, 15 years after they first took place on the same course.
The National Standard Race began in 1968, according to its website.Then, just 100 participants could qualify for the recreational skiing organization's championship, said Bill Madsen, director of NASTAR operations.
In 1998, NASTAR allowed more people to qualify for the top competition, held on the Spider Sabich race course on Snowmass ski area. This year, more than 1,000 racers have registered for the event that will be here next year as well.
Madsen, a Snowmass Village resident, said he's wanted to bring the championships back here for some time, especially since parts of Base Village were completed.
"We've been to a lot of resorts over the years," he said. "I've really been eager to bring it here."
Aspen Skiing Co. was building the race courses this week leading up to the racers' arrival on March 20. The Snowmass Ski School is helping to offer race clinics for competitors and their friends and families, said John Rigney, Skico vice president of sales and events.
"We're trying to treat everyone that comes as part of it," he said.
There's also a lot of entertainment programming surrounding the event. Bud Light Spring Jam begins March 21, which will include a free concert by Brett Dennen in Base Village.
"We are going to rock the Base Village," Madsen said. "There's music going on every day."
There will also be a showing of "Flow State," a recent film by Warren Miller, an awards ceremony, music by Jes Grew, and lunch at the Spider Sabich Picnic Palace on Friday, March 22.
"We have a full schedule on the mountain and off," Madsen said.
A special treat for racers is the chance to bump elbows with some of the best in winter sports. Olympic champion Julia Mancuso, three-time World Cup grand slalom champion Ted Ligety, and World Cup racers Nolan Kasper and Stacey Cook will be pacesetting for the event.
"We've got this great stable of racers who are really passionate about promoting the sport," Madsen said.
NASTAR is an organization that cultivates young athletes.
"If you ask anyone on the U.S. Ski Team, almost every single one of them will say 'I got my start in NASTAR,'" Madsen said.
The current crop of competitors ranges from 3 years old to 90.
"Some of the older folks that come out are just so inspirational," Madsen said. "(And) it's really fun to see those little guys."
Hosting the championships in the valley has motivated many local athletes to participate. Twenty-eight racers connected with the Snowmass ski area are registered, and many more from the Aspen Mountain and Aspen Highlands teams.
Cory Ferguson, of Snowmass Village, is an alpine skier competing in the men's 65 to 69 platinum division.
"I'm looking forward to it," he said. "It's nice to have it in our own backyard."
Ferguson has been racing in NASTAR for the past four years, although he also worked with the group that ran NASTAR in the Village in the 1970s. This will be his third national finals, and he said since it was announced this season that the finals would be in Snowmass he got "more serious about it earlier in the year."
Ferguson, a broker at Aspen Snowmass Sotheby's International Realty, is currently ranked 16th out of 65 in the nation for his division.
Ferguson said he knows entire families who compete in these events and schedule their spring-break vacations around the finals every year, wherever they're held.
"I think anything that brings large group here is good exposure for the resort," Ferguson said. "I would hope and I would expect that the people would have a lot of fun here and then return for a vacation."
Although most of the competitors are alpine skiers, there are also events for telemarking and snowboarding.
Mark Hogan, a Snowmass Village resident who has competed in the United States of America Snowboard Association, decided to compete in NASTAR this year because it was coming to Snowmass.
"It's something fun to do, something different," Hogan said. "You might see me on skis next year."
Watching the races and most events in Base Village are open to the public. The race course is also open to the public before competition begins on March 22. For a full schedule, pick up a copy of In Snowmass or go to www.nastar.com and click on "nationals."