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Speed + air + elbows

Tim Willoughby
Aspen Times Weekly
Rick Lindner/Courtesy Aspen Historical SocietyBig jumps and a dual format made Bob Beattie's pro-racing circuit as exciting as today's Olympic skiercross. Here racers Harold Steufar, left, and Henri Duvillard compete at Aspen Highlands.
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Skiercross, the new Olympic sport, reflects racing events of 40 years ago. Its popularity as a spectator sport easily surpasses that of alpine racing, in which highly technical nuances separate competitors by hundredths of a second. Aspen Highlands’ Bash for Cash and Bob Beattie’s pro-racing circuit foretold today’s X Games and Olympic skiercross.

Lisa Dillman of the Los Angeles Times quoted Jamaican ski cross team member Errol Kerr, “You’re putting four guys at a time, that gives you 8 poles, 12 edges and guys are racing down a course with huge jumps up to 100 feet through the air and guys are going 60 miles per hour and the first guy to the bottom wins.” Although women’s skiercross offers smaller jumps, it still fits racer Daron Rahlves’ description in the same article as, “a New York cabbie racing through traffic, trying not to crash.”

International ski races draw huge crowds in Europe, where ski racers are national stars; Aspen’s Roch Cup brings out only gatekeepers, the European press and a small cadre of locals at the finish line. Alpine skiing of the 1970s generated American television coverage only during the Olympics. But when Beattie created his professional ski racing circuit, he packed it with American attractions: high jumps and head-to-head competition.

The speed of a downhill race can be exhilarating to watch, but as a spectator you usually see only part of the course. Experienced fans stand at the tightest turns or the biggest jumps, but after 20 racers have gone by it is difficult to judge which ones are the fastest. If you are not at the finish line, then you have no idea who won. Beattie designed his courses so that spectators viewed the whole race, top to bottom, no matter where they stood.

Pitting racers in a dual format, even though they were still racing against the clock, meant an audience could easily tell who was ahead. Through dual elimination, best of two runs, top racers built favor with fans. Racing without helmets made racers more easily identifiable and personality differences became evident.

Beattie believed “the bigger the bumps, the bigger the show.” His three jumps ranged in height from four to 10 feet, kicking racers back into awkward landing positions, beating up their knees. The jumps provided billboard space that television cameras panned on each run. Professional racer Tim Thompson remembers, “We weren’t into the aerial stuff – we were technical racers, but Beattie needed collisions, danger and hot dogging to attract American television viewers.”

Aspen Highlands hosted a different kind of race that presaged another element of ski cross, the elbowing and physical tussling of multiple racers trying to occupy the same space. In the Bash for Cash, 10 racers simultaneously skied a course of wide gates, no rules, and the first-to-the-bottom won. Staging on Upper Stein, about the steepest run on the mountain at the time, produced a fast and furious Bash.

Racers did not qualify for the Bash; it was not a competition for skilled and seasoned competitors. An abundance of testosterone and a shortage of common sense would do. Each group left the starting gate dreaming of prize money. At each turn bodies lined the course, many sliding down the steep run on their backs. Multiple injuries, including one broken back, discontinued the madness before it could build a following.

Nearly 40 years later, promoters of winter sports competitions apply the ancient formula for drawing crowds: Speed + air + elbows.


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