Willoughby: Ski races of 1940 foretold Aspen’s future with the sport
Legends & Legacies
War in Europe captured national attention during February 1940. Congress debated an embargo against Japan, which had invaded China. Russia had invaded Finland. Amidst this turmoil, the GOP held its annual conference and established its party platform. They would cut spending by 20%, stay out of the war, and readopt the gold standard — bad news for Aspen.
The Depression continued. During this time before Social Security, Aspen had 114 recipients on its welfare roll. The Department of Public Welfare published their names regularly. In addition to names, the list included amounts, which ranged from $360 to $625 monthly, in today’s dollars. The stigma of being on welfare motivated residents to do whatever they could to avoid that publicity.
A more positive focus of attention, ski racing boosted excitement during February 1940. During this third year that Aspen hosted races, the city grew its reputation as “the place to ski” in the Rockies. Also, Aspen staged the second annual Elks Ski Meet, hosting seven western slope ski clubs such as Gunnison, Grand Junction and Glenwood. More than three dozen racers — all male — signed up. They sponsored no races for women.
Most skiers had little experience, so racers were not divided into junior and senior categories. Many had grown up using homemade skis, and had dabbled in ski touring. To ski a steep race course like Roch Run, the site of the downhill race, called for new skills.
The Aspen Ski Club dominated the results, with Bud Daves placing first, Lowell Elisha second, Frank Willoughby third and Leo Tekoucich fifth. Elisha, around 16 years old at the time, raced at half the age of the adults, most in their late 20s or early 30s.
The introduction of ski jumping highlighted the event. Ski races during those years often featured three-way events: downhill, slalom and jumping. Aspen had acquired Works Progress Administration funding to build a 55-meter ski jump. Organizers billed the jump’s initiation as an exhibition, rather than a contest. Lester Wren of Glenwood dazzled the crowd with 158- and 161-foot jumps.
The Elks Ski Meet attracted many spectators, an encouraging sign that skiing may boost the economy. Facing limited lodging, the Ski Club arranged for locals to host racers.
The Elks Meet functioned as a dry run for the big event of the season, the Southern Rocky Mountain Ski Association championship races of early March. Those races attracted double the number of men racers and ski clubs, and included women’s races. The club sold more than 1,500 tickets to viewers. At the event, they counted over 300 autos.
Intense competition drew participants and spectators from as far away as Sun Valley. A more complicated organization recognized different categories of racers. Those who worked as a ski instructor could not race as amateurs. Although divided by racing class, all racers ran the same course at the same time. Times in each category sorted out the winners.
Escaping the war, two instructors from Switzerland achieved some of the best results. Martin Fopp took top. A minute and a half faster than Bob Perry, Aspen’s best placing racer, Fopp’s 3:29.2 time marked a full minute less than the previous record for Roch Run.
Barney McLean, who dominated Colorado racing for a number of years, won the combined amateur honors. Aspen racers Bob Perry and D.R.C. Brown finished in the top 10. Aspen racers did well in the downhill, but not as well in slalom. In downhill, Perry came in sixth, Bud Davey eighth, Frank Willoughby ninth and D.R.C. Brown 11th.
Louise White, who dominated American skiing during those years, won the women’s combined. Two Aspen Ski Club women placed in the top five, Ellie Bryant third and Ruth Brown fourth. Later, Brown put up the money for Ruthie’s Run, named for her.
The first jumping competition attracted a large and enthusiastic crowd. Everett Hudspeth won with a jump of 167 feet. Wren placed second, McLean third.
Topping it all off, the Ski Club held the Grand Ski Ball on Saturday night. Aspen won honors for staging the sizable event, and providing the best race courses and ski jump. These successful trial runs led the following year to Aspen’s hosting the National Ski Championships.
Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at email@example.com.
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State department of transportation crews are well on their way to clearing Highway 82 to Independence Pass, which should open on schedule May 27 at noon.