World Cup Finals will punctuate Aspen’s 80-year love affair with ski racing
When Aspen hosts the World Cup Finals March 15 through 19, it will be the latest fling in a love affair with ski racing that began 80 years ago.
Aspen Mountain’s history with ski races predates its history with chairlifts, said Lisa Hancock, curator for the Aspen Historical Society, in a public presentation at the Pitkin County Library on Thursday night designed to get people pumped for the finals.
“Up to Speed: A Primer on Aspen’s Ski Racing History” showed how skiing and racing have been so intertwined in Aspen.
“Why is (ski racing) so important to our town? Why do we have all these people volunteering and getting involved and loving ski racing?” Hancock asked.
“We had to think about it a little bit and this is what we can up with: It’s obviously an economic foundation of the town and promotion for our ski resort,” Hancock continued. “But it’s also a source of pride because we know we have great ski runs here, that we have great conditions, great mountains and a great town. So it’s a way for us to all be proud of that and involved in that with the volunteerism.”
First race in 1937
The Aspen Ski Club wasn’t even 2 months old when it hosted its first race on Aspen Mountain. It was a coming out party.
Just four years later in March 1941, the mountain hosted the U.S. National Championships.
After World War II, Aspen’s development as a ski resort started with a vengeance. Friedl Pfeifer started the Aspen Mountain Ski School on Dec. 18, 1945. Lift One, the longest in the country, was built in summer 1946 and opened the following January. The original Sundeck also was built that same summer.
But before the lift and mountaintop restaurant were even completed, Aspen was back in the race business to help promote its big plans, Hancock said.
The first Roch Cup, named for Andre Roch, who carved the first trails on Aspen Mountain, was awarded during the races in March 1946.
“Why would they have that race? Because they were excited about what they had and they wanted to show it off,” Hancock said.
Landing the big fish
A few years later, Dick Durrance made a bold move as president of the Aspen Skiing Corp. to bid for the 1950 World Championships, which had never been held outside of Europe.
“He told me in the ’90s that he never expected to get it,” Hancock said. “He thought the bid would be enough to promote, so when they actually did get it he was kind of shocked — and excited.”
Aspen rallied to showcase itself to the world’s best skiers.
“This was an event that really did put Aspen on the international map as a major ski resort,” Hancock said.
After exploding onto the world stage, Aspen continued to build on its reputation. The Roch Cup races also served as the national championships in 1954 and 1957.
World Cup era
Aspen hosted its first race in the new World Cup circuit in 1968 and saw Colorado star Billy Kidd win the slalom. The World Cup was started the prior winter by Bob Beattie, Serge Lange and Honore Bonnet.
America’s Downhill made a splash when the World Cup returned in 1976. Olympic gold medal winner Franz Klammer claimed Aspen’s top prize.
By 1981, World Cup races were held with more frequency and Aspen basked in numerous jaw-dropping spectacles. Phil and Steve Mahre, who helped reignite national interest in the sport, finished first and third, respectively, in the 1981 giant slalom.
Brash Billy Johnson finished first on America’s Downhill in 1984 after shocking the world and grabbing Olympic gold.
In 1989, Swedish racer Ingemar Stenmark nabbed the last of his 86 World Cup wins.
No recounting of ski racing would be complete without discussing the controversies of victories being snatched from American skier A.J. Kitt in the downhill races of 1993 and 1995, Hancock said.
Kitt was leading the 1993 race when a hole developed on the course. A coach for the German team kicked the hole to make it bigger because he wanted the race canceled and an overall lead preserved late in the season for one of his racers, Hancock said. The race was called after 15 racers.
In 1995, Kitt again lead when deteriorating weather forced cancellation of the race after 31 competitors. It was initially counted as an official race. The French team protested and the results were nullified.
“It happens again. People in town were really upset,” Hancock said.
Aspen Skiing Co. still awarded the Roch Cup to Kitt and the prize money to the podium finishers. The event left a bad taste in the mouth of Aspen and a rift developed with the International Ski Federation, the governing body of the World Cup.
A men’s super-G was held in 1998, but starting in 2002, the women’s tour started coming with regularity.
The long history, highlighted by the 1950 FIS World Championships, will be punctuated by the World Cup Finals.
Jim Hancock, Lisa’s husband, is chief of race for the event and a longtime race official. He said Aspen will rely on 700 volunteers to pull off the event. The ranks include race junkies from outside the Roaring Fork Valley.
“It’s a pretty crazy number,” he said.
Aspen is demonstrating that the community pride is still alive over its racing legacy, Lisa Hancock said. The exposure isn’t bad, either. Skico estimated that the races will draw a worldwide television audience of 140 million people.
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