On Skiing: Pro ski racing tour returning returning in March

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In 1975, Jeff Lathrop, a former ski racer and coach, and Mike Collins wanted to start a New England pro ski racing tour. Along with Ed Rogers, then owner of the Red Stallion, Sugarloaf’s favorite watering hole, they came up with their “B” tour.

Bob Beattie, a former US Ski Team Coach and ABC ski commentator, had his pro tour, which got all the attention. The idea was not to compete with the big tour, but to offer an opportunity for top skiers and racers at New England’s ski mountains a chance to compete and make a little money. The tour also would provide some entertainment at the ski areas.

The new tour used the same format as Beattie’s tour. Instead of a single racer negotiating a course alone, with most of the run invisible to any spectators, these skiers raced side-by-side and mostly in full view from the finish and often from base lodges and decks. To add to the excitement, two or three jumps dropping 4-5 feet were added.

Where traditional races were typically two runs each for slalom and giant slalom, the pros competed in an elimination event similar to tennis or matchplay in golf, except that it all happened in single day. Qualifying was done against the clock with the low 32 racing on the weekend, slalom one day and giant slalom the next.

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I remember one pro race at Cranmore when I wound up riding the chair with Josef Odermatt, the tour leader at the time. When I asked about the big difference between pro racing and what was called amateur at the time he responded, “I have to do this 10 times today.”

This brought home the point that the winner would have to survive the rounds of 32, 16, 8 and 4 to reach the final. Of course, those who went out in the early rounds didn’t put in such a long day, but they didn’t take home much money. either. While the runs are shorter than those on the World Cup, 10 runs is a long day. and don’t forget that would be standing up going off jumps as many as 30 times. Winning required focus to maintain technique, strength and stamina.

Ed Rogers told me that first year the budget was $8,700 with a $5000 purse for each race, which drew an average of 120 racers. The winner got $300. Growth came quickly. Peugeot came aboard as a sponsor and provided a pair of cars, one for use and display on the tour and the other for season’s winner.

When the racers on Beattie’s tour went on strike, the well-known TV announcer simply said, “I don’t need this”, and disbanded his tour. That left Ed Rogers as president of the only pro tour, and his North American Pro Tour became the World Pro Ski Tour. By 1991-1992, with Chrysler as a sponsor, purses were up a million annually, and a year later $2 million.

Over 20 years, Ed Rogers and Mike Collins had built a pro tour that held races from Japan to Austria, was shown on TV in 55 countries and had 400 TV shows distributed Worldwide. In 1991, Bernard Knauss won $350,000 and in 1992 $400,000.

One of the stops was in Schladming, Austria, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s home town. The racing was so popular that Ed Rogers became the second American given membership in the Schladminger Club. The other? Arnold himself.

After 20 years, Rogers decided it was time to focus on his restaurant, J. R. Maxwell’s in Bath, and the tour was sold. Unfortunately, the group that bought the tour didn’t focus on it and it soon folded.

Since that time, Rogers, who grew up in Patten, Maine, thought about bringing it back. He was waiting for the right time and a promising economy, which would loosen up sponsor money. That time has come and the new World Pro Ski Tour will hold their first event at Sunday River, March 10-12.

The event will take place on Monday Mourning, a perfect location. The trail is wide enough for plenty of skiers to watch alongside the course, and the entire length of the course will be visible from the Barker Base Lodge with the best view from the deck facing the mountain.

I talked with Kevin Clarke of Fryeburg, who will be announcing the races, and he shared his excitement about the return of the tour.

“This is a place for skiers who want to race but can’t quite make the U.S. Ski Team. Or other countries, like Bernard Knauss, who was sick early in his career and couldn’t get back on the Austrian Team. He joined our tour and made a million dollars.”

The Attitash race coach likened the pure excitement of the head-to-head racing to a drag race, “The first guy across the finish line wins.”

This is what makes pro racing a great event for spectators on-hand and TV. Each racer takes a run on both courses, and the total difference in time determines the winner. It’s simple and easy to understand for non-racers and even non-skiers. If a racer wins the first run by a full second, then the other has to make up that difference on the second run and the scoreboard shows it live.

Clarke, who was an announcer on the original tour, said, “Bringing this tour back is a dream I have had since the other tour folded.”

This is something expressed by Rogers to me numerous times in recent years, and it’s now happening. Ed Rogers is president of the new tour and Craig Marshall, Division l racer at Colby who grew up at Sugarloaf, is executive director. Joining the group is another pair of ski industry veterans, Barrett Stein, formerly of Vail, and John Jacobs of reliable Racing in Glens Falls, New York.

Mark your calendar to be at Sunday River March 10-12. See you at the show.

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