Most afternoons, Billy Kidd glides down the Heavenly Daze ski slope as he runs a free clinic with the guarantee – he’s always a kid – that they will get closer to the Olympics or get their money back.
This weekend, the 1964 Olympic slalom silver medalist will be on the trail of memories as a pro racetrack he once featured regularly stops on his home snow in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.
Fifty years ago, the charismatic kid added pizzazz to an up and coming World Pro Ski Tour along with Jean-Claude Killy and later the Mahre brothers. It’s a tour that took root in the late 1960s, thrived for years before disbanding in 1999 and returning in 2017.
Easily spotted in his distinctive cowboy hat, Kidd will definitely feel a little nostalgic when the first race track of the season – for the first time in a year due to the global pandemic – takes place on Saturday and Monday.
FYI, Kidd isn’t going to be doing it for the sake of old times.
“I don’t even try to keep up with them anymore,” cracked the 77-year-old. “But I love everything about ski racing.”
Especially this unique tour with a format of side-by-side races. Because the racing driver standing in the next goal could be a member of the national team, a World Cup competitor, an outstanding college player, a journeyman or even the two-time Olympic gold medalist Ted Ligety, who is known to show up.
This is how it works: 32 racing drivers get a place in the field, based on the qualification times. From there, the racers are placed in a kind of NCAA March Madness bracket, which compete side by side on a super slalom course with pro-style jumps. One run each on the red and blue courses (to be fair), with the winner advancing based on the time difference.
“For some of these racers, it’s an opportunity to defend their skiing,” said Jon Franklin, CEO of the World Pro Ski Tour. “To show that they belong to the world’s elite.”
Back then, Kidd was a driving force behind an idea from the late Bob Beattie, a former coach of the US ski team who also helped create the World Cup ski circuit. Beattie saw an opportunity to expand a pro route and started what would eventually become the World Pro Ski Tour.
Kidd won the first world title of this tour in 1970 and defeated Egon Zimmermann from Austria – the 1964 Olympic downhill gold medalist – during an epic final race in Switzerland. They kept going to the starting gate – a dozen times in Kidd’s memory – to determine a winner, as one of them had to win two in a row at the time.
“Egon, who was a few years older than me, graciously let me win,” said Kidd, Steamboat’s longtime ski director. “That’s the funny thing about it: anything can happen.”
Like last season when University of Colorado racer Max Bervy defeated Ligety in a head-to-head match on Eldora Mountain, Colorado. Ligety was Bervy’s idol growing up. So much so that Bervy studied the video of Ligety who has 25 World Cup victories.
Not a trace of nerves, even after losing to Ligety in the first run. He beat Ligety in the second run and advanced to the next lap in the time differential.
“I knew where my skiing was and that I could do something cool,” said Bervy. “It’s always really good to have that and hit someone like Ted in the back of your mind.”
Over the years, many well-known ski racers have participated on the racetrack: Kidd, Killy (the French standout who won three Olympic gold medals in 1968), the late Vladimir “Spider” Sabich and Phil and Steve Mahre gold and silver in the slalom at the Sarajevo Playing 1984.
The circuit closed down after a sale around 1999, but reappeared after Ed Rogers, who oversaw the tour for many years, brought it back to 17 with new sponsors and a television deal.
The prize money for a tour stop win is around 10,000 US dollars. About $ 150,000 is at stake during the World Championships at a date yet to be determined. This season’s schedule has been hampered by attempts to secure venues during a period of strict COVID-19 protocols.
There are currently no separate men’s and women’s events – just one competition.
Memo to Lindsey Vonn, a great retired skier: A constant offer for her to show herself should the most successful Alpine World Cup racer of all time want to return. Vonn tried for a long time to compete against the men on the World Cup track, but was never allowed to play.
“If Lindsey Vonn came out and competed against Ted, for example, it would be international news,” Franklin said.
The names on the current tour may be familiar to racing enthusiasts. There is Nolan Kasper, a three-time US Olympic champion, and Michael Ankeny, the overall and slalom NorAm champion of 2015. In last year’s shortened season, Robert Cone won the overall title. Cone was the 2015 NCAA giant slalom champion for Middlebury College.
For some, the tour offers an opportunity to revive their careers. For others, it’s just a way to have fun.
Take Jake Jacobs, who does a chimney sweep in Glens Falls, New York during the summer so he can make money driving around the racetrack. The 27-year-old makes his way from competition to competition in a blue van.
He hasn’t missed a scheduled event since returning to the tour in 17.
“I just want to have fun and live freely,” said Jacobs.
He currently lives in Utah with his girlfriend and trains to race by imagining huge slalom goals when he goes freeskiing.
Undoubtedly representing that first victory too.
“Jake lives the dream for everyone – of all the guys who work on Wall Street and wish they had the chance to qualify for a pro race and compete against the best in the world,” said Franklin. “These are real Rocky Balboa stories.”
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