There is more hard-sell carnival than pure sport in U.S. professional ski racing. One senses salesmen perched in the trees along the racecourses, or looks for cash registers at every slalom gate. Still, contrived as it may be to serve the profit motives of the ski industry, the World Pro Skiing tour has become in its short life an exciting addition to the winter sports scene.
The pros even managed to provide a wild finish to their season last week, a climax only slightly less hairbreadth than the one that gave Italy's Gustavo Thoeni the amateur World Cup championship in a head-to-head race against Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden (SI, March 31).
For the pros, the central antagonists were Hank Kashiwa, 25, onetime Olympic racer from Old Forge, N.Y., and Henri Duvillard, 27, the strong son of a French farmer, who joined the pro tour this season after several years as one of the mainbraces of the French national ski team. Despite his inexperience with the head-to-head slalom format and his immersion in a bizarre new routine that sent him crisscrossing the Continent week after week, Duvillard began the year by winning five of the first eight races and finishing second in another. Then Kashiwa, a three-year pro, gradually pulled ahead, mainly because of a growing accumulation of second-place finishes. Going into the next-to-last Lange Cup event in Sun Valley two weeks ago, Kashiwa led Duvillard in points, 313 to 271, a seemingly comfortable edge. Duvillard was ahead in prize money, $40,200 to $39,400, but even in the dollar-directed world of pro racing, rankings are based on points rather than cash.
With manufacturers' banners waving in the sun and marketing men outnumbering spectators by about eight to one, Duvillard blazed through the series of elimination runs and won the giant slalom, gaining 25 more points and $4,000. Kashiwa was knocked out in the second elimination round, winning seven points and $700. The next day, Duvillard also won the slalom, his second back-to-back pro victory. That gave the Frenchman the Lange Cup, another 25 points and another $4,000. At the end of the Idaho meet, Kashiwa had 325 points and Duvillard 321, although Duvillard now had $48,200 to Kashiwa's $40,500.
As with the World Cup, the pros had their showdown in Italy, at Cervinia. And as European pro events go, the show was a success: some 2,000 spectators braved such heavy snows that the promoters relented and let everybody in free just for showing up. The first giant slalom round went to Kashiwa, who came in second, after Duvillard failed to qualify, giving the American a 24-point lead. The next day, Kashiwa picked up the automatic five points for qualifying for the slalom, clinching the title even if Duvillard won, which he did for his 10th victory of the season. The final tally was 360 to 346 for Kashiwa; $52,200 to $44,500 for Duvillard.
It is six years now that this ski circus has been dashing about the country and, unlikely as it seemed back in the old days, it has prospered. Though they are by no means household names, Duvillard and Kashiwa have made well over $100,000 this season, when one adds manufacturers' endorsements to their tour winnings. Last year Hugo Nindl, 33, an Austrian so lacking in color that he is known by his fellow racers as The Invisible Man, won more than $93,000 in purses and fell just short of $180,000 in total income. Spider Sabich of the U.S., badly injured this year, has made that much or more in a couple of seasons past, and Jean-Claude Killy, out this year after a gallbladder operation, collected close to $200,000 in his championship 1972-73 season.
Rich as it is, there is an unmistakable element of Mickey Mouse in the pro racing format. The short, bump-filled head-to-head courses are tailored so that the show fits easily into such unlikely environs as a hillock outside Chicago, a slope in downtown Montreal or even a hillside beyond the outskirts of San Bernardino. Ever since it was first sent on the road by former U.S. Ski Team Coach Bob Beattie, the pro tour has been the object of scorn and loathing by purists involved with the European-oriented World Cup. For years they derided the dual slaloms Beattie promoted as more vaudeville than sport and utterly lacking in the traditions of classic racing. But now it seems that they felt Beattie had a pretty good idea all along. Last season the World Cup commissioners reluctantly experimented with dual slaloms in a series of unofficial, no-points-counted races in the U.S., and this season they actually scheduled a pro-style meet. Ironically, officials set the dual for the last meet of the year and—lo!—the entire outcome of the men's World Cup title hung on this competition.
Nothing could have been more satisfying to the pros. "You have to see the humor in a raggedy bunch of little guys, struggling to make a buck in North America, forcing them to change the most traditional sport around," says Beattie. "Now they're trapped in the dual-slalom approach. They had more people at Val Gardena last month for the World Cup finish than they had during the world championships there in 1970. It was exciting as all get out. The crowds loved it. They won't ever again be able to hold a whole World Cup season without a dual race now that they've started."
Beattie is neither embarrassed nor reticent about the commercial origins and motivation behind his enterprise. "We aren't so naive as to think that we can draw huge crowds," he says. "We're dealing in remote ski areas a lot of the time, although we like more and more to race near big cities so we can pull more of an audience. The most we drew this year was 7,500 at $3 a head on Mont Royal in Montreal. Mainly, we're interested in the media aspect and marketing. We're kind of like a traveling industrial show; you might call it an industry happening. The whole racing circuit was conceived first as a selling machine and second as a sport. This isn't an exhibition quite like a circus—the contests are real. But this is mainly an arm of the industry."
After six years, Beattie's sporting marketplace is well organized. Before each meet an advance crew, including a marketing director, publicity director and tournament directors, arrives at the area with truckloads of banners and signs. The racers themselves are organized into a unit called the International Ski Racers Association, and through ISRA they discipline themselves. The association enforces its own rules, such as the one specifying that any racer who fails to attend an official sponsor-organized cocktail party (there are two or three at every meet) or fails to show up for public presentation ceremonies must pay a $50 fine.
To maximize the promotional aspect, each race is a competition between manufacturers' teams as well as between individual businessmen-racers. Each week press releases are sent nationwide recounting the precise standing of Rossignol skis vs. Dynastar skis vs. Olin skis, of La Dolomite boots vs. Nordica boots vs. Lange, right down to Demetre sweaters vs. Mossant sweaters vs. Head sweaters.
But even as World Pro Skiing thrives, there may be trouble ahead. The prize money this season totaled $410,000, down from last season's $500,000. A main reason for the falling off was that Benson & Hedges, which had been the overall Grand Prix sponsor, decided to sponsor just five races of its own this year. Next year it is expected to underwrite only two. Yet Beattie, the eternal optimist, sees this past season as one of his tour's strongest. "We've come through the worst, this was the hard transitional year without Big Daddy Benson & Hedges and all their guaranteed money and promotional expertise. It was like trying to run the tennis tour without Virginia Slims behind it. But we've made it work. And now, I think, it looks like we're on the way up. This year we averaged $30,000 prize money per race. In a couple of years we'll have a couple of $100,000 races and in five years we'll be averaging $100,000 a race."
Over the years, Beattie has dug up such seemingly bizarre sponsors as Fabergé, Suzuki, Ford and Montezuma tequila. Now, in a tight economy, he will have to dig up a whole new crowd for next season. To Beattie, it's a dish of ice cream. "We've got TV and press support, it's just a matter of finding sponsors," he says. "They're there, they always are. I'll begin with Plan A and if that doesn't work, I'll go to Plan B and maybe I'll have to get to Plan Z before I find enough money, but it'll be there and we will grow."
So confident is Beattie that he is already making plans to invade Europe on a regular basis. "They're going to love us," he says. Possibly. But will the ski marketing men come up with the schillings and francs?