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Original Issue

Making like a giant in slaloms

The medals may be pins and the races easy, but everybody stars in NASTAR

Archer Winsten is 72 years old. Obviously, he does not have as many goals in life as he once had, but one remains constant. In fact, it occupies his thoughts a lot from winter into spring: Winsten wants to win a gold medal in the giant slalom. Because there is no such thing as a Winter Olympics for septuagenarians—even if there were, he would probably not enter it; he's that kind of man—Winsten races against much younger skiers. As young as, well, as young as 2½ years old.

Winsten, a film critic for the New York Post, enters NASTAR races at Hunter Mountain, 2½ hours north of New York City. For nine years now, skiers have been thrashing through giant slalom gates in NASTAR races held on intermediate slopes at ski resorts across the country.

The NASTAR scoring system, copied from a French method, is ingenious, if imperfect. There are 76 U.S. resorts offering NASTAR, and they are divided into five regions. Early in the winter NASTAR holds a GS race in each region to determine handicaps for the fastest pair of skiers from each resort, who are called pacesetters. Only one skier, a gentleman named Chris Vala from Waits-field, Vt., races in all five regions, and NASTAR uses him as a nexus to determine the fastest pacesetter. This year the pacesetter turned out to be pro racer Ken Corrock. Corrock received a zero handicap, and the others earned handicaps which directly represent their percentage slower than Corrock. Although they may not have raced Corrock, they have raced Vala, and Vala has raced Corrock. This isn't nearly as confusing as it sounds, and it works. The pacesetter runs his resort's course the day of each race, and, using this pacesetter's time and handicap, Corrock's suppositional time is mathematically established. This time is called "par" and is the standard (NASTAR stands for National Standard Race). When each NASTAR entrant races, he earns a handicap—his percentage slower than par.

The system is a bit like comparing football scores to show that Slippery Rock would beat Penn State by 50 points—and it doesn't provide for inconsistencies such as a bad day for the pacesetter, which would raise par—but ski racing is a sport of hundredths of seconds, and hundredths don't change percentages very much. If Jones from Sun Valley has a handicap of 50 and Smith from Sugarbush has a 52, chances are Jones is faster than Smith.

Resorts offering NASTAR all stage weekend races, and many have one or more races during the week—Devil's Head in Wisconsin had nine NASTAR races a week. The entry fee is $3 ($2 for kids). Races start at 11 a.m. and are usually over by 3. Skiers can earn gold, silver or bronze medals, with performances weighted according to age and sex. For Archer Winsten to get a gold medal, he needs to lower his handicap to 35 from his present best of 57. (He's also in a race of his own: to get a gold medal before his 10-year-old grandson, who needs a handicap of 30.) As a plum, the two fastest skiers from each region, in each of eight age/sex classes—a total of 80 racers—get an expense-paid trip to Keystone, Colo. for the NASTAR finals next week.

There are some recreational skiers who see this whole NASTAR business as Mickey Mouse. These purists turn up their noses at NASTAR because they believe it interferes with the purpose of skiing, which is enjoyment in a free way and not being organized into competitions, let alone having the slopes crowded with Walter Mittys. A purist may suggest that NASTAR has a lot of cheek calling the awards "medals" when they are not medals at all but small pins. To some, the skier who pins his NASTAR trophies to his jacket is like the person who plasters his car with bumper stickers. The NASTAR reaction is, who cares?

Few NASTAR racers—and there have been more than 450,000 of them—will knock the program. Says one, "I've been racing NASTAR a couple of years, and I've never felt like anyone was putting any pressure on me to join or become a racer. They're just providing the opportunity to do it if I want to. There's no place else I can race. I don't care if the pins are cheap. Lots of people don't even claim the ones they win."

Tiny Bryce Mountain in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley is one resort that is excited about having NASTAR. There are only three slopes at Bryce, and their names are appropriate to the area: Redeye, White Lightning and Revenuers' Run. Many of Bryce's skiers come from the South, and the atmosphere around the fireplace in the lodge is like that around the grease rack in Billy Carter's gas station.

It was at Bryce that the 2½-year-old, a little girl, raced a NASTAR giant slalom—with a pacifier in her mouth. And there is a plaque on Revenuers' Run in memory of one Al Conrad, a NASTAR addict in his fifties who used to do nothing but practice turns all day long, trying to perfect his racing technique. (He died of a heart attack.)

The major NASTAR sponsor is Schlitz, which has been with the program from its inception; others are Datsun, Bonne Bell and Pepsi-Cola. This year Datsun has been hosting one NASTAR race at each of 10 resorts; it is paying the entry fees of many participants. One of those resorts is Bryce, where 113 racers competed that day. There was one lady in her forties whose last muttered words before she left the starting gate were, "I must be bananas." Having thoroughly psyched herself out, she fell in the second gate. Then there was a man, No. 113, who was asked, "Is that your age?" "No," he replied, "I was the 113th to sign up. That's how long it took my kids to talk me into this."

Afterward, the racers gathered at the bottom of the hill for the presentation of the pins: five gold, and 42 silver and bronze. At the ceremony—Bryce's idea, and not a universal NASTAR function—there was a lot of vigorous cheering and clapping of gloved hands: whup-whup-whup. It was cold, about 10°, and windy. Think what it takes to get 100 people, most of them losers, to stand still in weather like that, for a ceremony in which a few people receive a hokey pin. Enthusiasm!

But that was Bryce. At Hunter, ranked seventh among resorts in the number of NASTAR entries it attracts, the racers are a different breed—more serious and less excited, fewer under 16 and over 30, let alone 40 and 50. At one Wednesday race during the January frigid spell, there were only 10 entrants. Seven of them won pins.

Dick Brown, who heads the racing office at Hunter, says, "Any skier who can make competent linked turns can run a NASTAR course. The turns are nice and round, and we try to create a rhythm to the gates: up, down, up, down. Some people are nervous at first, but it becomes a fun thing because it's easy. Yet it's extremely satisfying. I've seen it happen a lot where a guy will come out and run one race, and then he gets hooked. There are a lot of frustrated racers out there."

Expert skiers, and certainly racers, might find the giant slaloms less than thrilling, but NASTAR officials point out that, while the courses are comfortable for intermediates, "Nobody can run them flat out, experts included." "It's a fantasy trip," says one enthusiast. "Your arms are over the starting wand at the top and a guy goes, 'Racer ready: three, two, one, go!' You feel the wind in your face, anticipate the gates, feel your edges cutting the snow.... It's a rush."

For a real rush, a few resorts occasionally have dual-gate NASTAR races—that is, simultaneous, head-to-head racing like the pros. But for the most part NASTAR is a very individual thing; the object is simply to lower your handicap, which is one reason NASTAR is attractive to, say, 50-year-old women with a predilection for psyching themselves out. Of course, NASTAR is not free of pressure from the ego-stroke element—what competition is?—but the biggest strokes come from self-improvement, which is a whole lot more reasonable than getting satisfaction from beating someone.