Holiday Classic brings top-level Alpine ski racing back to Steamboat Springs.
Steamboat Springs — Ski racers from around the country, and a few from around the world, will arrive at Howelsen Hill early next week for one of the biggest Alpine ski racing events on the season.
“We are thrilled about it,” said Adam Chadbourne, who is the Alpine director for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. “It’s gong to be wonderful to race on our home hill under great conditions with incredible athletes from around the country, Canada and a number of foreign nations. We are excited to be able to show off our venue, which is world class.”
The Holiday Classic has been a tradition in the Yampa Valley for nearly 30 years, but former Alpine director Chris Puckett said changes to the event 15 years ago have helped it grow into one of the most popular FIS race series in the country.
“These used to be regular introductory FIS races.” Puckett said. “It was kind of a regional event and drew mostly college and club kids who were looking for some racing opportunities around the holidays.”
But Puckett had a different vision of what the races could be.
His vision came from his years of traveling around Europe as a member of the U.S. Ski Team and seeing the way small towns there had embraced ski racing. Many of those towns were smaller than Steamboat and would never dream of hosting a World Cup or even NorAm level ski race. But those small towns opened their doors to the smaller FIS events and turned them into featured attractions with a festive atmosphere.
Puckett had just arrived in Steamboat Springs to take a position as Alpine director with the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club. That first year he went to work finding local businesses to support the racing event, and he asked local merchants to erect tents at the base of Howelsen during the races. He also started offering prize money as an incentive for elite ski racers to come to Steamboat for a few days of ski racing.
Those early days were lean, and Puckett admits that he had to reach into his own pockets to bring the idea to life.
“The first few years we (Puckett and ski racing supporter David Balldinger, Jr.) had to put up the money ourselves,” Puckett recalled. “I remember racing and wanting to win that first year, so that I could win the prize money and would not have to pay it myself.”
The good news was that Puckett, who was fresh off the U.S. Team, did win the money. But simply by offering it, he had changed the course of the Holiday Classic. Top ski racers knew if they would show up and win, they could earn some money.
“This isn’t an easy race to win,” Puckett said. “It is one of the best slalom hills anywhere in the country, but it is unforgiving. One mistake can be the difference between winning and losing, and the competition it always tough.”
But Puckett’s and Baldinger’s gamble paid off quickly. Over the years, the Holiday Classic has drawn skiers such as Jake Fiala, David Chodounsky, Andrew Weibrecht and Mark Engels. It has also provided a place to race for hometown favorites including Anna Marno, Hig Roberts, David Lamb and Drew Roberts.
A few years ago, the event started holding races under the lights, and Puckett said the event has become one of the most popular FIS events in the country.
“I think it has met my expectations,” Puckett said of the race. “It’s a pretty cool event, and it offers local ski racers a top-level event that brings the excitement of ski racing back to Howelsen Hill.”
This year’s Holiday Classic will begin with a slalom race for juniors at 9 a.m. Monday. The women will step into the starting gates first, followed by the men at 10 a.m. The skiers will be back in the gates Monday afternoon. The same schedule will be followed for Wednesday’s races.
On Tuesday, ski racers will be racing for a $1,000 prize in both the men’s and women’s slalom races. The women will start the first run at 1:45 p.m., and the men race at 2:45 p.m. The second runs will take place under the lights with the women’s main event beginning at 5:30 p.m., and the men expected to start at 6:30 p.m.
Chadbourne said the start times are approximate and that weather, course issues and other factors may push start times back. However, he said the atmosphere at the base will be festive with Gluehwein (hot spiced wine) for those over the age of 21, and fire pits to stay warm while celebrating one of Steamboat’s longest-running Alpine skiing traditions.
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With abnormally low snow levels, most of the snow skiers and snowboarders will encounter Saturday during Steamboat Resort’s Opening Day will be manufactured.