20th annual Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic returns to Howelsen this week | SteamboatToday.com

20th annual Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic returns to Howelsen this week

The 20th Annual Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic slalom races return to Howelsen Hill Ski Area next week, featuring some of the best racers in the country.
Shelby Reardon/Steamboat Pilot & Today archive

Twenty years ago, Chris Puckett and David Baldinger Jr. wanted to bring a European-style race to Steamboat Springs.

Puckett was racing at the time, and Baldinger was coaching. They thought it would be fun to have an early-season, holiday-related race, with good prize money, and mix junior regional racers with national team skiers.

Two decades after they had that vision, the Murphy Roberts Holiday Classic Alpine races are still taking place at Howelsen Hill Ski Area. The tradition continues this week Wednesday, Dec. 22, and Thursday, Dec. 23.

“In Europe, there are little hills like Howelsen that come right into town all over the place, and they have big races, and the whole town comes out to watch,” said Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club Associate Executive Director Jon Nolting.

“That doesn’t happen in the U.S. so much, except for this race,” he continued. “So, the athletes, the atmosphere of having a big crowd like we have and the prize money — it’s not the most important race of the year for these top-level athletes, but it just might be their favorite race of the year.”

The 20th annual holiday classic is bigger than ever, with a historic prize purse of $29,000. Racers will be competing for $4,000 on both days.

In the past, only the night race had such a large prize, the most money allowed for a race of its kind. The top five of each gender in each race will earn money, as will the top competitor under age 18.

“The vision was to someday have the best FIS slalom prize money ski race in North America, and that has come true,” Baldinger said.

Younger racers rarely, if ever, compete for that much money, so it adds a level of pressure that is motivating but also intimidating. It’s a good combination for younger racers to get used to, Nolting said.

For the second year, the race was split up into a development division and an elite division. The split originated last year when COVID-19 restricted the race field to 75 competitors, so the race directors at SSWSC broke the field into two different levels.

“This year, the COVID restrictions went away, but we liked how that worked,” Nolting said. “We liked that it gave a chance for the kids at the development level to have a race where they were at the top and didn’t have the very best in the field and got to start up closer to the front, and they’d be seeking to qualify for that elite level.”

The development races competed Friday and Saturday last week at Howelsen, and the elite races will be Wednesday, Dec. 22, and Thursday, Dec. 23. With just the elite racers, the competition will be shorter than in previous years and more competitive, making for some entertaining ski racing.

The night race is the highlight of the whole event and will feature the best skiers in the country, except for those competing at the World Cup level to get to the Olympics.

“(The night race) just accentuates the uniqueness of Howelsen Hill being right here in downtown,” Nolting said. “When it’s lit up, the racers feel like they’re skiing into town, and it’s so close to town that people can just come out to watch. There’s no place where it’s so easy to come out and watch.”

Another traditional part of the event that casual spectators might not know about is the champions dinner. Every year, every past winner is invited to a dinner, and 20 years in, the longevity of the event is obvious.

“Now, we even have folks who maybe haven’t been racing for 10 or 15 years,” Baldinger said. “They already have children and families but make a point to make it to the champions dinner and then go watch the races.”

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