Talk about a blast from the past. Two decades after the last major dual-slalom ski race was held on North American snow, the revamped World Pro Ski Tour will launch this weekend at Sunday River in Maine.
"Nothing is more legendary in ski racing than the World Pro Ski Tour," says racer Alec Tarberry of Boston, a former All-American at Middlebury. "It's an honor to be part of the resurrection. Of course, I'm also going because I love ski racing, and I think I can still bring it."
Ever since bold New Englanders trekked to Mount Washington's Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire to run the hair-raising American Inferno in the 1930s, and downhill events were added to the Winter Olympics during the 1936 Games in Garmisch, Germany, alpine ski racing has captivated North Americans. But it wasn't until the advent of dual slalom that it found mass appeal — by putting racers side-by-side to compete with each other in real time rather than against the clock.
"The races are fairly short, and there's a lot of action," says Olympian Phil Mahre, a Pro Tour veteran from 1989 to 1991. "When you see two guys side-by-side, just 15 feet apart, you see the mistakes. One guy might be leading but makes a mistake, and suddenly the other guy is leading. It's easier for the public to understand."
Former U.S. Ski Team coach Bob Beattie tapped into that rich vein when he launched World Pro Skiing in 1969 with the dual-slalom format. That tour featured a number of legendary racers, including France's Jean-Claude Killy, Billy Kidd, and the tragic Vladimir "Spider" Sabich (who was killed by his girlfriend, Claudine Longet).
"I remember how badass the original tour was, and I think that blend of style and rivalry is what the sport needs," says Tarberry. "Skiing has always been the sexiest sport on the planet, but modern ski racing is too intricate and specialized for people to understand. The Pro Tour is a great way for the sport to return to its roots."
The death knell for World Pro Skiing rang in 1982, when racers went on strike and Beattie walked. Other "B" tours, including an Eastern tour led by Ed Rogers, a successful Maine restaurateur and partner in the Pro Ski Tour, filled the vacuum and eventually morphed into the U.S. Pro Ski Tour.
"Pro racing had become so popular, that a bunch of satellite tours had sprung up," says Rogers. "We put together a national championship, with some pretty decent prize money."
Despite the influx of top racers like Phil and Steve Mahre and Tiger Shaw, the Pro Tour became a financial hot potato, changing hands between television networks before landing with Fox. According to Rogers, Fox didn't see ski racing as a ratings winner across its syndicated stations, and the tour folded in 1998.
Ski industry insiders and resorts kept after Rogers, who decided the current climate was right to revive the tour. Sponsors, interested television outlets, and a ready-and-willing pool of top-flight racers, many from the collegiate ranks, all led to the rebirth of the sport.
Sponsorship is key, says Rogers, acknowledging that there's a "chicken and egg" aspect to bringing in corporate dollars. Tito's Handmade Vodka is the title sponsor for the upcoming Pro Ski Challenge, set for March 9–11 at Sunday River. Rogers hopes that event will convince other sponsors to sign on. "The better the sponsors, the better the prize money," says Felix McGrath, 53, the Pro Tour's "Rookie of the Year" in 1992. "That'll attract better ski racers and make for a better tour."
The new tour also has a television deal with CBS Sports through next year, and Rogers says he expects the series to grow with the network.
Another draw is that the Pro Tour will be based in the United States, while the FIS World Cup series is distinctly Euro-centric, with only the occasional morsel tossed to North American resorts (like the race held at Killington, Vermont, last November). Rogers envisions four to six events next year including Colorado, California, and Michigan, as well as Maine.
The total purse for each event will be roughly $60,000, with the winner pocketing $12,000. Mahre recommends that the World Pro Ski Tour create a handful of high-profile events, like the "majors" in tennis and golf. The previous tour, he says, got watered down because there were too many races.
"They should have left it at fewer events with bigger prize money," says Mahre. "People aren't going to tune in to watch some guy win $5,000. But if there's $100,000 on the line, all of a sudden people think, 'Hey, this is a big deal.' "
Rogers says he hopes the World Pro Ski Tour will eventually be a big deal, but added that it will grow slowly, and sensibly. That's not dampening the enthusiasm of the racers coming to Maine.
"I hope this can turn into a big draw for ski fans," says Vermont's Robby Kelley, the 2012 U.S. national champion. "Right now, the World Cup is the only circuit that gets any interest. It would be great to have an alternative circuit that gets a bunch of exposure to get more fans interested in ski racing."
You can catch the World Pro Ski Tour at 11 a.m. on Friday and Saturday on CBS Sports.