Friday, March 2, 2012

Friday night lights


The inaugural 5B Garage Race Series at Hailey's Rotarun Ski Area ended Friday night with a roaring bonfire, klieg lights and more than 100 people enjoying the scene.

And the scene was as follows: families (lots of them), racers of all abilities on all types of equipment, hordes of spectators, fresh burgers, homemade cookies and a few kegs for the grownups. Aside from the presence of snowboarders, the year could have been 1972 just as easily as 2012.

That was the idea behind the four-week race series. Keep it simple. Keep it welcoming. Keep it fun.

"This series was all about giving everyone the opportunity to race and participate at their own level and at an affordable cost," said Caleb Baukol of 5B Garage. "Our biggest goal was to make it inclusive for everyone. We didn't want people to be intimidated because they don't consider themselves ski racers."

Before skiing got super glitzy and warming huts turned into day lodges, scenes like Rotarun on a winter Friday night were commonplace. Families went to the local neighborhood hill, braved the rope tow or other surface lift device and got an affordable, enjoyable day, or night, of skiing. Most of us who are of a certain age clearly remember a hometown hill like Rotarun—a great spot with a casual, seriously local vibe.

Nestled in a beautiful canyon neighborhood west of Hailey on Rodeo Drive (feeling-wise about as far away from Beverly Hill's Roe-day-o Drive as you can get), Rotarun evokes the primal ooze of the sport. It boasts one saucer-type tow that is highly popular with kids and slightly challenging for adults. It has a wonderful pitch for training slalom and giant slalom. The small warming hut smells deliciously of food that is cooked on a griddle and fried in vats. Bright lights create the magical umbrella that makes night skiing possible.

It's a pretty great place. And it was Rotarun's night skiing capability that appealed to the organizers of this year's race series.

"Not everyone can take off work during the day to ski in a series," said Baukol. "Kids certainly can't skip school. Rotarun's night skiing allows everyone with day jobs and other commitments to show up. Plus it's really fun to ski under the lights."

It allows families to spend time together. It offers another weekend option that is good clean fun. "It costs more to take your family to a movie on Friday night than it does to ski in this series," said Larry Smith, Rotarun mountain manager. "For a great price, you get three hours on the hill, exercise and fresh air. The best thing about Rotarun is there's no big agenda. You just go out and have fun."


By all accounts, fun was had by all.

Georgie Montgomery, a self-described non-ski racer, ran the course last Friday night. "For me, a big challenge was the tow rope," she said with a laugh. "But it was worth it. It felt terrific, the energy was great and it was the opposite of pretentious. Everyone was just having a ball. And it cost $10. Unbelievable!"

Jim Grossman, lifelong skier, racer and coach (and newly crowned King of the Mountain in this race series), originally signed up for the event as an excuse to ski with his family. "My goal was to try to stay ahead of my son, who is 9," he joked. "It's great to still have races where you can compete fairly seriously and still have a family event. I loved being out on Friday night and skiing with both my children under the lights."

Grossman sees an even greater benefit to the new race series. "This environment is crucial in building great skiers and a true ski culture," he said. He said that what is happening at Rotarun is invaluable to the overall health of the sport.

"We need a broader base," he said. "Baldy isn't available to everyone, after all. The programs on Rotarun are extremely important in terms of racing and building an exceptional ski program in this valley. Rotarun has the potential to be a world-class training site."

And what Rotarun does so well is to make skiing less scary and more accessible in every sense. "It's important to expose skiing to as many people as possible," Grossman said. "Just that is extremely valuable in terms of racing."

For example, as Grossman said, Olympic gold medalist Picabo Street learned to ski at Rotarun.

Friday night was all about inclusivity and community building. Alpine skiers as well as snowboarders were welcome. Tele skiers had a big turnout. Beginners mixed with veterans; north valley with south valley. The Sage School came out big, ending its Winter Carnival slope side.

"We saw so many families out there who didn't know about the race. Since they were there, they raced," said Baukol. "That's part of what made it so fun. It was free flow."

There's a lot going on at Rotarun, like excellent programs for absolute beginner skiers. They are working on raising money for snowmaking and infrastructure improvement. Tomorrow, you can go enjoy the popular annual Snow Box Derby. Registration for that event begins at 8 a.m. Saturday and the race kicks off at 10 a.m. It's always a highlight of the winter.

Look for this race series to make a comeback next season.

"For our first year, it was a huge success," said Smith. "We plan build from here and maybe even add another night. We had people from the ages of 4 to 65 racing. We were ecstatic with the series. We had no idea it would do this well."

In the world of high-speed detachable quads, world-class snowmaking, couture ski fashions and gourmet food on the hill, isn't it nice to know that you can still ski for the price of a few cups of designer coffee, brave the rope tow and step back into what so many of us simply crave—simplicity?

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