I once worked for a publisher so impressed by my editing of the magazine you hold in your hands that he put me in charge of a golf periodical he owned. The appointment, not surprisingly, did little to improve the golf magazine, but it did supply skiing with a new idea.It happened this way.
In editing a magazine for golfers, I came to realize how much it depended on supplying readers with tips to lower their scores. How great it would be if I could ratchet up a ski magazine's newsstand sales by using the same appeal!
The problem was that the recreational skier, unlike the golfer, lacked a score to improve on. A golfer not only competes against others on a scorecard, he can determine how much he's improved his game by lowering his handicap. To decrease his handicap, the hacker even takes lessons, a topic I'll get to.
Skiing had no par, no measurement. Thirty and more years ago, unless you were racing in the Olympics or competing for a pin in a standard race at Stowe or Sun Valley, you had no way to compare your ability to others. Even then your rating was only good for the day of the race. By contrast, a consistent 10-handicap golfer knows that on any day, on any course, he's likely to play 10 strokes better than a 20-handicapper.
I spent much of the winter of 1967 asking why skiing lacked the equivalent of golf's handicap. One day I learned that ski instructors in France, brought together from around the country in one race, were rated by the percentage that they lagged behind the time recorded by the fastest skier. The instructor received a rating expressed in number of percentage points. Back at his home area, skiers who raced against him could earn a pin. If you won a Chamois pin at Megève, your performance was equivalent to a coureur who won one at Val d'Isère. But only expert skiers need apply. The races were tough, intricate slaloms.
It didn't take long for the dim bulb in my cerebrum to light up and see that simple, open-gate giant slalom races on intermediate slopes could attract hundreds of thousands of people to measure their skiing ability. First, instructors and racers nationwide would come together at the beginning of the season to rate their performance against the top U.S. racer of the time. Then they would go back to their home resorts as pacesetters. The times recorded by these local pace-setters, adjusted by the amount of their percentage ratings, would create a national standard. If pacesetter Hans at Mount Snow was originally 3 percent slower than the nation's fastest racer, and a Mount Snow guest was 20 percent slower than Hans, then he or she was about 23 percent slower than America's fastest skier would have been if he'd skied the Mount Snow course that day. Presto! The skier had a 23 handicap.
Skiing could enjoy the equivalent of golf's par. A skier would know that on any slope anywhere, through a couple of dozen gates, on a surface that could be sticky or icy, it didn't matter, the rating would be valid. If he had a 23 Nastar handicap, he was better than a guy with, for example, a 30 rating.
The possibilities seemed limitless. You could make the results of all the standard pin races around the country equivalent to one another. You could take two equally rated skiers and put them in an exciting head-to-head race. You could have a racing experience on a 300-foot vertical Michigan hill equivalent to one at a famous Rocky Mountain resort. The Ski Team could even use the system to spot future young talent. I called it the National Standard Race, giving it the acronym Nastar.
The Nastar idea was exciting, but it needed money to become a nationwide program. SKI Magazine flew me to Chicago to meet with a potential sponsor, the now defunct Schlitz brewery. I explained the concept to them. They liked it.
"The program's called Nastar," I explained.
"No, no. It's going to be the Schlitz Open," the ad agency guy shot back.
The next day my wife, who's from Munich, informed me that sschlitz is German for the fly on a man's pants. I phoned the ad guy and told him the news. "Ski areas employ many German-speaking instructors," I said. "You guys would be laughed off the mountain."
In the first Nastar season of 1967-68, Jimmie Heuga was national pacesetter. A couple thousand recreational skiers competed at eight areas across the country, from Waterville Valley in New Hampshire to Alpental in Washington.
Fifteen winters later, prodded and promoted by former U.S. Ski Team coach and TV commentator Bob Beattie, the SKI Magazine program had grown to 135 areas, attracting a quarter of a million recreational racers each winter.
Of the million and more skiers who've raced in Nastar over three decades¿weekend warriors, housewives, tadpoles who want to ski in the Olympics¿John Rediger, a Texas drugstore owner, may be the most unusual. Rediger, at the age of 35, dreamed of becoming a Nastar champion. The only hill in his hometown of Pecos, Texas, is the ramp off the Interstate, but Rediger wasn't discouraged. At 5 am he would set paper cups on the incline and practice rollerblading through the improvised gates. Winter after winter, he attended Billy Kidd and Toni Sailer racing camps. Finally, two years ago, a 56-year-old Rediger accomplished his dream. He became the fastest recreational racer in America, with a 1 handicap, better than that of skiers half his age.
With Beattie retiring this winter, a new organizer is running nastar.com, renamed and updated this season with results now available online. It's time, in my view, for the nation's ski schools to get on board. How? By making Nastar a standard to measure a skier's progress. The sport would gain. Here's why.
Many people today ski proficiently, even elegantly, when they're able to choose anywhere to make a turn. The instructor observes, applauds their form, and advances them to a higher class.
But can you make such a turn at a given spot? What about making a must-do turn, one that you have to make at high speed to avoid a tree? Or one good enough to let you feel what it's like to be an Alberto Tomba in the gates?
It's far more difficult to turn at a given spot, again and again. You have to master skills like gliding, skidding, drifting, pivoting, rebounding, absorption and stepping, as well as carving, to get specifically from Point A to Point B. In short, you have to become a true skier. A ski school would monitor your advancing skill by periodically inserting you in a Nastar race. Your handicap would become the measure of your progress.
Such a change may be overdue. The manner of teaching skiing, while open to new ideas, has not fundamentally varied much in the past 50 years. An instructor shows a group of eight to a dozen skiers how to make a ski-school-form turn. They practice it over and over. . .the equivalent of tennis players lobbing the ball back and forth without keeping score, or a golfer remaining forever on the practice tee. Not surprisingly, relatively few skiers return for more lessons.In the next millennium, the recreational skier deserves more, and the sport has a ready-made system for improvement: nastar.com
Columnist Fry was SKI Magazine's Editor-in-Chief and GOLF Magazine's Editorial Director when he introduced the National Standard Race (Nastar) in 1968.