Willi Wiltz works late. His wax room is a rented trailer in the parking lot of the High Country Inn, just off I-15 in Ogden, Utah. The work space is crammed with tool cases and extra bright lights and dozens of downhill skis lined up like spears along the wall. Willi moves from the ski bench to the wall of skis and back again like an astronaut aboard the Mir space station, every movement a sure and unhurried step toward the goal. And the goal is to provide his athletes with the fastest skis possible for tomorrow's race.
It'll be past midnight before Willi rests. Then it's up and out on the hill at 7 am to check the weather, log air and snow temperatures, inspect crystal shapes and decide whether radiation processes are adding moisture to the snow or drawing it out.
An hour before race time Willi takes a shovel and fashions a work bench out of snow near the start. One by one his racers hand him their race boards, bundled so that last night's preparation remains pristine, perfect.
A touch of hyper-expensive fluorocarbon wax. A dozen loving strokes with a horsehair brush to work the magic into the structure, and they're off on an 80 mph trip to the finish. A minute and 18 seconds later it's over. And Willi's work begins anew.
He's been doing this-tuning skis for the U.S. Ski Team-for 15 years, 20 if you count the early days around his Truckee, Calif., home. "I was a racer kid at Squaw Valley and on the Peugeot Pro Tour for a while. I was the kid who made his own skis so fast he couldn't keep up with them." Willi's laugh spreads from a high, freckled forehead to the tip of his goatee.
One week, the races are up in Whistler/Blackcomb, B.C. This week in March, they're in Snowbasin for the Nor Am Super Series, two downhills and two super Gs on the 2002 Olympic courses. Willi's athletes are U.S. team up-and-comers Jakub Fiala, Brett Fischer, Geoff Stephenson, Brad Hogan and Wisi Betschart.
The Nor Am (or North American Cup) is a kind of minor league circuit to the World Cup, and in this crowd, Willi is a rock star. "I had Tommy Moe for seven years," Willi says of the 1994 Olympic downhill champion. "I had a lot of pressure to produce fast skis. Tommy was producing. I had to, too."
Moe and Wiltz rocketed to prominence together. "We found this burnin' pair of skis during testing at Kvitfjell-a cold pair. It was -23° C (-10° F). The snow was about as hard as it gets." Tommy rode Willi's perfectly prepared skis to victory by .04 seconds in the downhill and just missed gold (by .02 seconds) in the super G.
The snow at Snowbasin is not nearly that hard. Temperatures are warm, and the race crew here has a long way to go before it can produce the kind of bulletproof surface required for World Cup and Olympic competition. Willi mentions PDX, a chemical they inject into the steep pitches on all the European World Cup downhills. It turns the snow into bathroom tile; makes it so hard the friction under the edge at downhill speeds actually melts the base. One run and they're ruined. The World Cup guys get new prototypes from the manufacturers nearly every week. They're always trying to better their fastest pair.
Willi's Nor Am guys have to make do with two or three pairs each for the season. Willi puts what he figures to be $65 worth of wax and elbow grease into each pair each day. "Hum 'em up, brush 'em down," he says of the process of keeping the edges sharp and working the bases.
He brings three brushes to the start, like shoe polishing brushes with cloth straps for your hands. A nylon bristle brush cleans out the structure, opens the pores in the base material. Then from out of a pocket Willi removes a tiny cube of yellow fluorocarbon no bigger than an after-dinner mint. "Toko Jet Stream," he croons and rubs a scant trace onto the ski. "A hundred and thirty bucks for this little thing. It should come in a jeweler's case."
A finer brush works the fluorocarbon in. Willi's stocky shoulders rock like ocean swells with each caressing stroke. Finally, in a trance, he buffs the base to lightning slickness with the softest horsehair brush.
Willi's guy Geoff Stephenson wins the first downhill by two one-hundredths of a second over Canadian David Anderson, 1:16.42 to 1:16.44. "Fluorocarbons are great, but you can overuse them," says the wax master. "It'll clog the pores, and the ski will slow down fast. It's hard to get it out of the base. A fine line: great when it's necessary, but it can hurt, too.
"I use product from all of the Ski Team pool companies (Swix, Toko and Dominator), depending on the ski, the conditions and what I know about the racer. I'll experiment, too. In '93 a couple of Japanese came up with this galenite wax for (Canadian downhiller) Cary Mullen. It looked like dirt. They called it Dowa Power Metal. That was one of the few times a wax just came out of nowhere. Another time I'm in the ski room when these guys from NASA come in with this kind of gooey stuff. I said, 'Sure, I'll test anything.' I put it on some test skis the next day. They were fast for about three runs. Then they started slowing down. I took 'em inside and I couldn't get any wax in the base. They were done, ruined."
As much as anything with these younger guys at Snowbasin, Willi plays the psychologist. When Jakub Fiala steps in for his start, Willi wipes every shard of snow from the tops of his skis. Fiala has had a few World Cup starts this year and should be doing better than he is on the junior circuit. Willi massages the huge, Spyder-webbed thighs and chants, "Pay day! Come on! Control it; don't let it control you. Come on!"
Fiala flails to a 20th place in the first downhill, then sails inexplicably past a gate off the big Shooting Star jump during the second race. But another of Willi's charges, 23-year-old Brett Fischer, takes the title by the smallest possible margin, .01 of a second. Was it Fischer's skill that made the difference? Or was it that final loving stroke with the horsehair brush on Willi's snow bench up at the start?
In the athletes' tent afterward, the winners smile and tussle, the disappointed watch sullen video of their runs. Willi grins his alchemist grin and heads back down for another long night of making magic in the wax room.
Peter Shelton is an award-winning writer based in Ridgway, Colo. Contact him at PShelton@montrose.net.