It was February of 1984, having arrived in Moreno Valley, just four months earlier. Hired initially to run the retail operations at the ski area, my rental shop staff asked if they could work through the night into the wee hours on Sunday morning. With the help of our pilot and current Angel Fire Ski School Director, Robin May, who had arrived from Durango, their request was driven by the “need for speed” and to ready their Modified Shovel for the race taking place the next day. Having no idea how one could or would want to modify a shovel, I viewed with curiosity, after hours of digging it out of it’s frozen tomb, the carcass of what would be the Rental Shops entry into the competition.
I learned that the modified aspect of shovel racing was no more than basically incorporating the scoop of a grain shovel into the design of this ‘race car on skis.’ Frankly, the shovel itself, when applied to modified racing, represented a hood ornament at best, when compared to actually riding a grain scoop down the mountain, but I digress. Calling our entry a bucket of bolts would have been overstated. However, the next morning, with little or no sleep and the obligatory pre-race hangover in full bloom, what emerged wasn’t just our “machine” but something, an obsession if you will, that would captivate my imagination, time and energy for decades to come.
It was race day and at the top of “The Bump,” AKA “Exhibition,” Bert Clemens from the Laguna Vista Bar was serving gallons of the unofficial beverage of this gathering. It was a homemade Bloody Mary called a Bloody Martyr, thus orally delivering the liquid courage needed for many racers to compete in the first place. The beef bouillabaisse tomato concoction did serve to fuel the camaraderie of this annual reunion of speed merchants and I enjoyed it along with everyone else. Our entrant, whose name is not really relevant, quivered on the snow, with what I felt was the perfect wax job made possible through my days as a ski racing technician. On the race course itself, there were no snow walls or catch nets to corral out-of-control racers and visibly, so few hay bales at the finish line, a racer would have to literally aim their sled to hit one, let alone be stopped from careening out of control into the base area.
Save one ABC affiliate from Dallas, cameras were limited to mostly locals taking pictures, with some standing smack in the middle of the race course and seemingly invisible to the Ski Patrol on hand. The race was memorable, as I seem to recall a drop tank from a B-29 Bomber on jumping skis, named “Mud Shark” claiming the first of four world titles and production racer Sam Wilson continuing his dominance in the Men’s Division. Our machine crossed the finish line with the fastest time, but a design flaw in the outrigger steering system, laughable at best, sent both machine and pilot flying at the finish line, the latter being more than a foot from his “scoop” causing disqualification. We did however make prime time in the Big D, as our crash made the highlights of “Real People Dallas” and at least from my perspective, an idea was born.
First thing Monday morning, I marched into the resort president’s office and explained that unless safety concerns were addressed or not, there was only one reason, publicity, to risk life, limb and NSAA insurance on modified shovel racing , so subsequently he gave me the reins to do just that. From wind tunnel tested sleds owned by Indy Race Car teams, pontoon boats filled with water and weighing tons, there was and never will be an event quite like this. Soon after my inaugural involvement along with the creation of the Unique Modified Division featuring giant ski boots, cheeseburgers and living rooms cruising down the course, the World Shovel Race Championships helped put Angel Fire on the map. Over the years, after attracting sponsors like Ames Shovels and Budweiser, helped by the return of Bill Burgess, the event’s first modified winner, along with his gift of gab, the race drew film crews from around the country combined with a throng of annual fans for well over a decade. Shovel Racing has been seen in foreign countries, the most notable being a popular Japanese reality television series in 1992, whose film crew after the race, showed their appreciation by buying a round of Bud for hundreds in the base lodge.
Modified racing may be gone, but certainly not forgotten, especially for those pining for the event’s improbable return, but for now, living vicariously through the Production Class. So the next time you’re in the hardware store shopping for a snow shovel and I recommend the #12 Ames Grain Scoop, think about putting your fanny in that scoop. Take a walk or in this case, a ride on the wild side while repeating the credo of the shovel racer, “faster, faster, until the thrill of speed, overcomes the fear of death,” but be careful… you might get hooked.
Curt Hanlen worked for Angel Fire Corporation from 1983-1992 and from 1987 until departing in 1992, was Director of Marketing and Operations.