In a time before snowmobiles or snowcats, ski resorts relied on workers – equipped with shovels – to traverse mountainsides, patching animal tracks and smoothing out moguls in the art known as piste bashing.
But rather than trudging along precarious catwalks, these workers used their shovels as a sled, and sledding on a shovel became, of all things , a sport.
“People have riding shovels and grain scoops, based on the evidence I have found, since back in the 1800s,” said John Strader, 46, Angel Fire native and self-described ambassador to the sport, who began shovel racing in 1981. “In mining museums, there would be references to miners, instead of having to trudge down steep mountains, they would create tracks and slide down.”
But the world wouldn’t learn about the use of shovel as a transportation device until a film from director Frank Capra was released in the mid-1940s. That film was “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
“One of the early scenes in the movie is Jimmy Stewart’s character (George Bailey) with his brother (Harry), riding snow shovels, dodging trees and sliding out onto the ice. So even then, it was synonymous with danger.”
And for those who haven’t seen the 1946 classic – SPOILER ALERT – Harry breaks through the ice, plunging into the freezing water, and the rest is history. But while modern shovel racing has its share of danger, plunging through thin ice isn’t one of them.
After shovel racing was formalized, beginning in the 1970s at the Angel Fire Resort, its popularity grew, and with that growth, competitors begin looking for ways to gain more speed. As a result, shovels used for racing less resembled actual shovels and began appearing more like a dragster on skis – some even equipped with roll cages just in case something went wrong.
And for Strader, a two-time world champion, it did.
In 1997, at the height of shovel racing, Strader – in the inaugural Winter X Games on ESPN – is shown tumbling end over end, in a horrific crash that was also the last time the sport was featured on national television.
“I crashed in front of 30 million people live on TV,” said Strader, who broke three bones in his back, two ribs and his jaw, along with cracking his sternum. The force of impact was so great, he added, that his helmet was cracked, which caused a concussion, two lost teeth and broken blood vessels in his eyes.
The scene led to ESPN removing shovel racing from its lineup, and the tradition at Angel Fire came to an end in 2005 amid growing liability concerns.
Fast forward to 2010, and in order drum up publicity and attendance at the resort, the shovel racing “World Championship” was back, but with one caveat: Rocket sleds were banned, and the resort would only allow the use of actual shovels. The most commonly used shovel – the aluminum No. 12 grain scoop – again took center stage, and the only customization is limited to wax and paint scheme.
“This is what we’re known for,” said Kalen Boland, who works in the marketing department at Angel Fire. “I’ve been through Texas, visiting ski shops. And while they may have never heard of Angel Fire, they have heard of the shovel races.”
The resort has spent the past couple days moving around tens of thousands of pounds of snow at a cost of roughly $80,000 to build the course for this year’s event, which is Saturday. And much like those Bailey boys in the Christmas-time classic, competitors sit on the scoop of an aluminum snow shovel – handle pointed downhill – lift their hands and feet in the air, and slide. Each rider is allowed two runs, and racers with the fastest time can win cash prizes, with an estimated payout of $1,000, Boland said. While shovels may not reach top speeds of their lusus naturae, Boland added that shovels regularly exceed 60 mph down the 2,000-foot slope, which is set on the resort’s main run, Exhibition.
The second annual “Women in Media Shovel Race Competition” will precede the regular competition. The event features women in print and television media vying for bragging rights and the fastest time down the hill on a shovel. Angela Brauer of KOAT-TV was last year’s winner.
All runs and lifts will be open during the competition. Following the races, at 5 p.m., a Dummy (Gelande) Launch event will take place. Full-sized dummies on any sliding device – including a snow shovel, skis, snowboard or sled – are sent hurtling down a separate run, equipped with a jump. The event is free to enter. Cash prizes will be awarded for best design, best crash and most air.
For more information, visit angelfireresort.com/dummy.