A line of skiers waits for their turn Thursday during the final Town Challenge slalom race of the season. The skiers are competitive, many wearing race suits and buying special equipment. A light-hearted atmosphere dominates the events, however.

Photo by Joel Reichenberger

A line of skiers waits for their turn Thursday during the final Town Challenge slalom race of the season. The skiers are competitive, many wearing race suits and buying special equipment. A light-hearted atmosphere dominates the events, however.

Steamboat Town Challenge races made up of those who love the sport

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Patti Kelly starts her run in Thursday’s Town Challenge slalom event with a shout. The races attract a wide variety of skiers of varying abilities, ranging in age from 24 to 75.

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Traci Allen shoots from the starting gate on Howelsen Hill on Thursday during a Town Challenge slalom event.

— Old ski racers never die — not in Steamboat Springs, anyway.

The annual Town Challenge Alpine ski racing series came to a close Friday at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat with a giant slalom race, the end of a two-day combined event that included a slalom Thursday night.

The events were like many others this year and most of those in years past.

They were filled with many of the same faces. There’s a core group of skiers who attend the winter events who have been doing it for nearly 30 years.

Throughout the years, the skiers have started with the same words. “Have a good one,” racer after racer said Thursday, nodding to friends and competitors waiting next to the starting gate as he or she clicked ski poles and launched down the course.

They oohed and aahed as skiers cut sweet turns, griped about their own on-course misfortunes and gawked as a new kid beat them all.

Town Challenge races have changed throughout the years, the regulars report. Kegs dug into the bottom of the hill have given way to post-race parties, and things aren’t as crazy as they once were.

One thing hasn’t changed, however: The races are an absolute guaranteed fix for Steamboat speed junkies of all levels.

Not to be forgotten

Old Steamboat ski racers never die because the Town Challenge crew won’t let them. The core of the group that attacks the slopes in the event has been around for decades.

“I started it as a fundraiser for the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club,” 29-year series veteran Tom DeGroff said. “It used to make money, but it doesn’t so much anymore.”

Still, the people never have stopped coming. There always are some new faces, but many are the same. Every race, meanwhile, now is named after important ski racers, many of whom used to compete in Town Challenge events and all of whom dedicated themselves to the sport in Steamboat Springs.

On Thursday and Friday, the racers competed in the Dave DeHaven Memorial Town Challenge race.

“Dave raced with us. When he passed away, his parents called me up. Dave was going to go to graduate school and had $40,000 saved up when he passed away. His parents said they wanted to give it to the Winter Sports Club,” DeGroff said. “That’s what this finale is all about: Dave DeHaven and his family’s generosity.”

The skiers race through events such as the Ashley Stamp Memorial, the Peter Brewster Brawl and the Jim Haller Memorial.

“They were all a part of Steamboat ski racing,” DeGroff said. “When they passed away, we made memorial races for them. We only have memorial races now.”

The people’s races

Few racers to grace Steamboat’s slopes have the experience of Jerry Taylor, and he didn’t even start racing until he was 40.

“I always wanted to do it when I was a kid, but I had to work and go to school,” Taylor said. “Then I was in the military.”

Now, he’s one of the most prolific racers Ski Town USA has known. He’s logged more days this season on Steamboat Ski Area’s NASTAR course than anyone’s logged on any NASTAR course in the country. And he tries never to miss a Town Challenge race.

“They didn’t have a 70-year-old division until I turned 70,” quipped Taylor, 75. “I like beating the 60-year-olds.”

He’s among like-minded friends at the events. Town Challenge races aren’t the domain of retired Olympians — though a few might sometimes show up. Instead, skiers like Taylor are far more common.

“I grew up in Texas. I’m a doctor. I went to med school in Louisiana,” Stacy Childs said. “Only when I moved to Cheyenne, Wyo., in 2004 did I think, ‘Maybe I can realize my dream.’”

He moved to Steamboat that same year and got his start, at 56 years old absorbing lessons from every instructor who would take the time to offer a tip, attending camps and shaving the seconds off his Town Challenge times.

“I missed the last gate,” he grumbled, smiling, after Thursday’s slalom. “I’m a lot better at GS. I hope to win that.”

The story is similar for his wife, Diana Childs. She’s taken massive steps since first toeing the Town Challenge starting line and now is what she never expected to be: a ski racer.

“I thought it was ex-Olympians and ex-racers that were in the Town Challenge, but there are a lot more recreational and for-fun racers in them than you’d think,” she said. “It’s fun, and it’s for everybody.”

The more things change

Most of the racers train regularly for the events. Most have speed suits and racing skis. Most are focused on three things: having fun, winning it all and beating that particular person.

“It’s a challenge every time you come out. You get to test yourself,” Jim Kohler said. “You always have those guys you’re continually competing against. You have practice, practice, practice, then see if you got any faster.”

But the overriding theme isn’t animosity and a bitter concentration on fractions of a second. At a post-race party, the beer flows and food crowds tables. Friends laugh and, even at the last event of the year, look forward to the next race.

“It’s fun,” Tim Magill said. “I’ve been in it since the beginning. It’s had ups and downs. The people change. Now I have 20-year-olds to beat. It’s good skiing, though.”

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