38th Annual World Championship Shovel Races

by Christopher Schell February. 06, 2017 1138 views

Shovel Racing, A unique phenomenon in the world of winter sports, once rose to it’s zenith as an event in the X Games, lasting only a few short years before the event was removed due to serious injury. The sport originated here in the mountains of Northern New Mexico in the 1970’s. 

Ski lift operators looking for a quick way down the mountain at the end of a shift began riding on the business end of their snow shovels down the mountain to the base area. Naturally the nature of a ski area prevailed and the lifties began racing each other. That was over 40 years ago, a few short years later the first official shovel race was held at Angel Fire Resort in Northern New Mexico. 

In those 40 years shovel racing grew, spreading to many ski areas throughout the West. Before too long racers were modifying shovels, adding extravagant bodies to the shovel . . . racing sleds, boats, spaceships, you name it, the shovel soon became an afterthought leading to spectacular crashes and even more spectacular injuries. In 1997 the sport took a break, restarting again a few years later with new, strict rules: riders may only ride a standard 12” grain shovel. The only modifications allowed are grip tape on the handle and lubrication (WD40, silicon spray) on the bottom. The races were back on! 

This year I was fortunate enough to be a start caller for the 38th International World Championship Shovel Races. I have witnessed the races several times from the bottom, standing atop the berm next to the finish line, camera in hand as the racers come crashing to the finish, a powder puff of pain as snow, shovel and racer tumble to a stop just short of the barricade. The average speed attained coming down the hill is in the mid 60’s . . . yes, you read that right, a person, on a shovel, on a hill, going 65 miles per hour. 

Top speeds can be in the mid to high 70’s. Just think about that for a moment.  These shovels are no plastic models either, they are wood and aluminum, and one must find a way to stop, quickly, from the excessive speeds, while also managing to keep from being brutalized by the shovel rolling along with you. To say I was excited to once again witness this snowy self flagellation would be an understatement. Other than a midweek powder day in January, it is the thing I love most about the mountain.

The groomer started early this morning putting the final touches on the race course. Up and down Exhibition, the Resort’s showcase blue run, the large snowcat removed the bumps and wrinkles from the natural lay of the slope. By late morning the race course had taken its final shape, 10 yards wide and maybe a quarter of a mile long, dropping roughly 1,000 feet along the way. A long flat spot after the finish line was added to give racers time to stop, and a 15 foot berm backing a net filled with inflatable tubes ended the course, adding the last layer of security to keep a racer to a minimum of injured limbs. At noon the first racers began to load the lift that ran the length of the course, depositing them at the top. The racers came in all shapes and sizes for this afternoon's practice session. Kids as young as seven talked smack with seniors grinning ear to ear. The professionals were there too, competing for the $500 prize. Custom painted shovels and sleek racing outfits separated the “pros” from the novices. 

The snow was slower this year than in years past due to a thicker base and warmer temperatures, while this led to slower times (the fastest was 13.1 seconds, 65mph) it also made the course harder to keep straight on, giving spectators a fantastic show of spinning racers and a few out of control crashes. At least one shovel finished the race with no rider this year (she was deposited by a crash about 2/3 of the way up the course) and one rider took a minute and a half to complete his race, clocking in at a whopping 12mph! 

If you have never experienced such a spectacle it is bucket list worthy. As the racers made their way to the Village House for a free concert and awards ceremony, the groomer erased the last remnants of the race course, a course that will not appear for another year, when in the first week of February 2018 the 39th Annual World Championship International Shovel Races begin. Make your plans early and come out to Angel Fire New Mexico and take place in, or at least watch, the sport that the X Games deemed too dangerous!

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