By JIM FAIN
In the beginning, there was the vision of John Fry.
He was the youthful editor-in-chief of SKI Magazine during the 1960s. The United States ski industry was young in the 1960s - and growing fast.
Fry saw some things that disturbed him about American ski instruction and ski area management, including:
- Ski schools concentrated on teaching "style" with no definite scoring system to measure a student's progress or a skier's general proficiency.
- There was no organized national competition for the recreational skier when, all research indicated, the recreational skier comprised 95 per cent of the total skiing population.
- Certain areas refused even to allow the setting of gates for race practice.
In the October, 1967 edition of SKI, Fry wrote a strongly-worded editorial deploring the "sorry state of affairs" of skiing at that time.
"We have forgotten that skiing is a sport, sport is competition, and that is what the fun and excitement is all about." He went on to say that the forbidding of practice in gates "is a policy that surpasses imbecility."
"Somewhere along the line, skiing has lost touch with competition. When it happened, we snuffed out a flame that should light our sport. It is sorely in need of re-ignition."
Fifteen years later, John described the tone of his words as "somewhat irascible." Maybe so, but his opinion of those ski industry practices was right on the mark. And that editorial carried in it the seed of the idea for Nastar.
During the 1967-68 winter, he pressed forward with his idea about establishing a program for recreational skiers with a national standard. "Wherever I went - to ski areas or meetings of ski industry people - I asked people if they had any ideas about how skiers could measure their speed, ability or performance on some kind of a common basis."
The French Connection
On a trip to Vermont, Fry was told by Bob Gratton, the ski school director at Mt. Snow, that he might gain some valuable insight by studying the French Chamois Races.
The Chamois event brought all French ski instructors together at one site for a competition used to rate them on a racing proficiency scale. The teachers raced and were given a mathematical rating expressed as a percentage that their time lagged behind the time recorded by the fastest skier.
When these French instructors returned to their home areas, skiers who raced against them had the opportunity to earn a Chamois pin. If you won a pin at Chamonix, for instance, your performance was equal to another racer who won one at Megeve or Val d'Isere.
Modern-day Nastar participants will have no difficulty in recognizing this format. Fry copied the basic principle for his embryonic American program in the late 1960s, and the system has been used by Nastar ever since.
However, there was one major difference. The Chamois races were designed for expert skiers only. The courses were tough, intricate slaloms on steep, challenging terrain.
Fry envisioned another possibility. "It didn't take long for the dim bulb in my cerebrum to light up and see that simple, open-gate giant slalom races on intermediate slopes could attract hundreds of thousands of people to measure their skiing ability."
The idea for the new program had now crystallized in John's mind.
First, top racers and instructors nationwide would come together at the beginning of the season to rate their performance against the best U.S. racer of the time. Then they would return to their home resorts as pacesetters.
The times recorded by these local pacesetters, adjusted by the amount of their percentage ratings, would create a national standard. And that standard could be used to compare the performances of recreational racers throughout the country.
If pacesetter Roger at Steamboat was originally 6 per cent slower than the nation's fastest racer, and a Steamboat guest was 20 per cent slower than Roger, then he or she was about 26 per cent slower than America's fastest skier would have been if he'd skied the Steamboat course that day. The guest had a 26 handicap.
In addition to comparing skiers around the nation, handicaps would be used as the basis for awarding pins (gold, silver, bronze) according to a racer's level of proficiency.
Naming the Program
Top management at SKI Magazine was very supportive of Fry and his idea, which he wanted to call the National Standard Race, with the acronym "Nastar." Together, they decided to organize a pilot program for the 1968-69 season.
Of primary importance was finding a sponsor capable and willing to fund a national program. "We found out that the advertising agency for the Joseph Schlitz Brewing Co. was interested in sponsoring some kind of ski program," recalled Fry. "I flew to Chicago and we presented it to them."
The ad agency people were very interested, but they absolutely insisted on calling the program "the Schlitz Open." When John returned to New York and told his German-speaking wife about the negotiations, she burst into laughter. "What's so funny?," he asked. She informed him that Schlitz is the German word for the fly on a man's pants.
Armed with his new linguistic expertise, Fry telephoned the ad agency to re-open negotiations. "Ski areas employ many German-speaking instructors," he told them. "You guys would be laughed off the mountain."
Schlitz finally decided to support the program with the name "Nastar." They also would sponsor an invitational final event, named "The Schlitz Giant Slalom," to which the best Nastar ski racers of the winter would be invited - at no cost to the competitors.
The Original Eight
The program really began to take shape in the fall of 1968 when eight ski areas signed on to take part in the inaugural season. They represented a geographical cross section of American ski country: Alpental, Washington; Boyne Country, Michigan: Heavenly Valley, California; Mt. Snow, Vermont; Mt. Telemark, Wisconsin; Song Mountain, New York; Vail, Colorado; and Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. Jimmie Heuga, an American hero since winning a medal in the 1964 Olympics, signed on as the first national pacesetter. Gloria Chadwick, who had just left the USSA, took on the job of secretary/coordinator of Nastar.
Tom Corcoran organized and hosted the first Pacesetter Trials, which were held at Waterville Valley in early December. The eight areas sent their top pros to earn a pacesetter rating. At those trials, Manfred Krings of Mt. Snow equalled Heuga's zero handicap.
Computer specialist Charlie Gibson programmed the original Nastar handicap tables used by ski areas to determine gold, silver and bronze pin winners.
Only 2,297 persons took part in Nastar that first season. However, by the time of the March Finals at Heavenly Valley, word-of-mouth praise was attracting the interest of many more recreational skiers. For the second year of operation, plans called for expansion to 35 participating ski areas. This would mean increased costs, and thus a need for more sponsors to share the greater financial load. Nastar needed a salesman who could move easily in the atmosphere of top-level management.
Bob Beattie, who had recently resigned as head coach of the U.S. Alpine Team, was just such a man. He became Nastar commissioner, a position he would hold for 30 years.
By the start of the 1969-70 season, Beattie had sponsorship agreements with TWA, Bonne Bell and Hertz to ease the financial load on Schlitz and SKI Magazine (owner of Nastar). He and Gloria Chadwick had signed up 39 areas, and the program was really rolling.
Then and Now: Different Practices
The basic Nastar system has remained the same for 35 years. But a few practices in the early seasons may be surprising to modern racers, including:
No age divisions. Although the percentages needed to earn pins varied slightly from men to women, there were no age divisions whatsoever the first year.
That meant a 70-year-old racer had to ski just as fast as one who was 25 years old in order to win any kind of pin.
Nastar leaders discovered this was not very practical, and the format was soon changed. Adults were split into ten-year age divisions with varying handicaps needed to earn pins. The ten-year brackets would continue until 1999, when adult divisions started being split every five years.
A program for junior racers (originally sponsored by Pepsi Cola) was started in the early 1970s. Like the adults, there were several age divisions with varying handicaps needed to win pins.
Presentation of pins. In modern times, most ski areas give pins to winners at the bottom of the course at the time of the race. A much bigger production was made of the Nastar pin presentation process in the early years.
Racers were allowed to earn only one pin per year in each of the three (gold, silver, bronze) categories. Those pins were mailed to the winners at the end of the season, and their names were published in SKI Magazine.
In the program's second season (1969-70), SKI reported that 664 gold pins were awarded. The number grew to nearly 3,000 by 1972-73.
With Beattie and his World Wide Ski Corp. staff on board to manage the administration of the program, the role of Fry and SKI Magazine changed to one of editorial support.
And SKI has given plenty of publicity, running stories about Nastar very regularly.
"I have always believed that a special interest magazine like SKI should not only report journalistically," Fry said, "but should get actively involved in advancing programs which are good for the sport. I think that Nastar has more than fulfilled that role." The editorial support helped propel participation in the program to an even higher level than was dreamed by its pioneering founders in the 1960s.