The world's fastest skiers will don rubberized suits and aerodynamic helmets to compete at North America's only speed skiing event. The 2011 Subaru Velocity Challenge and FIS Speed Skiing World Cup runs March 3-6 at Sun Peaks Resort with skiers racing faster than drivers speeding on freeways.
North America has hosted speed skiing events in the past. But Sun Peaks is the sole resort still hosting speed skiing races outside of Europe, as the event celebrates its 22nd season this year.
"Speed skiing is the fastest non-motorized sport on planet," Adam Earle, forerunner and chief of race for the Sun Peaks event told OnTheSnow. "There's no way to go faster than we do on the surface of the earth without an engine."
Speed skiers race one at a time through a 100-meter-long timing trap set at the bottom of the course. "It's drag racing on skis," explained Earle. "At Sun Peaks, skiers go from zero to 175 in about eight seconds before the trap and then go from 175 to zero in another eight seconds after the trap."
Specialty equipment helps the skiers reach those speeds. Skis are wider, longer, and heavier than standard alpine skis, stretching out to 240 centimeters in length with minimal flex. Heavy speed skiing bindings weigh about 15-20 pounds per pair.
Racing suits and helmets are designed to reduce drag. Speed skiers wear red French-made, rubber-coated spandex suits with hard shell protection beneath, and protective helmets are worn inside of an aerodynamic shell. "The reality is that while speed skiing seems crazy, there are way fewer injuries in speed skiing than in the rest of the ski and snowboard world," said Earle. "But if you crash and slide, you get friction burns from the suits melting, and bruising is a danger."
At speed skiing races, the physics of sound creates a different experience for spectators than the racer. Earle compared the sound of a passing speed skier to the roar of a jet engine. The racer, however, hears only silence with the sound actually occurring behind him.
The world speed skiing record stands at 251 kilometers per hour (156 mph) with speeds on the Sun Peaks track running a bit slower, around 160-175 kph (99-109 mph). The Sun Peaks track plummets down the Headwall with a 55 percent grade that requires a winch cat for grooming.
The slower track, however, does have a unique feature: it's convex, in contrast to European concave tracks. "Standing on top, you can't see the rest of the track from the first breakover," said Earle. "It's akin to driving at night."
Competitors from 10 countries will descend on Sun Peaks for the speed skiing event. The speed races run daily 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Skiers, snowboarders, and foot passengers can get to the best viewing location via the Sunburst Express. Spectating is free for season passholders and those with lift tickets. Foot passengers can purchase tickets for $17.
Skiers wear rubberized suits, aerodynamic helmets, and heavy long skis to help them attain speeds at the Sun Peaks Velocity Challenge. Alpine Images photo.