If this is Thanksgiving Weekend, then this must be America's Opening. You've got to hand it to the Park City Ski Area. When it gets serious about a tradition, it doesn't back off. What's it been now, five years since the first one, and there's no slowing down in sight. This year it's the pros, next year's plans call for another appearance by the World Cup.
Virtually every great ski racer in the world has been to Park City since the '86 World Cup got the "America's Opening" theme started five winters ago.Every year there are parties and parades and dances on Main Street and of course the races. Sometimes there is even snow that is not man-made. This year, for instance. They spent more than a month and 22 million gallons of water to make sure the races would go on, no matter what, and then, three days before showtime, a huge storm more than doubled the resort's efforts.
The Park City Ski Area seized on the America's Opening concept in the first place because it wanted to give off the impression that it always opened on Thanksgiving Weekend. The idea was that skiers in, say, New York or Atlanta or Los Angeles, or perhaps Geneva or Salzburg, would take notice and plan a pilgrimage to Park City.
"Somebody picks up a newspaper, or watches TV, and, hopefully, that someone is moved to book Park City for a trip," says Mark Menlove, the director of marketing at the Park City Ski Area.
Has it worked?
Can man make snow?
"We don't have any concrete figures," says Menlove, "But there's no question we've seen a considerable increase in international business since we got involved in World Cup skiing and the continued commitment to America's Opening."
The World Cup - which features amateurs, so-called, whom you might see soon at an Olympics near you - is skiing's top act, and when it's available, the World Cup is Park City's first choice.
The professional circuit, called officially the Men's U.S. Pro Tour and the Women's Pro Ski Tour, has always filled in when the World Cup couldn't make it. This year is one of those years.
Like many things in life, it's hard to figure why the World Cup is more desireable than the Pro Tour. With its side-by-side racing format (as opposed to straight timed races on the World Cup), the pro races are considerably more exciting to watch and decipher. You don't have to have been born in a chalet in Switzerland to know what's going on. The first skier across the finish line - that's your winner.
The first skiers across the finish line Friday afternoon - as qualifying races were held on the Clementine Run to determine the field for the side-by-side elimination racing that will be held today and Sunday - were a pair of Austrians, Birgit Hussauf and Bernhard Knauss.
By qualifying with the fastest times they each won an 18-carat gold Rolex watch, worth approximately $3,700.
It is Knauss's - who has been a pro just a season and a half - first payday in Park City. Hussauf, on the other hand, has made a nice living in two previous America's Opening visits to Utah. In 1987, the first year America's Opening went professional, she was second in overall points among the women, and in the Park City A.O. races in 1988 she was first in overall points and also first in the slalom.
Birgit gets excited when she sees the season schedule and notes that Park City is the first stop.
She will not be happy to hear that next year's plans call for a return of the World Cup.
"We've got a tentative schedule with the World Cup," says Menlove. "They haven't finalized anything yet, but hopefully they'll be back."
In the meantime, there's $110,000 worth of prizes - including the Rolexes - to be carried out of town this weekend by the professionals. The purse - one of the largest of the year on the Pro Tour - is a combination of monies from sponsors and the Park City Ski Area.
"In the short term, we lose a lot of money on this event," says Menlove. "In the long term, hopefully not."
This year's America's Opening is scheduled to be aired on a tape-delayed basis on ESPN Dec. 7 - two weeks from now.
That's when some skier in Chicago will be propped in his armchair, feeling rotten about the winter, and tune in and see America's Opening in Park City, Utah, a place where they see snow as something more than a reason to close school.
Or better yet, some skier propped in his armchair in Paris.
Maybe they'll book a trip. They may not come to Park City and win a Rolex, but they'll be able to ski the same run as the guy who did.