The Little Night Race That Could
If you ever find yourself in the Tirol region of Austria during the middle of January, there’s usually one thing on people’s minds: Kitzbuehel. Don’t get me wrong, the Hahnenkamm, and all of the hullabaloo that goes along with it – Arnold Schwarzenegger, Niki Lauda, and this one guy who sings annoyingly catchy songs in lederhosen – is something truly special, but look past all the glitz and glam of Hahnenkamm week and you’ll find an opportunity to watch some of the biggest names in a much more intimate setting than on race day in Kitzbuehel.
Drive just 20 minutes west of Kitzbuehel, and you’ll land in the town of Westendorf. This small Tirolean village has traditionally hosted a FIS night slalom the week of the more famous races in Kitzbuehel. Dating back to 1995, the race has been used as a tune-up of sorts for many skiers racing the Kitzbuehel slalom that approaching Sunday.
After a three-year hiatus, the night slalom returned to Westendorf this year with World Cup racers from Austria, Germany, Slovenia, Canada, Japan, Sweden, Poland, South Korea, Switzerland, and the United States all making the start list the night before the Hahnenkamm downhill. Austrian rising star Manuel Feller took this year’s race ahead of Germany’s Linus Strasser and fellow Austrian Richard Leitgeb.
With a five-Euro admission fee for spectators, large crowd, VIP tent, enthusiastic announcers, and pumping dance music, it’s easy to forget that young racers just starting their FIS careers are competing in the same race as some of their biggest idols.
Past winners of the event include Jean-Baptiste Grange, Felix Neureuther, and Erik Schlopy, and the Westendorf Night Slalom has boasted fields that are arguably the strongest ever outside of a full-on World Cup. In the 2013 edition of the race, an athlete with 15 FIS points started with bib number 60.
It’s events like this that remind us why ski racing is so alive and well in this part of the world. There is a tangible connection between the best racers on the World Cup and those at the grassroots level when you attend an event like Westendorf. For a young racer to see the stars they look up to every weekend mingling with families and being, well, just like them, it makes success in the sport feel attainable while inspiring the next generation to put in the work required to make it to the top.
If there’s one thing I learned that can be taken back to the United States from my experience this winter in Westendorf, it’s how much good can come from the best racers taking an occasional step back from their competitive schedules and attending a lower-level event or two throughout the season.
If you’re an elite-level racer home for a few days between trips, don’t hesitate to check out the local race scene. Your presence just might light the competitive fire inside a young skier who hopes to someday be just like you.