Intrigued by the speed and danger of longboard racing, Beck spent years researching the sport. He ferreted out dope recipes, found old newspaper clippings and family diaries, rummaged through former mining towns and interviewed historians. Finally, in 1993, he decided to build his own pair of longboards. "I looked at hundreds of pieces of wood," says Beck, "before I found two perfect planks of vertical-grain Douglas fir."
Beck next constructed a ski-tip bender, copying the design from a picture he found in a book. He used a 150-year-old ski groover to cut a thin channel in the bottom of each ski, which reduced friction. And, of course, his dope was as authentic as it comes. After a month of labor, the first set of longboards to be made in 85 years were ready for use.
Meanwhile, in Plumas County, about 40 miles northwest of Beck's home, a group of ski-history buffs had begun their own longboard revival in 1991, staging demonstrations at one of the original longboard racing hills, in Johnsville (now the Plumas-Eureka Ski Bowl), with equipment borrowed from a local museum. When Beck proposed a race series between a team of his from the Lake Ta-hoe area—which he named the Sierra Lightning—and the Plumas Ski Club, the Plumas skiers immediately accepted, going so far as to place a few jeering messages in the local paper.
Members of the two teams built their own skis (the ones in the museum were deemed too valuable to use for racing) and concocted various dopes. The association held four racing events last winter; five were scheduled for this season. At the races men ski wearing cowboy boots and wool pants; the women, long dresses and high-heel lace-ups. The longboards, which are between 10 and 16 feet in length, are attached to the racers' feet by leather straps. Competitors line up at the start, two or three to a heat, each holding a single wooden pole.
For the starting signal, a hammer is pounded against an old circular saw blade. After a few furious pushes with the pole, each racer tucks it underneath his or her arm, dips into a longboarder's crouch—similar to that of a baseball catcher waiting for a pitch—and speeds straight down the hill. Or sometimes not so straight. "You don't control long-boards," says one racer. "They control you." If the boards drift to one side or clatter against one another, the skier drifts and clatters with them.
Not surprisingly, wipeouts are common. Those who do make it down the roughly 1,500-foot course—it takes about 15 or 20 seconds—stop themselves by jamming the pole between their legs and sitting on it, sending a plume of snow into the air and slowly bringing the skis to a halt. The winner of a heat hikes back up the hill for another round; losers are done for the day.
Last winter Beck and his teammates, using the whale-sperm dope, ruled the races. Sierra Lightning members won all four meets, and Beck was declared national champion. This season, however, things began differently. The Plumas Club dopemaster, Scott Lawson, 38, who is also one of the Plumas County Museum's curators, has evidently discovered a superior dope. Before this winter's first competition, held on Jan. 29 at the Plumas-Eureka Ski Bowl, Lawson spent hours waxing his team's skis. He kept his dope with him at all times, carrying it in a padlocked wooden box.
The race was a blowout. The Plumas Club swept the top three spots in both the men's and the women's events. After the race a few members of the Lightning, wondering what had caused their change of fortune, asked Lawson what ingredients he had used in his wax. Lawson flashed a sly grin. "I'll never tell," he said, squinting with delight and hugging his dope box.
But in the second race, which was held on Feb 26, the Lightning exacted revenge: the men took first through eighth place; the women, first and second. Said Beck after the race, "We're not telling our secrets either."