"Now, of course, you have no guarantee that there'll be anybody using your equipment unless you pay the price. The basic price for a fairly good male skier on a boot is $2,500, plus prize money. There is a base of about $750 for first place, $500 for second, $300 for third. Some—like Schranz—cost a lot more. I remember I offered Karl $5,000 in Waterville Valley last year. He said, 'I like your product and I'd like to, but....' I offered him a hair more than the $5,000, but, no, he went back to his old company again for a lot more. We pay something like 30 different guys. Generally, they average $2,000 or so for using the boots. I go down the FIS points list, looking at the standings, and say go or no-go on skiers I want on the boot. To get a really top guy on boots runs $5,000 and about the same—maybe $1,000 or so more—for skis.
"I guess our whole racer program, including free equipment and service people, costs $250,000 a year. People wonder why we go to such trouble and expense to get kids on our products. Partly it's the implied—or real—endorsements. But don't forget our racers are testing our products and we can't improve without them."
Whatever a manufacturer's justification for paying racers, it can be quite a prosperous scene for any young man who can race like a dream. It is a bit iffy to generalize on amounts earned, but it is certain that none of the top 15 or 20 racers on the FIS World Cup tour are paid less than $6,000 a year. The top half dozen get between $10,000 and $25,000. Austria's splendid Spartan, Schranz, who has won more races than many youths now competing against him have entered, is simply in a class by himself. Some guess his income as high as $60,000 a year, plus stock options in the ski firm of Franz Kneissl, plus a low-interest government loan on his lovely hotel in St. Anton. But no one knows, and Schranz, who has said he will retire this year, will only admit to making $200 a month from Kneissl.
Except for the Americans, hapless and perhaps conscience-stricken, each national federation has some kind of channel for arranging its deals between manufacturers and skiers. Perhaps the French have the best system, but penetrating their network is about as tough as cracking the NKVD squad at the Kremlin. ("Eef I tell you about money, monsieur," said a saucer-eyed French lady in the know, "they will bring back the guillotine.") Anyway, the French are rigid in their restrictions of equipment brands their skiers may use (French-made products only, if you please). The kids are paid a base salary, plus a little more for each FIS standing, plus some prize money. The average annual income for a good (but not great) French racer is $7,500. Some, such as Patrick Russel or Jean-Nöel Augert or Alain Penz or perhaps Henri Duvillard, who have fashioned a long string of victories or have struck a particularly good deal with a manufacturer (one of them gets $8,000 for his skis alone), can take in perhaps twice that much in a year.
Swiss skiers make their own deals and are famed for jumping products, depending on price; one top Swiss changed bindings recently when he was offered more money than he was getting for both skis and bindings (meaning, on the average, $7,000).
Italian skiers can negotiate only through their federation and they are summarily fired from the team if they do not use the equipment they contracted for. Gianni Munari, a boot manufacturer who is one of nine board members of the Italian federation, said that young Gustav Thöni should easily collect $10,000 through the federation this season. However, given the Italian incentive formula for FIS points and high-placement prize money, Munari said Thöni might have won $20,000 if he had done better at the Val Gardena world championships and if he had won a couple of other races this year.
The Austrians, it is said, strike their own bargains—just so the home ministry is guaranteed its cut. Austria, of course, is the turf of Franz Kneissl. "I employ eight racers and they get a very good salary, but I would never tell anyone how much it is," he said. "They test skis for me because ski racing and development go hand in hand. I pay them well, but the FIS should officially recognize this situation and just not allow it to be this way. I would say I spend 10 million Austrian schillings [about $400,000] on ski racing and promotion."
These are weird and demented days along the old downhill trails. There seems to be a salesman behind every tree, a cash register at every slalom gate. Never have the gaudy forces of commercialism been quite so incessant or so strong—or so blatantly undisguised. As a result, every racer has become a finish-line shill.
But the pervasive influence of the manufacturer has imbedded itself even deeper in ski racing than the banners on the mountain show. For there also is the Racer-Chaser.
Once upon a time, when symbols were simpler and words meant what they seemed to mean, the term referred to flocks of silly, lovely girls who followed ski racers around Europe. Now, a Racer-Chaser is a man—one of a battalion of factory-dispatched agents who tags along from summer camp to summer camp, from mountain to mountain, to do the technical work of servicing the equipment that racers use. In all, there are perhaps 100 Racer-Chasers at all major competitions. They are easy to spot, for they tend to travel with product names printed in large letters across their backs. They also create a full street clutter of garishly painted trucks, vans and wagons whenever they descend. Easily the most obtrusive vehicle among them belongs to the Head Ski Co. It is a large, house trailer-size van that is painted with the same blazing yellow and orange stripes as the new XR-1 ski. When parked in one of those quaint villages of the Alps it stands out like a fire truck in the churchyard.