Despite the built-in gambles and thrills, the pro ski tour still faces parlous times; no one has yet figured out how to draw meaningful income from paying spectators. Television coverage, with its fat fees, has been slow in coming. Beattie must therefore rely almost entirely on commercial sponsorships, and hustling them up is about as tough as trying to footpack Mount Everest. "It's been a frantic scramble," he says. "Have you ever tried working with mirrors? That's us."
The skiing industry is currently in something of an overcrowded, unprofitable state, and, except for backing a few individual skiers on the tour or even a few teams, it can't be counted on to provide much important help. "The industry in the U.S. is still pretty soft," says Beattie. "It isn't stable enough yet to be a major financer. We have to go outside the business."
Outside the business means Benson & Hedges 100's, the tobacco firm which is putting up close to $100,000 this year in prize money; Samsonite luggage and Colorado Magazine, who supplied the $20,000 purse offered at Vail; and Du Pont, which will support future races.
In selling the tour, the sales pitch is not pegged strictly to exciting races and the crack skiers but also to its colorful personalities. There is Sabich, who flies, races motorcycles and figures that a night in which he hasn't danced on at least one tabletop is a night wasted. Jim Lillstrom, Beattie's P.R. man, also enjoys checking off some of the other characters. Norway's Terje Overland is known as the Aquavit Kid for the boisterous postvictory celebrations he has thrown. He's also been known to pitch over a fully laden restaurant table when the spirits have so moved him. Then there is the poet, Duncan Cullman, of Twin Mountain, N.H., author of The Selected Heavies of Duncan Duck, published at his own expense, who used to travel the tour with a gargantuan, bearded manservant. And Sepp Staffler, a popular Austrian, who plays guitar and sitar and performs nightly at different lounges in Great Gorge, N.J. when he isn't competing. The ski tour also has its very own George Blanda. That would be blond, wispy Anderl Molterer, the 40-year-old Austrian, long a world class racer and still competitive.
Pro skiing's immediate success, however, seems to depend on an authentic rivalry building up between Sabich and Kidd, who are close friends but whose living styles are as diverse as snow and sand. Sabich is freewheeling on his skis as well as on tabletops. Kidd is thoughtful, earnest, a perfectionist. Spider has his flying, his motorcycles and drives a Porsche 911-E. Billy paints and now drives a Volvo station wagon. Spider enjoys the man-to-man challenge of the pro circuit. Billy harbors some inner doubts regarding his ability to adapt to it.
"I'm not one of those competitive people who must win at everything at all cost—Ping-Pong, golf or whatever," Kidd says. "It's only true in skiing. Even then I've always felt that the most important struggle is primarily to get the most out of myself, not just beat the other guy. This man-to-man racing doesn't come naturally."
In Vail, Kidd—suffering slightly from flu and not yet competitively sharp—could progress no further than the quarterfinals in either event. Again the weekend belonged to Sabich. Spider won the giant slalom, surviving a scare in the semifinals when Overland, with a substantial lead, sailed too far off the final jump, missed a gate and was disqualified. In the slalom, Sabich survived another scare by Overland in the first round, but his protest against being called for missing a gate was upheld and he was able to sweep on through without the loss of another heat. This pair of victories plus point total was worth $6,500.
"Yes, Spider's the best right now," agreed Kidd after the race, sipping a glass of ros�, "but my ski technique is as good as it's ever been, too. By January I feel I'll be competitive. That's when you'll see what this tour can really produce."