GLEN, N.H. — For 40 years, the Red Parka Pub Challenge Cup has served up a festive blend of high-level, pro-style racing and Mount Washington Valley ski culture.
The race, associated with the iconic apres ski favorite the Red Parka Pub, turns 40 on Friday and continues to draw skilled racers, including Olympian Tyler Palmer (three-time winner), former US Ski Team members Chrissy Guptill, Todd Thibodeau, and Taryn Palmer, NCAA Division 1 skiers, and an overflowing stein of local heroes.
“We see all types of racers,” said Red Parka Pub co-owner Terry O’Brien, whose father, the late Dewey Mark, and current pub co-owner Tony Ferruolo founded the competition in 1973. “Mountain Meisters [the Cranmore race league], masters, skiers from New England race series, a group from Wachusett, college racers, and old-timers all come.”
The dual-slalom features a pair of World Cup starting gates and a 3-foot jump, a spot for thrills and occasional spills.
“When we first started the jump there were a lot of spills,” said O’Brien in her small upstairs office. “Now skiers practice. There are quality racers. We don’t get too many of the take two and barbecue racers.”
The race evolved soon after the pub, named after the customary red parkas worn by ski instructors and patrollers at the time, opened in 1972. Ferruolo was an owner of Jackson’s now defunct and nearby Tyrol, and later neighboring Black Mountain. He and Mark brainstormed about a race for locals.
“We wanted to do something other than NASTAR,” said Ferruolo. “This was at the height of pro racing, so we thought about doing a dual-slalom format with a jump.”
The first race — called the Tuborg Classic — was at Tyrol in 1973. There it stayed before jumping to Black and then Attitash in Bartlett, its home since 1983. In the early days, organizers experimented with making it a small series or two-day event.
The race also features World Cup starting gates acquired in 1979 by race supporter Barry Bryant, a former World Cup chief of course.
“They’re antiquated but a piece of history now,” Ferruolo said.
Timing wands typically start a race when the skier trips it. For the Challenge, a starter signals the racers, and on his count pulls a lever that opens a bar gate.
“You can push against the gate, but when it opens you might get hung up,” said four-time winner Ben Drummond, 32, of Wilmot. “I’ve seen some people break their poles right in half in the gate trying to go ahead of it.”
Skiers get one warning if they barge or hit the gates and it opens. A second time means disqualification.
The race begins on the Competition Slope with a morning two-run elimination from an anticipated field of more than 125. The top 32 racers are broken into A and B divisions and then go head to head. The World Cup gates are used in the afternoon.
O’Brien says the winner takes a total of 12 runs during the day and there is no gender distinction in the A and B divisions.
“There is a lot of stamina involved,” said the second-generation pub owner. “They are exhausted by the end of this.”
Minimum age for skiers is 21, and they must be three years removed from pro-level racing.
The race has seen its share of challenges. Twice it was canceled because of a lack of snow. There have been 50 degree days with mashed-potato type of snow, and blinding snowstorms.
There was even a fistfight at the finish one year when one skier took a swing at another after he alleged bumped him during the race. The guy who threw the punch was thrown out.
At Tyrol, a racer crossed the finish line so fast he went over the bank and into the parking lot.
There’s been an ebb and flow, too. At one time, more than 200 racers competed. But also, one year only about 50 showed and thoughts turned to canceling.
“We started talking about that, but some people became involved, we came up with different categories and started recruiting racers,” O’Brien said.
One skier with a bull’s-eye on his back is Drummond, winner in 2005, ’06, ’10, and ’11. The former University of New Hampshire captain and Academic All-American grew up in the valley and is now Head USA’s racing and promotions manager.
“The first time I did it I was more tense, more jittery,” he said. “It was the real deal. I didn’t know what to expect. Now I’m more of a veteran doing it. There really is a learning experience of how to race it, how to see the ruts. I’m more relaxed, but the last couple of years everyone is out to take me down.”
Then, there’s the bump.
“You aren’t going off it and getting high up in the air,” said Drummond. “This is more of a drop down, a step down. It just adds some excitement, but if it’s someone’s first year and they don’t know how to anticipate it, it could be trouble.”
Thursday night, 24 skiers and supporters will be inducted into the Challenge Cup Hall of Fame, their photos on a Parka wall.
“This race is pretty much one of a kind,” said Ferruolo. “This is one of those things that you do the best you can, tweak it, make it better. It would be nice to see it perpetuate itself beyond the 40 years.”
The race has always been a fund-raiser, too, and since the 1990s has raised more than $100,000 for the Eastern Slope Ski Club junior program, which provides lessons to local elementary and middle school students, many who go on to race in the Challenge.
Drummond is one. He won the Parka’s Junior Challenge Cup in eighth grade.
“I grew up skiing with ESSC,” said Drummond. “Having a great time racing and raising money is what this is all about. We want to get kids outside on the mountains and enjoy themselves and hopefully they become lifelong skiers.”
And ski in the Challenge Cup.