ultraUltraCross: It's new to Winter X

Note: The correct Winter X Games use of the term is UltraCross. However, the competition discussed in this overview is the Red Bull Ultra-cross.

The 2000 Winter X Games will mix snowboarders and skiers together for the first time in a new racing discipline called UltraCross. This new format will pair the top 16 skiers and snowboarders together in a relay-style race on the Skier X course. The teams will be randomly chosen at a draw party the night before the scheduled event.

UltraCross will be an insane race of skills, guts, and unity. It will also serve to dispel the tiresome hype of the mythical skier/snowboarder rift. Boarders and skiers have been ripping together since the beginning.

The history
Over its brief three year history, the Ultra-cross has been nothing if not evolving.

The idea for the event was born in a brainstorming session between Global Event Management (Skiing sport organizers at Winter X) and Aaron Martin (director of the Tahoe Fat Tire Festival. The session was spurred by the energy drink company, Red Bull, which had issued a challenge to come up with a new and unique winter event.

"We had done some relay-style events for IMG (the International Marketing Group) in the past, says Global Event Management's (GEM) Chris Schuster. "We came up with the concept to do a relay event, and thought it would also be cool to bring something in a team format where there would be skiers and snowboarders competing together. We pooled all the experience we had with doing skiercrosses and the boardercross stuff and the relay-style events, and just developed it over a couple of days." The idea was then pitched to Red Bull, and the company liked it. The seeds for the first Ultra-cross were planted and beginning to grow.

The venues
The first event was held in 1998 at Mt. Rose in the Lake Tahoe region of Nevada, already a hotbed for skiercross and boardercross, and home to some of the top athletes in skiing and snowboarding. Right away, the event achieved immense popularity.

"The weather didn't really treat us too right, but people liked it," remembers Schuster. "It was a great course. We had a ton of snow to work with, and we had a lot of cool features. We had over-under options--people flyin' over other people's heads. It was cool to see the skiers and snowboarders high-fivin' each other in the finish corral. That was something I had never really seen before. We got a lot of good response, a lot of good press out of it, so Red Bull wanted to do it again."

For the second year, the event was moved to Big Bear, a resort outside Los Angeles, California, and pushed from mid-winter to the spring. Both changes proved to be a hardship on the event. "That was too late in the spring, it was in March and it was right after the SIA (Ski Industry Association) show, and (Big Bear) didn't have any snow," Schuster says. "A lot of athletes were either injured or burnt or just not willing to make the journey down there. But the event itself was good, the show was good."

Representatives from Red Bull Europe saw the show from last year's ('99) event, and decided the Ultra-cross was something worth investing in. So Red Bull pumped even more sponsorship money into the event, doubling the purse from $15,000 to $30,000. The ultimate quest was to lure back the big names from the snowboard and skiing circuits. But, from GEM's experience, it would take more than a few thousand dollars to land the talent.

"We said, 'Look if you want everyone to come, you're gonna have to do it earlier in the year, and you're also gonna have to do it somewhere people want go,'" Schuster says. "So we're having it at Squaw, and we've gotten a huge response already. We've got more teams pre-registered now (first week of January 2000), than we had in the whole event last year."

The relay
Key to the whole Ultra-cross is the relay system that opens the start gate when the first leg of the relay finishes. In three years of planning this event, GEM has used three different systems.

"The first year we had four individual finish lines, color coordinated to the start," says Schuster. "But that made it kind of hard on the athletes. After you take five or six runs in a day, you forget if you were in the red course that run, or the blue course or the yellow course. There was a lot of confusion, and we had a lot of people just DQing their team because they went through the wrong finish line."

Last year at Big Bear, organizers opted to move towards human judges. "It was a little more primitive of a system," Schuster says. "We just had one person designated to each color course, sitting at the finish line with an electronic plunger in their hand. Whenever the red bib would go through the finish, the red person would hit their plunger and open the gate at the start."

This season the Ultra-cross is moving from the primitive to the space age. "We're using the same kind of timing system they use in Indy/Cart racing and stuff like that-a much more high-tech timing system," says Schuster.

The athletes will wear a computer chip around their ankle which corresponds to their team's gate. When the first teammate (the snowboarders go first) crosses the finish line, an electronic eye reads the computer chip, and opens the corresponding gate, releasing the skier.

The new system, called the Pegasus Transponder, is expected to eliminate the multi-finish-line confusion of the first Ultra-cross, while also taking away the possibility of human error inherent in last year's system. "This particular system is designed for Indy cars," Schuster says. "They can handle speeds up to 150 miles per hour. There's little to no chance at all of it failing." The Pegasus is also the system GEM plans to use for the Winter X Games.

The format
Just as the timing system has evolved, the format for the race has changed over the last three years as well. "The first year we had two skiers and two snowboarders in each leg of the heat," Schuster explains. "By design, we wanted to have as tight a finish as possible. Obviously the skiers were a little faster, so they'd cross the finish line, and then their snowboarder partners would come out of the gate a few seconds before the skiers, who are waiting for their snowboarders to finish. By the time the skiers catch up they should be near the finish."

While the idea was good in theory, in practical application, it failed. "It didn't really work out (the way we planned)," Schuster explains. "Skiers and snowboarders are not designed to be in the same course at the same time. It got a little hectic for the competitors just because snowboarders are used to being next to snowboarders, and vice-versa."

The following year, organizers opted to put the snowboarders together in the first leg, followed by the skiers, who were released from the start when their snowboarding partner crossed the finish. The new format proved to be easier on the different breeds of athletes, who have different riding styles, take different lines, and use different equipment. It also makes for more exciting racing, since no competitor in either leg of the heat has a distinct advantage, other than what their partners have earned for them.

GEM has decided to stick with this format for this season, including the Winter X Games' UltraCross.

The response
The third year of Ultra-cross is shaping up to be the best ever in the event's embryonic existence. The slumping numbers from last year have rebounded already with the move back to the Tahoe area, and inclusion in the Winter X Games is sure to give the event yet another boost. As of January 7, 2000, there were already 38 teams pre-registered (10 women's teams and 28 men's teams), with many of both sports' bigger names also committing verbally.

"A lot of the guys that are in it are guys that either have been in, or are in the Winter X Games," says Schuster. "(It's been popular with big name athletes) because it gives them a chance to get in there with the people they ride with and hang out with."

"It's just a cool event," Schuster continues. "The team thing just makes it a lot cooler. There's some strategy involved, and it's just a cool thing to have somebody else that they can share that experience with."

Here are the results of the Red Bull UltraCross held at Squaw Valley January 16-17, 2000.

(Snowboarders first)

Shaun Palmer & Chris Hernandez
Greg Nevolo & Shane McConkey
Jason Evans & Chris Davenport
Travis McLain & Tyler Williams
Dieter Happ & Lois Koidl
Drew Neilson & Shawn Nesbitt
Brandon Stieg & Kent Krietler
Martin Freinademtz & Axel Naglich

Brittany Mahanna & Megan Brown
Snow Peterson & Noel Lyons
Karleen Jeffery & Charlotte Moats
Michelle Shetler & Annika Dahl
Anika Burkhart & Christina Bergstrand
Sunday Houser & Alisa Jones
Julie Tracy & Anik Demers
Lori Gibbs & Linda Peterson

Bolded names denote Winter X Games athletes.

What's new in Winter X