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SKI RACING IS NOT JUST FOR EXPERTS ANYMORE

You don't go around gates anymore, you hit them - hard. Run right at them, knock them down and then line up to hit the next one.

It's not pretty, but then it's not supposed to be. In ski racing it's hit-and-run and don't look back.And, indications are that all this slamming and banging is, uh, fun. Racer numbers, from those just learning to hit a gate to those that do it with rugged ease, are sharply increasing in a sport that for the past decade has remained level.

That's because, said Steve Bounous, former U.S. Ski Team Racer, former pro racer, current head of the Snowbird Race Team and director of Snowbird's race clinics, it's fun, interesting "and adds a whole new dimension to skiing . . . even for the casual recreational skier."

Racing has, in the past 20 years, changed. Back in the 1970s racers went around gates as if to hit one meant disqualification.

To better their times, however, skiersneeded a more direct route to the finish. They started cutting closer to the gates, especially in slalom, but to do it, and keep proper body angles to counter pulling forces, they needed to come in contact with the gates, which were at this time straight sticks of bamboo stuck in the snow.

From 1980 to 1981, ski racing made giant strides forward by switching from bamboo gates to the new "break aways," or spring-loaded gates, that bend over at ground level when hit.

To hit the new gates, said Bounous, "we used what was called `outside arm clearing' to knock the gates away. Sometime, though, we had to twist the body to do it and the closer to the gate we got the more difficult it was. Then we started using `inside arm clearing,' or cross blocking, as I call it.

"This allowed us to put the skis on one side of the gate, then lean the body all the way across and onto the other side of the gate. This way we could run right at the gate, lean across and knock it out of the way. It allowed us to ski a straighter, faster line."

All that blocking was hard on clothing, however. Friction caused by hitting the gates was melting fabrics in sweaters, so more durable plastics were introduced.

Today, top slalom racers resemble hockey players, with plastic pads on their arms and legs, padded gloves, plastic plates on their poles and racing helmets with mouth guards.

But not all racing is that serious or requires that equipment. There's the more technical giant slalom and a less aggressive approach to slalom.

The bottom line, he pointed out, is that "racing helps you to become a better skier. It teaches good basic skills that can help a skier ski anywhere . . . packed, powder, chutes, tree skiing.

"The only real difference is that in racing the course dictates where you turn. Sometimes it forces you to make turns where you normally wouldn't."

Currently, Bounous holds weekly race camps at Snowbird. Skiers can take a day class or the recommended three consecutive days - Tuesday through Thursday.

Typically, the first day involves free skiing and racing technique; the second involves drills and instruction on style; and the third involves repeated runs through a full-length course under coaches' eyes. Instruction generally alternates between GS and slalom each week.

Bounous says that students range from the very young to senior citizens, and from those fresh out of a snowplow turn to competitive racers.

"I'd say that 75 percent of the students are taking the instruction to become better skiers. Some of them may never race. Then again, some will try a few recreational races, just for the fun of it, and get hooked.

"Racing is really a lot of fun. Recreational ski racing is something else to try. It can be a new goal," he added.

A four-hour racing class under Bounous is $45. Discounts are given on consecutive-day prices. There is also a season pass, good for 60 race clinics, offered at the start of each season for $500. This also includes a 50 percent discount in lift tickets.

Bounous will run his mid-week clinics through April 17.

After class, there is no shortage of racing opportunity. Many resorts offer pay-to-race courses, where each run on a pre-set course may cost $1. There are also the recreational races like NASTAR and the Saturday races put on by Coca-Cola.

There is also a new Citizens Series (next race is March 24 at Snowbird), specially intended for the casual recreational racer, and the Masters Series for the more serious skiers.

And, if the interest in racing continues to develop, look for more race courses on the slopes.