Regardless of your age, skiing ability or speed, there’s a good chance that each one of you reading this has spent some time on a NASTAR course. You may have won a NASTAR medal or two. Your mom has probably won NASTAR medals, maybe your grandpa, too. Over the last half century, NASTAR has even provided many of America’s top racers their first medals as well as their very first taste of the gates.
Launched by SKI Magazine back in 1968, NASTAR (National Standard Race) has for decades been this country’s most recognizable, steadfast name in grassroots ski racing.
Former SKI editor-in-chief John Fry, who passed away this January at the age of 90, was NASTAR’s original mastermind. Fellow ski industry legend Bob Beattie served as NASTAR commissioner for its first three decades, establishing support for the program through sponsorship and partnerships at ski areas across the United States before shaping protégé Bill Madsen for the role. Madsen has served as NASTAR’s guiding light over the last 30-plus years. However, there has been some concern amid all the other turmoil with COVID-19 and general unknowns regarding the upcoming ski season, that NASTAR was going away.
NASTAR management has changed hands numerous times over the years, particularly over the last few months, when U.S. Ski and Snowboard, which had operated the program for the previous five-and-a-half years and was in the process of purchasing it outright, handed it back to SKI owner Active Interest Media (AIM). Shortly thereafter AIM sold it along with its entire Outdoor Group to Pocket Outdoor Media (POM).
The good news is that NASTAR is not going away.
“The daily operations of NASTAR will remain the same, even under ownership at Pocket Outdoor Media,” said Jessica McGee of Pocket Outdoor Media, formerly of AIM. “Because of the large community and active lifestyle audience who are collectively engaged in POM’s brands, we envision NASTAR will benefit by tapping into that larger base of participants who are recreational skiers as well as cyclists, runners, climbers, and beyond. While yes, the season will look different, we are going about things the same way as any other year to get resorts on board to set up their NASTAR race program/venues. Our resort outreach has just begun, and the future would be to grow the resort participation.”
Although Madsen himself had been getting antsy about NASTAR’s future, POM recently and officially re-onboarded him as director.
“I started as an intern for Bob Beattie right out of college in 1989,” Madsen said. “I worked for Bob for 10 years and I’ve gone through a lot of transitions in the following 20 years. I have good friends over the country who call me and say, ‘Is NASTAR done? Are you done?’ I had a summer of saying, ‘I wish I could tell you, but I don’t know.’ Every few years, I was working for a new company. But the primary focus behind NASTAR has never changed.”
That focus has been to get as many skiers as possible, regardless of age, ability level or type of boards, on the racecourse. This was John Fry’s original vision.
“John was a real advocate of getting people in the gates, allowing them to try the sport and be hooked for life,” Madsen said. “That has been the theme for NASTAR. Let people try it and see where it takes them. I’ve never stood at the bottom of any course and seen anyone come down with a frown on their face. They’re scared. They’re exhilarated. They’re never frowning. That’s what’s kept me in it for so many years.”
Operated at more than 100 ski areas across the United States, NASTAR sees more than 100,000 races per year. Thanks to the innovative timing system and social media, participants are constantly able to keep tabs of their speeds and scores and size up against friends, families and competitors across the country using the handicap-based ranking system.
When U.S. Ski and Snowboard acquired NASTAR in 2015, by all accounts, it was a major step in fusing ski racing’s gateway experience with the country’s governing body of the sport.
“My goal was to have USSS clubs use the NASTAR system to make hosting races easier and to provide racers and parents with easier access to results and rankings,” Madsen said. “I wanted to have ski clubs use the NASTAR handicap system so that kids could compete nationally and within their state without traveling. My focus was to address the increasing cost of alpine racing.”
Madsen ran successful pilot programs in the Rocky Mountain and West divisions but was unsuccessful in “convincing the Alpine Competition Committee that the plan had value and could help grow the sport.”
“Without NASTAR fully integrated into U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s club curriculum, the program could not reach the potential I had hoped to see,” Madsen said.
Several NASTAR fans believe this to be a hugely lost opportunity.
“It was disastrous, especially over the last two years,” former USSS Chief Marketing Officer Mike Jaquet told Ski Racing Media this summer. “It was an opportunity to show a bunch of commitment at the grassroots level and try to get kids in the pipeline and graduate them from the NASTAR course into USSA racing. It was a wonderful opportunity to be involved in the greater ski community.”
Jaquet, who said it was he who purchased NASTAR for U.S. Ski & Snowboard, went on to explain how he helped run NASTAR as a profitable enterprise for its first couple of years under USSS management, securing title sponsor Liberty Mutual and growing the program across 125 nationwide resorts before the NGB essentially abandoned it, lost sponsorship and handed it back to SKI Magazine with only the last of six $300,000 payments to make.
“They totally blew it,” Jaquet said. “One of the huge knocks against the Ski Team is that they’re the elite of the elite. You’re not talking to the average skier or the average person living at a ski resort. [NASTAR] is the first thing you could ever have to talk to those people and develop a wider fan base. It’s an epic failure from the leadership.”
A new home
Tiger Shaw, U.S. Ski Team President and CEO who happens to be a former NASTAR pacesetter, declined to comment on the financial aspect of the NASTAR transactions, but said USSS will remain involved in NASTAR and that Pocket Outdoor Media is poised to accelerate the program’s reach better than USSS could.
“We owned it and operated it for a period of time but chose to make this change,” Shaw said. “We wanted to make sure it had a great home. We’re working closely with SKI Magazine that Pocket Media likes to keep it under. There’s so much overlap. They’ll do a much better job with social interacting, the whole aspect of the mix between competing and sharing with friends … think Strava of skiing. We were OK at it, but a media company is going to be very good at it.”
While NASTAR is still in the market for sponsors, operators – both past and current – believe that pandemic-related protocols and limited travel this season might make the NASTAR format an especially enticing option for resorts and participants of all varieties.
“In conventional ski racing, you do less skiing on race day than any other day. You’re prepping, you’re inspecting, that type of stuff. The [NASTAR] concept to show up, spend your whole day going down the course and take your best time, this year, being the COVID times that we are, we may be able to adopt some of those thoughts,” Shaw said. “The idea is to run the course as much as you can. The beauty of people staying home more is that they can train more. You’re only going to get better at the sport if you do it a lot, not hanging around the lodge or in a giant queue waiting to go down the course.”
Madsen and Pocket Outdoor Media are in the process of landing NASTAR at as many venues as possible this season, from huge resorts like Aspen Mountain, which has recently notched the largest number of NASTAR participants, to areas like Wachusett Mountain, Mass., which has had the most racer days and where you can order NASTAR nachos at the bar, to ski areas across the Midwest, where NASTAR is the cornerstone of town and beer race leagues.
“The NASTAR program has been supported by so many resorts for so long,” Madsen said. “It’s an expectation that people have for an amenity at resorts. When they don’t have it, it feels like something is missing. If you give your guests that experience where they’re thinking I gotta go back there because I can do better, that’s the real allure. In the time of COVID, it works well.”
Madsen also plans to continue to try to integrate NASTAR with high school competition programs, Buddy Werner Leagues and the World Pro Ski Tour, also ramping up the stakes with prize money opportunities.
“Whether or not it gets integrated into USSS or high school programs – an opportunity to bond the ski industry and alpine racers together – at its heart is recreational racing,” Madsen said. “What we did last year at the Midwest Championships in Michigan, we took that Race of Champions format where you start with highest handicappers and the next guy bounces him off the podium. We gave away prize money. We gave prize money to a 14-year-old guy and a 70-year-old guy. It was this cool format of different racers having to ski faster and faster. That’s what’s going to resonate. It’s super exciting. It’s not a slam dunk. Anyone can win.”
Regardless of the recent shakeup in ownership or the pending, pandemic-related unknowns, Madsen sees a bright horizon for NASTAR.
“I’m really optimistic about the future,” he said. “What we’ve seen with COVID right now, people are anxious to get outside and do stuff. I think the ski industry is in a position to do really well and I hope NASTAR is to.”