Shovel Racing: The story of the cult winter sport
It’s usually the most interesting things in life which almost happen by accident. Take that caveman sitting around waiting for fire to be invented; there he is picking bits of woolly Mammoth from in between his teeth with a bit of flint when he spies a round ball of stone. Unable to control his urges he hoofs it into action, ’nutmegs’ a Pterodactyl and punts it into a cave. The very first goal in the history of the world has just been scored and life will never be the same again, although the players will remain remarkably unchanged. But you get my point.
And so it is with Shovel Racing. You almost certainly haven’t heard of Shovel Racing but there have been points over the last three decades where it has threatened to explode and achieve the primary status which its dedicated followers firmly believe it deserves. And it’s those diehard fans who are convinced that we’re about to witness another golden age of the sport.
Thirty years ago in the New Mexico Ski Resort of Angel Fire, a team of lift attendants, who were going about their normal business of repairing divots on the piste, suddenly realised that the easiest way to get from divot to divot was to sit on the shovel and sledge. A standout moment in the history of winter sport had just been created, and before long people were packing the slopes to race on their shovels. Things quickly developed with the sport splitting into two distinct categories: the ‘modifieds’ and the ‘shovels’. The former are buggies built on to shovels that can look like a cross between a bobsled and a spaceship, with the latter being the purest, less dangerous discipline.
The sport maintained a healthy but cult following in the Angel Fire resort with local teams tinkering away with their ‘modifieds’ to squeeze out greater performance and purist shovel racers honing their technique to become the fastest person on a shovel. However, almost from the beginning it was never simply a way of spending time. Sliding down a frozen hill with absolutely zero control at speeds of up to 70mph is of course as much of a thrill for the spectators as it is for those who take part. The ever increasing demand for speed brought huge demands of the ‘modifieds’ and their crews and of course with that came increased danger. Being asked to travel anywhere at 70mph, with no firm way of steering, stopping or indeed controlling your speed in any way asks for a special breed of man. One that won’t stop whatever the conditions, whatever the risk, that just can’t say no to taking the shovel down the hill for one more run. And unfortunately it’s just that sort of spirit that led to one of the key low points in its history.
Television and mainstream media had enjoyed dalliances with shovel racing since its early days but its first big moment, and nearly its last, was at the 1997 Winter X Games. On the very last day of the games the Modifieds competed on primetime tv, on a slope which mountain bikers had spent the morning carving up. Despite racers’ protestations the ensuing carnage was wholesale, as uncontrollable machines, unable to do anything but follow the churned up tracks, were sent careering in all directions. Nearly all the machines crashed but one was a little more spectacular than others and gave birth to not only a shovel racing legend but also the most defining moment of its history. John ‘Shovelmeister’ Strader flipped his craft at over 70mph and suffered a bruised heart, a cracked sternum, a broken jaw, a broken leg and a broken back in 3 places. The hospital bills forced him into bankruptcy.
Following the accident Shovel Racing was taken off the X Games roster and disappeared for a while as people tried to come to terms with what it had become and tried to figure out where it was going. Then, slowly, like a mighty phoenix from the flames, locals started getting back on their shovels and taking to the slopes. After a four year hiatus, and with his life back on track, The Shovelmeister rekindled his love affair with the sport which had made him a cult figure. Three years ago Angel Fire Resort restarted the Shovel Racing World Championships for back to basics shovel purists and the Shovelmeister is once again the man to beat.
So at this weekend’s Shovel Racing World Championships at Angel Fire Resort, New Mexico, on Saturday 12th February he will be once more hoping that this is the year, this is the race, which takes it global. Are we about to witness new dawn of one of the most leftfield, crazy and highly addictive winter sports known to man? Maybe, maybe not but one thing is sure: the world needs more things like shovel racing and it needs more men like the Shovelmeister.