Inside the world of ice cross downhill racing, the wildest sport on ice

Steven John/Business InsiderThe Red Bull Crashed Ice event at Fenway Park in Boston.

  • Now in its 18th year, Red Bull Crashed Ice races have grown from a spectacle into a genuine sport, with racers from around the globe vying for championship titles.
  • The fastest speed recorded during an ice cross downhill race clocked a racer skating at just over 47 miles per hour.
  • Ice cross downhill has the potential to be an Olympic event, but it will have to spread farther internationally to meet the Winter Games’ barrier to entry for a new sport.

Though ice cross downhill racing isn’t an Olympic event yet, the compelling sport hasn’t gone unnoticed by the International Olympic Committee, the governing body of the games.

As champion ice cross skater Cameron Naasz told me in a recent interview: “The Olympic committee has been out and seen our sport and has been contemplating it. We just need to develop more associations.”

That lack of associations is one of the sport’s main barriers to entry into the Winter Games: a sport needs to have official organisations in 25 countries for entry; as of now, ice cross downhill has only 14.

However, if you see this entirely unique sport in person, you’ll likely be taken by it as quickly as a skater rocketing down one of the sport’s icy racetracks. The athleticism, skill, and, frankly, the courage on display as the sport’s athletes barrel down steep hills and over sheer drops, fly over jumps, and whip around hairpin turns is infectious.

I arrived at a recent Red Bull Crashed Ice event staged in Boston’s iconic Fenway Park, home to the Red Sox, knowing little of the sport beyond what I’d learned while interviewing Naasz, one of the sport’s luminaries. I left Boston after the two-day event both a fan and an advocate for the sport’s expansion.

A sport that started small and grew fast

Steven John/Business InsiderThe Red Bull Crashed Ice course at Fenway from above.

Red Bull staged the first official ice cross downhill race in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2001. The track was 300 meters long and it was constructed right along a series of city streets. The ice the event organisers used was sourced from a local fish market.

While hardly a world-class event, that first race was a proof of concept: downhill ice racing worked as a competitive sport as well as a spectator event.

Over the next five years, an ice cross downhill race was held once each winter, with competitions held in Klagenfurt, Austria, Duluth, Minnesota, Moscow, Prague, and Quebec City.

By the year 2007, Red Bull was staging two Crashed Ice events annually. In 2010, the first ever Ice Cross Downhill World Championship competition took place.

And, while according to former competitor Reed Whiting, the first races drew a few thousand spectators out to the ice, by 2011, more than 100,000 fans watched a Crashed Ice event in Quebec City, Canada.

The most intense 45 seconds on ice

Steven John/Business InsiderMid-race at Fenway.

An ice cross downhill race is compelling primarily because it’s exciting.

Though the races last less than a minute, every second between the opening of the starting gates high atop a steep, icy drop to the moment the racers cross the finish line, often with skates outstretched to gain that half-inch that makes the difference in a photo finish, an ice race is pure action. Racers tuck into drops, soar over jumps, jostle around turns; they fall and pop back up, they sprint on straightaways, and they give every ounce of energy vying for the win.

But the sport itself, writ large, is compelling because of the athletes. While a first blush a race staged on a steep, icy obstacle course may seem like show, not sport, once you watch a few heats, you realise it is anything but. Into that 40 or 50 second dash down the go hours of studying the course, weeks of dedicated preparation at the gym, at skate parks, and on ice, dozens of previous races, and years of practice.

There are rivalries (though largely collegial), such as one between Canadian racer Scott Croxall and American Cam Naasz, and there are stars, such as champion skater Jacqueline Legere. But more than anything, there is a clear sense of devotion to the sport.

Asked about the competition, Naasz told me: “It’s definitely a community; something people don’t see much is the camaraderie between the athletes. We travel all winter long together, we support each other on and off the ice, whether it’s with places to stay, help with travel, then during practice we work together, we look at the features together, talk about how to get faster here or there. Then at the race, we all go as hard as we possibly can. Once it becomes race night, that’s all forgotten about for a bit.”

Outside of a small (but growing) circle, ice cross downhill racers are not celebrities, and the sport has yet to make any competitor rich. But more and more skaters keep getting into the circuit and more and more fans keep showing up to races because while perhaps a touch unusual, there is an elegant purity to a downhill ice race absent in many sports.

A 300 to 350 meter racecourse leaves no room for error; take a turn too wide, and you lose that half-second that might make the difference at the finish line. Come off a jump too high, and your competitor might be able to turn inside. Fall, and that’s it, you lost the heat.

And with racers nearing 50 miles per hour – Reed Whiting told me that a 47 MPH speed is the current record – there is always the chance for that fall to be dramatic to say the least.

But in most races, no one falls and the victor wins by hundredths of a second.

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