February 16, 2006

Snowboard cross brings Nascar to the slope

By Alan Baldwin

BARDONECCHIA, Italy (Reuters) - Fast and furious, snowboard
cross barged into the Olympics on Thursday with thrills, spills
and a nod to stock car racing.

To a punk rock background beat, the helmeted racers
careered four at a time down a tight and winding course in a
series of knock-out heats as the newest event on the Winter
Games program came in with a bang.

Riders got bumped on the jumps, sometimes falling in
tangled heaps on the snow, as they jostled for the lead at
speeds of up to 60 kph (35 mph).

Only in Olympic snowboard cross could an athlete literally
see his medal hopes vanish down the Toilet Bowl, just one of
the evocatively named twists and turns of the 900 meter
obstacle-strewn course.

"It's kind of like Nascar," said Canadian Drew Nielson, one
of the pre-race favourites who crashed out in the opening
four-man heat.

"It's guys trying to keep their position and trying not to
get people come down on them ... you try to pass somebody and
there's a chance you're going to take yourself out.

"It's the same in motor racing ... you've got to do it as
quickly as you can and as carefully as you can so it's over
before the person knows it and you've passed him and you're
gone," he said.


Motocross on ice was how Australian Damon Hayler,
disqualified in the quarter-finals, and American Nate Holland
described their chosen sport.

"It is a type of motocross track, which is difficult enough
to go down by yourself. Add three more riders and it becomes a
cut-throat event -- which makes it a great spectator sport,"
said Holland.

As in many forms of motorsport, the sense of danger is a
recognized attraction.

"Sometimes seeing people crash is exciting to people,"
observed American Jason Smith. "And there are definitely lots
of crashes in snowboard cross."

Gold medal winner Seth Wescott hoped boardercross, as it is
known in North America, could appeal to the same sort of fans
who have made Nascar the country's biggest draw on wheels.

"Our country loves Nascar and motorsports and things like
that and this is kind of that element added to snowboarding,"
added Wescott.

"The whole concept of head-to-head racing in the United
States is a big thing with all the motorsports.

"And I think this kind of lends a little in that direction
maybe for the general public that aren't snowboarders but are
out there watching us."