When the Montana Alpine Race School (MARS) started in 2016, the goal was to create a world-class training program at a mountain that didn’t have the crowds or challenging logistics that are routinely part of larger ski resorts.
Above the western shore of Flathead Lake, the family-owned Blacktail Mountain Ski Area, which has not yet set an opening date but will operate Wednesday through Sunday once the lifts start spinning, proved to be the perfect location for the program.
“This area we’ve been given by Blacktail is really second to none in our ability to focus on the training that they do each day,” MARS co-founder and foundation president Bill Metzler said. “We’ve been given our own runs to train on and we have the ability to ask groomers to cater to the next day’s training.”
Metzler has been part of several racing clubs over more than two decades, and he says the community inclusiveness at Blacktail is second to none. To prove his point, he points to the outpouring of support from the local community when he announced he was attempting to homologate the mountain in record time.
For skiers to wrack up points on the national and international race scene, they have to ski on courses that are certified (homologated) by the Federation of International Skiing (FIS) and U.S. Ski & Snowboard.
Usually the homologation process is a year-and-a-half endeavor, but when Metzler got a call in October, asking if Blacktail and MARS could host competitions this year, he leapt into action.
“I said yes, we’ll do the race, and then my thought a half hour later was, What did I just bite off?’” Metzler said. “I had not time to plan or prepare, so I just went to the community.”
Every single community member Metzler reached out to donated to the cause. The Lakeside-Somers Chamber of Commerce partnered with MARS and networked with businesses and other chambers in the valley. In less than 30 days, he had raised the necessary money for the certification process.
There are only a handful of inspectors nationwide who are able to grant FIS certification. Metzler managed to get Blacktail on the schedule of inspector Paul Mahre, who will be coming to the mountain next week to officially approve the mountain.
Blacktail has applied for four runs to go through the homologation process, meaning Mahre will hike each run on foot to verify them. Mahre will measure every run, ensure the correct features are present for the specific races that will be held and check pitch and width.
In addition to the certification, Metzler had to purchase timing equipment — which has to be World Cup caliber — as well as safety equipment such as netting.
Assuming everything goes according to the accelerated plan, Blacktail and MARS will host the first competition in January, a four-day race that will be jointly hosted by MARS and the Flathead Valley Ski Education Foundation.
In addition to hosting certified races, MARS will be debuting a new youth program called Rockets, for racers ages 6 to 10 years old. Metzler also points out that MARS is unique among ski clubs because there is an active master’s program with several racing members, including one who currently holds a world No. 1 ranking in giant slalom.
Metzler recalls a discussion with MARS head coach John Steitz prior to the club’s founding where he referenced the famous Field of Dreams quote, “If you build it, they will come.”
Just like that, it’s happened.
“People heard about what we needed to get done for the sake of our youth and to preserve the 80-year history of alpine racing in Flathead Valley,” Metzler said. “The community outpouring, it just chokes me up.”
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