Herb Lewis has always been a competitor. Since high school in Boston he has competed in ice hockey, baseball, football, tennis.
These days, at 54, he is a ski racing groupie, following the amateur ski racing circuit. He has raced 13 times since the season started for him on Dec. 26 and hopes to make it to the finals of at least three different racing circuits this spring.
Lewis has been racing practically since he started skiing. He went to a racing clinic and was pressed into service as part of a ski team.
"The very next weekend I went racing," Lewis said. Since then he has been to three ski racing camps, two at Waterville Valley, N.Y., and one at A-Basin, Colo.
"I spent a lot of money on it and put a lot of mileage on the car," Lewis said. Over the Christmas holidays, for example, he raced on Dec. 26 at Elk Mt., Pa., on Dec. 30 at Killington, Vt., on Jan. 1 at Okemo, Vt. and Jan. 2 at Great Gorge, N.J.
Lewis is not a hotshot racer - he has never swept the field - but he often comes in first in his class.
"Racing gives me a chance to go against the young people and even whip them, now and then," he said. "But for the most part an oldster can never beat a youngster in ski racing. Besides equipment and technique, you need recklessness. The Walter Mitty types like me just can't make the old bod do it. The desire is there but I just can't let myself go."
Lewis prefers the Citizens Race, sponsored by Nutrament and conducted by the Eastern Ski Association. He has raced the NASTAR (National Standard Race), but found he was always winning his class and it was too easy. NASTAR uses a handicap system that pits Lewis against others his age; Citizens Races score him twice - once in his class and again against all the competitors that day.
Amateur racing has grown since the classified racing program was the only amateur program around. Classified racing was sanctioned about 25 years ago by the Federation Internationale du Ski to groom young racers for the national teams.
Now there are NASTAR, the Citizen's Races and, new this year, the Equi table Family Skiing Challenge. This family race allows mixed combinations from the same family to compete against similiar teams - mother-son, father-daughter and mixed-family teams.
NASTAR racing started nearly 10 years ago, prompted by Ski magazine. Ski pros at participating areas are handicapped at pacesetting trials at the beginning of each season. The pros then run the course each race day to set pace time. All the racers are measured against that time and, by a mysterious process, against every other NASTAR competitor in the country.
To qualify for either the Citizens Races or the NASTAR races you need only to be on the spot and pay a minimal registration fee. Then you are entitled to run the slalom or grand slalom course, wearing your racing bib, and have yourself timed. The nice thing about it is that you need not be a hotshot skier - no one sets a performance standard but you.
The other nice thing about ski racing is that it improves your skiing. Turning at the gates, rather than where it is convenient, sharpens your performance.
My one experience in a NASTAR race was a racing disaster but a personal triumph. The course was glazed ice and even good skiers were falling all over it. I managed to remain upright to the end. My time was just two seconds faster than that of a skier who fell twice, lost both skis each time and put them back on to complete the course. I came in 38th out of 42.
Lewis hopes to make it to the Citizens Racing finals at Hunter Mountain March 19 and 20. At the end of the racing season each racer's points are put into the computer and the top 75 men and 75 women are chosen for the finals. Points are awarded in each race to the top 22 finishers, determined by times. Lewis said that in many races there are as many as 120 competitors, so getting any points is an advantage.
Two weekends ago, in a field of over 100, Lewis got one point. Earlier in the season he got 17 points in one race and 10 in another.
"After a while you see the same competitor," Lewis said. "You end up doing a lot of beer drinking with people who are trying to beat the pants off you. But they will also lend you their skis, or be friendly off the race course."
Although Lewis has found that he is leveling off in his racing skills, he intends to continue racing. "That is one sport where I can compete until I am 70 years old. In the veterans races, at age 55 they have another category, which will give me an advantage. It is a way to compete rather than sit on the beach for the rest of your life."