Sunday. Race day. Al and Karen Tupek are up early.

The streets are dark, the air is finger-numbing cold as they quickly secure the skis to the top of their slush-splattered Plymouth. They are in a hurry. Race registration at Bryce Mountain begins at 8 a.m., and the Virginia ski resort is at least a two-hour drive away.

"The idea," says Karen Ronne Tupek one of the Ski Club of Washington's top racers, "is to sign up early to race early. The condition of the course is better." While the rest of us sleep in, dawn for the weekend racer comes on the sleepy drive to the slopes.

The Tupeks -- she's a 29-year-old architect with the Veterans Administration, he's a year older and a statitician with the Bureau of Labor Statistics -- are among the growing numbers of Washington-area skiers taking up racing to add spice to the winter sport here.

Ski Magazine calls it a mid-Atlantic racing "craze."

Good skiers, says Al Tupek, who grew up in New England, easily become bored on the gentle slopes near Washington. "They don't offer much challenge. So we turned to racing."

Ski resorts with trails long and steep enough to hold races see them as a way to keep ski enthusiasts coming back. To do well on this January day would put them in contention for a repeat trip to the Eastern regional championship at Pico Peak, Vt., in March. They must enter at least three races a season to qualify for the trip.

The Tupeks race in the "Citizens" series, sanctioned by the U.S. Ski Association and open to amateurs over 19. It is patterned after a popular European series aimed at attracting city dwellers into the mountains. Al Tupek, who heads the Ski Club's active racing schedule, met his wife at a club race in 1977.

On this day's trip, the Tupeks' groggy departure does not pay off. They reach Bryce on schedule but find a crowd already there. Three other races, they learn, are to be run concurrently with theirs, including the Virginia State Slalom Championship. Some 200 racers are competing, and many will start ahead of them. She's no. 37 among the women; he's 77th among the men.

It is, says Bryce ski manager Horst Locher, the largest roster ever for a Virginia race. The age range in the four races is 7 to 60.

The rest of the morning is no more auspicious. After a breakfast of grapefruit brought from home, Al Tupek slips and falls on a patch of ice outside the lodge, bruising, as he says, both pride and rear. So much for his comment only that morning: "I don't feel racing is dangerous."

Then, on a practice run down a trail not yet groomed, his wife tumbles, sending up a spray of snow. "That was horrible up there," she complains. "I fell in a rut."

Promptly at 3, the race gets under way. Winds whip swirls of loose snow under a bright sun taht does little to warm the chill. Spectators stomp their feet on the packed machine-made snow, their cameras primed to catch a spouse or a child. A pace-setter speeds through the dozen or more gates to establish the course's degree of difficulty. He makes it in a breathtaking 29.7 seconds.

Three or four racers a minute hurtle down "Revenuer's Run," several posting fast times. Now it's Karen Tupek's turn. Usually, she says, she's not nervous until three to five minutes before the race. "Then I want to get it over with fast."

Her start is quick, and at midcourse she's still doing well. But for a moment's falter at the next gate costs her too much time. She crosses the finish line in 38 seconds -- good, but, she thinks, not good enough to place.

"You looked sloppy," says her husband, who followed her down at the side of the trail. "I was terrible," she agrees, laughs, and goes over to congratulate a team member who made it in 33 seconds. Only later, back home, does she learn she has won a double second in her age category -- in the "Citizens" and the Virginia slalom championship races.

A half-hour late, Al Tupek's run is almost a repeat of his wife's: 36 seconds. He barely comes to a stop when she slides over to him: "You looked sloppy, too."

Many of the 20 or so resorts within a two-to five-hour drive of Washington regularly hold a variety of races, designed in difficulty to draw both snowplow novices and professionals competing for $1,000 prizes. For youngsters, they can be a training ground for the Olympics. You pick your category according to your age and ability.

Brian Eardley is a pro racer, one of the hotshots of the ski world, the fanatics who make the sport their life. His specialty: the dual slalom, two skiers competing head-to-head down parallel courses. There's money in it, $1,000 for the winner. And a challenge.

"It's a pretty powerful event," says Eardley, who at 29 has been on skis for 20 years. A champion amateur racer, he turned pro a couple of years ago because more competition. "I enjoyed it more."

Here in the Banana Belt -- Pennsylvania and south -- profesional racing is just getting under way. But already local pros are competing on an informal tour. A half-dozen races have been set up by such Washington-area resorts as Bryce in Virginia, Ski Roundtop in Pennsylvania and Snowshoe in West Virginia.

In the past year, Eardley, along with Ski Haus sport shop owner Bill Montag, has tried (so far unsuccessfully) to establish an official southern pro tour similar to those in the frostier ski regions of New England, the Rockies and the Sierras. "We couldn't come up with the money. But I wouldn't be surprised to see a tour here soon. It's a business, and I think there's a big gap here. I'll try again."

As a boy growing up in Washington, he started skiing at a rope tow in West Virginia. He raced while an anthropology major at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and then headed for Stowe, Vt. -- "the hotbed of ski racing. They're tremendous racers up there."

At Stowe, where he became a ski instructor, "I dedicated myself to learning how to ski properly." But after four years, "I couldn't take the cold any longer, and I couldn't take being poor." He returned to Washington, where he works for the Ski Center ski shop, helps coach the Ski Liberty ski team and races.

As an amateur, he took the Pennsylvania State Senior Championship in 1979 and 1980. As a pro, so far, "it's been a money-losing proposition. I've won about $80," which goes almost nowhere in paying $20 entry fees. While he and other local pros are good, it's the racers "from up north" who take the prize money. "Those people are fast."

Because of the limited size of our hills, pro racing is likely to remain in the "B) circuit. Top competitors head for the bigger leagues in New England. And beyond that, for champions like Jean-Claude Killy -- the pro racers you see on TV -- the big money is in the world pro circuit.

Many pro racers, like Eardley, are ski instructors. But more and more, he says, "we're seeing people working for the government who skied in college. It's getting harder and harder to qualify for a race."

Chris Hardee, a Reston seventh-grader, is just beginning his racing career. At age 12, he's in his second year of the U.S. Ski Association's "classified" slalom competition, the route that, for the most dedicated and talented youngsters, can lead to the Olympic team.

He placed near the top in his first race this season against 65 other 12-and 13-year-olds at Elk Mountain in Pennsylvania, where most of the "classified" races in this area are held because of its officially approved racing slope. His father, Norman Hardee, an owner of the Chesapeake Bay Seafood House chain, has hired a coach for him.

Chris took up skiing at Bryce, where his parents own a weekend home, when he was 5. His first taste of competition came in National Standard Races (Nastar), recreational racing open to anyone of any age and ability. As it turned out, "I was pretty good." He won bronze medals, then silver and last year he began to win some gold. How many? "I don't know, a lot of them."

At the same time, he raced as a team with his father in another recreational series, the Equitable Family Ski Challenge. But, says his father, "I think I was dragging him back." Summers he competed on grass skis, placing at age 11 among the top 20 in the World Cup won by a Swiss twice his age.

For the serious amateur, the Ski Association program is divided into three main age categories. Chris is in the Junior Development Program for boys and girls under 13. Skiers that age already are being groomed for the Olympic ladder.

At 14 (to 24), they enter seeded competition, a highly organized series of races aimed at the Olympics, although beyond high school age, skiers are considered pretty much over the hill as far as the Olympics go.

Serious amateurs 25 and older (many former college racers are in this category) complete in the "seniors" series.

How far up the classifed ladder does Chris Hardee expect to go? "My mom said, 'It depends on you.' I should get better and better."

Short trails and iffy snow make it difficult, but young racers learning on the slopes around here can make it to the big time. But it's probably going to cost their parents some money.

Sixteen-year-old Becky Hall started skiing at Ski Roundtop, near her Wellsville, Pa., home, when she was six. Over the years, the began winning races in seeded competition. This season she was picked for the National Junior Ski Team, with a good shot at the 1984 Olympics. No other skier from a Washington-area slope has gotten so close to an Olympic slot.

But in gettng as far as she has, Becky outgrew Roundtop. Two years ago her parents sent her off to a ski academy at the base of Stratton Mountain in Vermont to get the kind of experience she needs to continue up the Ski Association ladder. That, and racing trips from the Sierras to to the Alps, cost her $8,500, says her father, John A.F. Hall, a Pennsylvania state duputy attorney general.

U.S. ski officials worry that the expense of classifed racing, including entry fees and food, lodging and transportation on frequent overnight trips, may keep away all but children of wealthy parents.

The junior team now picks up part of Becky's traveling expenses, but her parents still pay for her schooling. The team budgeted Becky for $8,200 in travel money, says here father, but he had to help raise much of it himself through hometown contributions. Ski Roundtop threw a Becky Hall benefit and chipped in more than $4,000.

Becky's younger sister Mandy is a racer, too, and her out-of-town racing trips, says Hall, can cost $200 to $300, and that's "when you're not even in the big time."

But he considers the money well-spent. Becky will be traveling with the team this year to Switzerland, Italy, Germany and Poland. "It's a great opportunity. I'm really happy she has it."

Becky says, "You've got to be enthused about racing."

For Al and Karen Tupek, the ride back to Washington is anything but gloomy despite what they think in only a fair showing. There are, after all, several more races this season. Plenty of time to qualify for Pico Peak.

Al Tupek decides to take a night ski club racing clinic at Ski Liberty to brush up on his technique. Karen Tupek figures the diet she is on will shape her up for competition.

This Sunday has been a long one, but it's not over yet. Back home, he will pore over the day's race statistics -- their Ski Club team, he learns, has taken a third in the Virginia slalom championship. She still has a two-hour tennis match before bed.