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Making speed your friend Westen New York's ski racing culture takes flight

I could hear the pulsing of James Brown over the Kissing Bridge sound system as I rode the lift to rejoin the Masters Racing Clinic. Having just conquered one of my few fears on a ski slope, I couldn't help singing along. "I feel good (buh buh), so good (buh), I got through (buh buh buh buh buh buh buh buh). Ow!"

So I changed the lyrics a little. Not even the unseasonable weather - chilly with a light mist, it felt like opening day at Dunn Tire Park - could dampen my enthusiasm. I had just faced the tyranny of the gates of a slalom course, picked myself up after catching a ski on a pole and still managed a couple of strong turns at high speed at the bottom of the run. I got through. Unh!

I have always avoided racing on skis, and it has nothing to do with speed. In racing, the course dictates where you will turn, regardless of the ice or ruts. Such trouble spots loom as you prepare for your run; during it, they come upon you with increasing speed as you battle your survival instinct and tiring legs to stay on course.

But I had to admit that aggressively negotiating a tough turn created a sense of accomplishment that far outweighed my mistakes. It brought a rush of elation that can be shared with the other participants at the bottom of the course. And those impromptu gatherings are getting larger as more adults are discovering that racing is exhilarating, a good way to meet people and improve your skiing. And, you don't have to be particularly fast to take part.

"Most people have a comfort zone and ski within their abilities," says Holiday Valley winter event coordinator Mike Nenno, whose Masters racing program at his resort doubled this year.

There are programs for all abilities. The one at Holiday Valley, which meets weekends, has groups working on racing, or carving turns or doing moguls. No one is timed at the Kissing Bridge clinics, but everyone receives instruction.

Kissing Bridge runs a six-week in-house league on Tuesdays called the Molson Series, in which competitors are given handicaps and everyone samples the sponsor's product afterward.

The Niagara Adult Racing series (www.narracing.com) has seven handicap divisions and is also recreational. Kissing Bridge holds races on Thursday nights, and Western New York resorts take turns hosting weekend races. There are 10 events on the calendar with six results determining the series winner.

For the highly competitive there is the USSA Masters Racing series (www.nymasters.org), which runs on weekends. There are 27 races and 16 results are counted toward the overall title. Competition is by age groups, and the skill level can be high.

Pepi Neubauer, 60, who competes for Bristol Mountain, skied for Austria as a young man. Nenno said Neubauer is one of the top skiers in his age group in the country.

Miguel Azcarate, owner of Mud, Sweat and Gears and a coach at Holiday Valley, occasionally breaks out the skis and shows the form that once got him on Spain's national team.

And then there is Joel Solly, usually the fastest man on this and most other mountains. Solly races as a Class 3 Masters (ages 35-39), and has won the Molson and NAR series for years.

Last year Solly finished fourth in the state in the Masters series but raced only 13 times, winning seven events. At the regionals at Mount Snow in Vermont, he was the Class 3 champion, qualifying for the Nationals at Big Sky in Montana, where he finished fourth.

"I like speed. I like competitions," says Solly, 39, a resident of Colden who built his house a quarter-mile from his childhood home. "If we are going to live in this climate, we might as well enjoy it. I'm competitive, but I make a lot of friends on the circuit."

He started racing at 14, became a pacesetter for NASTAR, a national ski racing group, at Kissing Bridge (pacesetters set time standards on courses, while others are judged on how they compare to those standards), then coached racing at KB while studying engineering at the University at Buffalo. He is one of three partners in Indoor Air Professionals.

"I'm a speed freak," says Solly, who tried to be a jet pilot but had to give up flying because of ear problems that prevented him from bailing out at high altitude.

He also raced motorcycles and sports cars on the World Challenge Touring Car series, and Solly still is an instructor at Watkins Glen.

"Speed is my friend," he says.

That is debatable. Crashes on the race track and on the snow have taken a toll on his back. He had disks surgically repaired in September and can't race without pain.

Dave Smith, 45, of Niagara Falls isn't in Solly's class, but he shares the enthusiasm. Smith started skiing at 28, grew disillusioned by the terrain in Western New York and was going to abandon the sport until he discovered racing at age 38.

"Running gates restored the challenge," says Smith.

Stas Balanevsky, 33, lives in Ellicottville and belongs to HoliMont, but attends the Masters clinics.

"I'll drive as far as it takes to get a good instructor," says Balanevsky, who predicts he will run 20 races this year. "I want to ski with my great-grandkids, if a tree doesn't get me first."

Not quite as competitive but no less driven is Marilyn Lesinski, 50, a part-time speech therapist who travels from Ohio every week for the Tuesday night races.

"KB is like home, it's such a friendly place," says Lesinski, whose husband delivers trucks out of Lockport and is on the road while she's racing.

"I'm very lucky my husband supports my ski habit. He's not as enthusiastic about it as I am."

She keeps her enthusiasm despite winning the award as the slowest racer last year at Kissing Bridge.

"The KB group on Tuesdays is very fast," she says. "Skiing with them will make me go faster, that's the goal. Racing makes you a better skier. The more you do it the better you get. This will get me out of my rut and make me a better skier."

The clinic ends, and everyone heads inside to talk it over. By the time others arrived, one participant was already halfway through a beer.

"The only race I win is to the bar," he says.

There's someone on my level.

GRAPHIC: Race Finder

* The Molson Race Series runs Thursday nights at 7:30 at Kissing Bridge. For information, call 592-4963, Ext. 2207.

* Masters race clinics are held Mondays and Wednesdays at Kissing Bridge. Call 592-4963, Ext. 2222.

* The Holiday Valley Masters meets on selected Saturday and Sunday afternoons. There are 11 sessions plus a Christmas Camp. Call the training center on weekends at 699-2345, Ext. 4414.

* The Niagara Adult Racing series holds events Thursday evenings at Kissing Bridge and on weekends at Holiday Valley, HoliMont and Swain. Visit www.narracing.com. The USSA Master Racing Series, sanctioned by skiing's governing body in the United States, holds events Fridays through Sundays. For the schedule or other information, visit www.nymasters.org. Bristol Mountain's Adult Racing League for coed teams trains Thursday mornings and Monday nights. Races are Wednesday nights and Tuesday mornings. For information, visit www.bristolmt.com or call Ski Mountain Sports at (585) 292-0580.

* Cockaigne runs an extensive series of in-house races. Check the list at www.cockaigne.com.

Fletcher Doyle is a sports copy editor and covers skiing for The Buffalo News.

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