Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week we’re talking to someone whose idea of fun is to travel down a mountainside in a straight line, reaching truly impossible speeds of up to, say, 150 miles an hour without any form of motor. Just under his own power. He’s a top athlete in a sport that virtually died out nearly three decades ago because understandably, it’s impossibly dangerous. Jacob Perkins is 29 years old and comes from a part of middle America that’s not renowned for its mountains. But his courage and self-belief is frankly, undeniable. Hi, Jacob. Well, thank you very much for coming on the show today.
Jacob Thank you, Peter. Thank you, Felice. I appreciate you having me on.
Peter Now, Jacob, you’re a speed skier. This truly spectacular sport had a window of huge popularity back in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It was even included in the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics. And then for various reasons, one of them being danger. It faded from popularity almost entirely. This, I guess, was before you were even born. But you’re one of a new breed of snow athletes trying to breathe new life into it and restore speed skiing as an international sport.
Felice I wondered if you could start by explaining what speed skiing is for people that don’t know about it.
Jacob So what speed skiing is? It’s a FIS World Cup event where speed skiers, they’re in aerodynamic clothing. It’s on typically a very steep and long hill and they go down the slope in a tough position through two timing gates and the top average speed wins. Like I said, it’s aerodynamic clothing. They have these aerodynamic helmets, suits, fairings, as well as their shape holes to allow them to get in a optimal position. And bars, yes, you are right. Speed skiing was a big sport back in the nineties. At its top, it was in the Olympics in the 92 Olympics, specifically as a demonstration sport in Albertville. And unfortunately, during the Olympics there, there was a death of a speed skier. Now, it was not during the actual speed ski competition. It was in a warm up run outside of the speed ski competition. It got very bad press from the media, but the accident did not happen during the actual competition.
Peter Now, the sort of speeds we’re talking about here really are quite extraordinary. If you’re a recreational skier, you’d agree with me. We probably hit about 40 miles an hour.
Jacob 60 kilometres per hour is a typical recreational skiing speed that, like you said, around I’ve seen about 20 to 40 miles an hour, 40 at the at the high end, and at the low end about 20 for a typical recreational skier. In speed skiing, the starting speeds are oftentimes over 100 miles an hour. So over double to three times the speed a typical recreational skier would go.
Peter Even a professional skier in a downhill race will only hit just on 90 mph. That’s about the limit, right? Can you tell us what the world record is?
Jacob So the world record in speed skiing is currently over 158 miles an hour for the men, a little over 254 kilometers per hour. It’s about as fast as the take-off speed of a 747. Put it in perspective.
Felice Wow. So what sort of mindset is needed to do this?
Jacob Well, first of all, it’s a progressive process for me. I’m still very early on. It’s only actually my second season on the World Cup. But initially when I when I was doing over 100 miles an hour runs this past season, it’s not like that was my first run. I’ve been skiing for many, many years and I remember my first, so to speak, speed ski run as a as a training or practice run was around 30 to 40 miles an hour. Not much faster in line with a recreational skier, but it’s getting used to being in that position, getting used to the equipment. We’re on extremely long skis, getting used to the speed.
I would say also just the height as well. A lot of these tracks, they’re up very high, well over 400 meters, some of these tracks. So it’s like staring off a 40 or 50 story building and you’re looking straight down. So getting used to that to that bird’s eye view, it’s at first it can be a little intimidating, but the key is to focus not far in front of you. You can’t see very far in front of you in your speed skiing helmet. You want to focus on the centre and focus low in your path and trying to learn that it takes time. It’s not an overnight process.
Felice Did you start by skiing professionally downhill or slalom?
Jacob So my background is in technical skiing. I did slalom and giant slalom at a at a national level. It was not professional. And then I also have a background in ski instruction. I’m a certified ski instructor, so I didn’t really have a background in professional racing. I did do some lower level competitive racing. It was one of these things. I was kind of like, This is interesting. I reached out to to different people through social media and learned about what speed skiing is. The great thing about speed skiing, it’s a community. We’re all there to help each other and it’s a fairly small community. And quickly many people, both from the US as well as other countries, helped me with getting involved in the sport from resources, equipment, etc. And that’s how I got into it. I mean, I look for a lot of different ski disciplines, but specifically in speed skiing, the community was just so helpful in the sport just was. It’s very interesting slash appealing, it’s very unique.
Felice Where can you go to do it?
Jacob So most of the tracks are over in Europe. It takes a specialised track. The track must be very steep. It needs to be have a huge long run out area. It needs to be fairly consistent pitch with minimal compression. So because of those requirements, there’s only a select number of places you can actually hold these events. But like I said, most of them are over in Europe. And for training, I usually train at much slower speeds around 50 to 60 miles an hour. And I do that just on our on my local race hill course. So I do get quite a bit of practice, even though it’s not quite the same as a speed skiing run.
Felice Where is your local course?
Jacob Yes, so I live in the Midwest area and there’s not many places. There’s one area about 45 minutes to an hour from where I live and I practice there about four times a week. It’s called Perfect North Slopes. It’s located in the Cincinnati area and the vertical there is about 400 feet. So it’s about a third to a half the size of a typical speed track.
Felice Where would you do it? In the Alps?
Jacob Yes. So there’s a couple of different competition sites I’m going to this year. The first one’s coming up here in January. It’s called Vars. It’ll be my first time going to Vars and will likely not run from too high up. It’s the largest speed track and it’s actually where the world record was set. The second series of races is occurring in Idre, Sweden, that’s in the northern part of Sweden. And then my last set of races is occurring in in Andorra. It’s a very nice track. I kind of jokingly say it’s the best for last because it’s a very smooth track, nice run out area. It’s a 200km track, so it’s a pretty fast track as well.
Peter Is in France, of course, and that’s probably the most famous of all the tracks. It used to be a track at Les Arcs, but that got closed. I’ve actually been on that; it’s the most scary thing I’ve ever done.
Jacob I mean, it is a very, very steep track. And there were several world records set back in the day at that track. But the reason that it closes, there’s actually been some deaths, not to my understanding, while speed skiing, but actually just trying to get to the track. It’s not an easily accessible track. And if you look at the top, the top portion of the track, there’s a lot of cliffs and stuff. And there have been instances where skiers have fallen off that unfortunately, some of them to their death or serious injury.
Peter So just going back to that and Les Arcs, I mean, the advice I got when the person who was teaching me how to do it was when you actually get your skis into the track, don’t try and think about skating or something because you’re moving off at the same speed as a Formula One car.
Jacob Exactly. You’re accelerating, accelerating to 60 in a similar, as you said, to a F1 car. It’s a couple of seconds. You’re already up to 60 miles an hour. So once you commit you’re committed, you’re going to I jokingly say you’re going to cross the finish line whether you like it or not.
Peter And the size and length of these skis, they’re not like a recreational ski, are they?
Jacob No. So typical recreational ski is somewhere around 150 to 170, 75 centimetres. These skis are approximately 240 centimetres in length, and they are made out of wood core construction, full titanium metal top sheet. They’re very heavy skis; we use very robust bindings. Yes, there’s a huge difference between what we ski on and what a recreational skier would ski on.
Peter You don’t want a ski coming off at that speed accidentally.
Jacob No, no, you do not.
Peter Do you have a safety binding at all on it, or do you simply lock it?
Jacob No, we have safety or brake retention devices on there, and we actually cannot modify those. It’s against the FIS rules because, in case of a fall, it does need to come off. You don’t want your ski coming down at you at the same speed, that would be bad. But while people think of speed skiing as being this very dangerous thing, I had a fall last year, I fell over 100 miles an hour and I was back skiing the next day. And part of the reason is it’s a very controlled environment. The course is roped off for these events. The course workers and medical team do a great job and we wear protective devices. So there’s very little chance of you running into something else. Most of the injuries I see are like friction burns because, at that speed, the snow is not forgiving; it’s more like concrete. And with those thin, thin latex race suits we wear, there’s not much between your skin and in the snow.
Felice What sort of protective equipment do you have?
Jacob Yes, sure. So we all wear back protectors underneath our outer latex suits. A lot of us wear downhill suits underneath that. And then even underneath that, we’re wearing – in a lot of cases – protective base clothing. So there’s multiple layers. And then with the back protector and our helmets have two parts: it’s the outer helmet that has the aerodynamic shape, and we have an inner breakaway helmet. So the outer helmet is intended to come off in case there’s a fall.
Felice And you wear normal ski boots?
Jacob They are normal ski boots, but they’re heavily modified. We cut a lot of the material out of them and we make a lot of modifications as well. The reason for that is, is we’re on such long skis and we want to be in the bindings already are mounted over them than a normal recreational skier.
Felice What sort of ski poles do you have?
Jacob So I use just Swix standard ski poles. I bend them to my body shape and that’s through just testing I’ve done to get the most optimum tuck. And then I fill them with sand to keep them from flapping around in the wind. I then switch out the pole grips to make sure they’re not slippery. Sometimes the standard stock pole grips are not the best to grip. And then we remove our pole straps. And the reason we do that is, again, in case in case of a fall, we do not want to be hanging on to our poles.
Felice Have you ever hurt yourself doing this?
Jacob Well, I said last year I did fall. I can lay claim to claim that I have skied over 100 miles an hour, but I’ve also fault fallen over 100 miles an hour and it hurt at the time. But I did not break anything. I just had friction burns and I was back racing the next day.
Peter Wow. I just want to give you a little statistic here; what speed is actually involved. When Usain Bolt was breaking records, he run the 100 meters in 9.8 seconds; when the Italian who holds the world record for speed skiing did his run at Voss, he covered the timed 100 meters in 1.41 seconds. I mean, it’s mind-boggling the speed, isn’t it? The other fact that I find almost unbelievable is that when you take your skis off at the bottom of the run, they’re hot to the touch.
Jacob They are, yes. So we do a lot of work with the with the base structure of our material and our materials on the bottom of our skis. And waxing is extremely important. While aerodynamics is also very important, wax at a very high level does make a difference. And most of the world records are actually set at at a slightly higher temperatures than a colder temperature. And the reason for that is, is that it helps lubricate the ski better. Colder snow is actually not faster.
Felice How does weather affect the speed skiing competitions?
Jacob Yes, that’s a huge factor. Start with just the temperature, like I was saying, and the records are set typically in warmer climates. So if it’s colder on the same track, you could be running, running noticeably slower speed wise. Secondly, the wind plays. If there’s a strong crosswind, they’ll actually cancel the race. We want to have very minimal wind when we’re doing this. And then third is the is the visibility and snow conditions just in general. We want to have be able to see, even though we’re not looking very far out in front of us, it’s still important to be able to see the small undulations in the snow. And then also the snow conditions are super important as well, making sure that that the grooming is good and that that the snow is a consistent surface and in pitch.
Peter Yes, I was told the other important thing to remember and I’m sure you can tell me much more about it, is that when you’ve actually gone through the timing gate, you’ve done it, but you then got to stop. And the advice I got was whatever you do, don’t stand up and think, ‘Hey, aren’t I clever to have got down here?’ because you’re still doing 60, 70 miles an hour.
Jacob Oh, yes. That’s actually how my accident happened. I got through the run, I’m quite sure. My run might have been my fastest run ever. It was a very good run and it was right at the second near the second timing gate. When I fell, I kind of noticed the finish line. I kind of lost focus just for a quick second. There was a very strong crosswind on that day, and as I started to stand up, that’s when the crosswind pushed me a little. My right ski hooked up and I fell just immediately. It doesn’t take much.
Felice Do you have time to do any recreational skiing?
Jacob I do. I try to get out many days, especially either early on in the season or after the speed ski season is over and just ski for enjoyment or fun. I ski quite a bit with my father and then have a couple of friends I ski with as well. That’s where it all started. And I, I just love to ski. That’s why I do this. Well, speed skiing is a great community. The ski community in general is a great group and it’s a great sport. And whether it’s skiing at 100 miles an hour or skiing at ten miles an hour, I just recommend to everybody to try skiing and get out there this season.
Felice And before you skied, you played tennis quite seriously, didn’t you?
Jacob Yes, I played for Southern Illinois and Wright State University – they’re both Division One programs. I did that for five years. Then I’ve also played on what’s called the Utah North American Pro Circuit, and then also played in ITF tournaments as well, which is kind of the feeder category into the ATP.
Felice And do you find there are any similarities between tennis and speed skiing?
Jacob I think both for mental sports, both for our individual sports. Beyond that, I would say that it’s important in both sports to just be overall in good shape and balance because whether it’s a speed ski run or when you’re hitting your your stroke and tennis, the weakest link will fail for sure. And then I’d also just say that they do kind of complement each other in certain ways. I feel that the skiing helps a lot with balance. There’s some very good skiers, Federer, Djokovic, there are several other very good tennis players that ski, and there’s also several skiers that play tennis. Bode Miller plays tennis. Lindsey Vonn plays tennis. There’s a lot of really great skiers that play tennis as well. So, yes, it’s been around for quite some time. Well before the Olympics and in the nineties, it really all started back in actually the late 1800s, there was a skier named Tommy Todd, and he kind of did the first so to speak, speed run, first time they were keeping track of speed. It was 87 miles an hour, which is basically a not even a warm up run now, but was very fast back then. And then official records began in 1932.
That was by Leo Gassperl, I think it’s how you pronounce Gassperl, and his speed was 89. Then the 100 mile an hour record was broken by American downhiller, Ralph Miller, and that was in in the mid 1900s. And then you go to Steve McKinney’s Magic Run, where he broke the 200km per hour that was in the in the late 70s. And then like I said, it was in the Olympics as a demonstration sport in ’92. Once they started keeping track of the records and especially once they passed the 100 mile an hour barrier and there was advancements in the sport – it was like a race, I think, a race to get to 200. And Steve did it. He’s an American. I’m glad he did it, and his sister is an incredible skier, Tamara McKinney. She lives out in the Tahoe area. So it’s a rich history and it heavily involves the US and also many other countries. There’s been several great British speed skiers – and then France they’ve always had many great speed skiers. So it is an international record and I hope that it gets back to where it was.
Peter And it’s not just for men, is it? The female record by an Italian called Valentina Greggio…247? I mean, that’s 153 miles an hour. It’s an astounding speed, isn’t it?
Jacob Correct. I mean, her record is not too far off of the men’s side, and she skied over 150 miles an hour off the top of ours. She’s an incredible skier and I think she can be on a good day. Any of the men maybe, maybe even on a bad day. She’s incredible skier.
Felice Can an ordinary skier go and try it?
Jacob Yes and no. It would take many years of practice in working, working your way up. So in order to compete in the world cup category, you either have to have 50 FIS downhill points, I believe. And they may have changed that 50 or it’s either 50 or 100 and or you have to compete in what is called SX 2. It’s the production category and it is on standard downhill skis. They’re 218 centimetres in length and many of those races are run on the same tracks that that the SX 1 or world cup races are ran on. Sometimes lower starts though you have to have done a season in that and then when you go into the world cup category, all these races, they have a training day and then a qualification either run or day slash or maybe multiple runs before it’s like either the final or the semi-final run.
So there is a build-up process and then before anybody attempts to do it, most have been skiing for quite some time. They’ve skied recreationally or done some sort of racing background or ski instruction or some sort of scheme background. I mean, I’ve seen several people that get involved with it fairly late in their life of limited experience and they and they just naturally pick it up and see seem to be really good at it. And then I see some that they’ve put a lot of time in it and it’s not really their thing. It’s kind of interesting to see how different skiers do, especially in the different categories and as they progress through their speed skiing career.
Felice Peter went and had a go at it once and he doesn’t have any experience of it.
Peter I’ve done it. I’ve done it twice. I did it in Scotland, Glenshee, and I did it later.
Felice But he doesn’t have any of these qualifications; he was just allowed to have a go.
Peter Well, I’m going back into the late ’80s and early ’90s, yes, I did. There didn’t seem to be too many rules about this. It’s a dangerous sport if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Jacob Yes, it is definitely having someone in there that knows what they’re doing when you try it for the first time is very helpful. And I will say they have at it for better or for worse. They have added a lot of rules to the sport and I think a lot of the rules have been good for the sport. However, I also think that it kind of limits maybe some of the participation as well as the speed when you start adding more and more rules. There’s a lot of modifications to equipment that we can’t do now that speed skiers were able to do back in the day.
Peter …and you need a couple of close friends to get you into the suit, don’t you?
Jacob Yes. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to get all your equipment on. That includes helmet, safety gear, everything. It’s an ordeal. Usually when I’m training, I put on the boots I’m going to use. I put sometimes the fairings on, and I usually just ski in pants because trying to put all that stuff on, if you’re not in the race it’s a lot of time.
Felice The equipment side that got you interested in it in the first place, isn’t it?
Jacob Yes. I actually in some ways almost enjoy the equipment aspect of it more than the skiing aspect. I think it’s a dream job. There’s not many speed skiers, so there wouldn’t be a demand or a market demand for it. But a dream job would be if I could design all the equipment for all the speed skiers in the world that be that be a dream come true, to be able to make all the helmets and fairings and everything. I love doing that. My main job is I’m a production supervisor, used to be an engineer. I love being able to use my engineering and manufacturing knowledge to work with the sport on designing equipment.
Peter So do you see yourself going all the way, going up to a really high speed?
Jacob You know, I think time will tell. My long term goals are to do 200km and to either win a world championship or world cup medal. So the podium basically in either one of those events, I think both are very doable. I’m very, very early on in my career with some of the competitors doing this well past the age of 50 or even even some in their sixties, and I’m in my twenties, so I have time on my side. I’m currently in my top speed is it’s about 167 km, it’s 103.74 miles an hour. So my goal this next year is to do 180 and hopefully the year after that to hit my ultimate goal of doing 200km, which is a goal or a speed that very few speed skiers have hit.
Felice And how do you see the future of the sport?
Jacob I think it is kind of coming back. Covid definitely dealt a major blow. There was quite a few competitions the year before Covid and then during it, the number of competitions went down. This year, the number has increased. Again, I see the sport growing, but I think a key is going to be to get some races back. Here in North America, there used to be several. There was one in Aspen. There was one more recently in Sun Peaks in Canada. I would like to see a race come back in North America, because that’s the way we can get people interested in North America in the sport.
Peter There used to be a lot of training in wind tunnels. Do you do that?
Jacob I do not. I have several friends that have. The challenges is there’s not many here in North America that you can do it. You need a subsonic wind tunnel and then secondly, it’s the cost. It’s several thousand dollars an hour to do the wind tunnel testing. So unless you can get sponsorship to do it or you have a connection, somehow it’s very cost prohibitive.
Peter When I did two or three runs in all that was quite enough for me. I hit a speed of low 80s, sort of 80 miles an hour. So the thing which is the sort of speed that a downhill skier can get to, I cannot understand the mindset of the person who will ski down the and come at 80 miles an hour even more. So I find it impossible to understand how someone would do it that almost twice that speed.
Jacob I will say that that’s also very impressive, even 80 miles an hour. I mean, that’s like you said, that’s that would be what, a downhill or would be doing in a downhill course. And four and it sounds like, oh, I’ve done 80 miles an hour in my in my car. But on a pair of ski sliding down the hill, it is very fast even at 80 miles an hour. I mean, it’s a completely different thing than just recreational skiing for for people that have not tried it.
Peter When you’re learning, you have a different start points on the mountain, right?
Jacob Correct. There’s multiple points like at Vars, there’s the 180km start. There’s a one that’s about a 190 to 200km start, 230. And then you start to get up into the into what they call the speed master’s territory where records are broken. And sometimes if conditions permit, they allow somebody to go off the top then and that’s where the records have been broken from.
Felice If people want to know more about you, where can they find out?
Jacob Jacob Perkins.org is my website. And then if they want to know more about speed skiing, either Speedski.com or FIS.com, which has all the ski disciplines in them, you can find out more about where the races are and the race schedule and results.
Peter Jacob Perkins, thank you very much indeed for coming on the show, and we wish you the best of luck in the future in your speed skiing career and stay safe.
Jacob Yes, thank you, Peter. Thank you, Felice. It’s a pleasure talking to you and glad, Peter, that you’ve tried speed skiing out – that’s very awesome.
Peter The idea of that speed skiing still scares me now to think I did it. It was a long time ago but the memory stays with me.
Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.
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