Crashed Ice draws massive crowd in St. Paul

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Standing at the starting gate of the Red Bull Crashed Ice competition in St. Paul with more than 100,000 excited spectators looking on, the lights of the 400-meter ice cross downhill course laid out before you, the scene can be a little intimidating even for the most advanced skaters.



Even after making the 4 ½-story climb to the gate and settling in, competitors can’t see the 48-foot drop awaiting them just a few strides into a race that lasts less than a minute. Competing in the Red Bull Crashed Ice series takes a lot of skating skill and a touch of craziness.



“A little bit,” said Canadian Kyle Croxall, who took first place in St. Paul on Saturday night. “At the top, you really can’t see the down part of it. You’re skating and all of the sudden you go down. … But all you can do is skate and stride as much as you can to get in front.”



The Red Bull Crashed Ice downhill series has grown in popularity since starting in 2002. Saturday finished the three-day event in St. Paul, the only U.S. location that has hosted the series. This year’s series, which opened in Niagara Falls, Canada, will also make stops in the Netherlands and Switzerland before finishing the season with the championships in Quebec City, Canada.



Cameron Naasz, who finished third in Saturday’s finals, had a different thought while looking out from the starting gate Saturday. Naasz, a Twin Cities native, has seen the rise of the sport in his home country and state in which he’s become the top American competitor in just his second year in the series. Looking out over an estimated 115,000 spectators Saturday, Naasz could appreciate the support the series has received in Minnesota in the two years it has been there.



“I can only say one word, and that’s amazing,” Naasz said. “As an athlete, being up on top of a starting ramp that is 48-feet high, 4 1/2 stories up, and looking down at 80,000 to 100,000 people Saturday night everyone is screaming. You’re about to go down a hill at 40-plus miles an hour next to three other guys. It just gets your blood flowing, and it’s something you’ll never see in Minnesota except for something like this. It’s just the atmosphere is insane.”



The sport is trying to gain traction worldwide and more of a footing in the United States, but its success in Minnesota doesn’t come as a shock. Saturday’s event coincided with St. Paul’s annual Winter Carnival. The self-proclaimed State of Hockey embraces its brutal winters as much as any state, and ice cross downhill fits right into the surroundings, even though the course took 20 days to build with 25,000 gallons of water on the grounds of the St. Paul Cathedral high atop a hill in Minnesota’s state capital.



Two days of time trials narrowed more than 200 competitors into Saturday’s championship racers. Going down the 400-meter course filled with jumps, hills, moguls and a hairpin turn that adds the difficulty of a vertical wall, competitors cover the 400 meters in less than 40 seconds in one of the most extreme winter sports imaginable.



“I always thought the sport could be something more than it was at the time that I started,” said U.S. coach Charlie Wasley, who started as a competitor in 2003 and now helps coach skaters in a type of developmental program for Americans. “I truly thought it could be an Olympic sport, and I still do. It’s got the spectators, 100,000 people at a stop. It’s made for TV, and it’s great TV, and the athletes love it. So it’s like what snowboarding was back before when it first got going. I think that’s the most rewarding to me just the fact that the athletes, community and sponsors have all embraced it.”



Many of the skaters have hockey backgrounds, such as Wasley and Naasz, but the sport attracts athletes from all winter extreme sports, such as downhill skiing and snowboarding. Croxall has become one of the sport’s top finishers, winning two individual stops last year and the overall world championship. Finland’s Arttu Pihlainen is the top challenger, winning once and finishing second twice last season, but he was unable to compete in St. Paul because of injury.



Naasz is the newcomer. In just his second year, he finished second to Croxall in the 2012-13 series at Niagara Falls. Croxall’s younger brother, Scott, finished second Saturday night in a photo finish with Naasz.



The top skaters, who receive prize money and sponsorships while traveling to compete, are hoping the sport continues its growth. Kyle Croxall won $4,651.74 for winning in St. Paul, prize money that is awarded in Euros because Red Bull is an Austrian company.



“Right now, I don’t know where it’s going to go,” Croxall said. “So I just try to do as well as I can. But the further it can go, whether that’s the Olympics, who knows? The further it goes, the better it is.”



Wasley, one of the first competitors, has already watched the sport increase in popularity and participation, and seeing 115,000 spectators on Saturday only gives him hope more growth is on the way.



“To be a part of it from the start and see how it’s grown and evolved and to be able to have it here in our home state and hometown, for me, is something I dreamed about,” said Wasley, who played hockey at the University of Minnesota before starting in ice cross downhill. “When I first started doing it, no one knew anything about it. Now, it’s grown to where there’s 80,000 people, there’s five stops all over the world, and I just think it’s really cool it can happen in our home state.”



Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.