It's party time for skiers on the Alpine World Cup circuit as they wind down their grueling four-month season with three days of racing and three nights of what is euphemistically called Nevada fun.
The round-the-clock action will start today with a women's slalom at Heavenly Valley, the massive ski complex that sprawls across the California-Nevada state line.
From the courses, which will be set under the new tramway in the East Bowl, the racers will have a panoramic view of Lake Tahoe, serving as a backdrop for the four towering casinos slightly more than a schuss away.
"Everyone has always liked coming to Tahoe for races in the spring," said Serge Lang, founder of the World Cup. "There is so much to do, and the weather is usually sunny."
In fact, the weather was sunny Thursday as the competitors arrived from Park City, Utah, where Erika Hess of Switzerland and Marc Girardelli of Luxembourg won the second-to-last slaloms of the season.
Hess' victory boosted the two-time World Cup overall champion (1982 and 1984) into the lead in the women's slalom standings, the only title that hasn't been determined. Tamara McKinney, the 1983 overall titlist from Squaw Valley, had this year's slalom crown within her grasp when she hooked a ski tip just three gates from the finish on her second run at Park City.
As a result of her tumble, McKinney dropped to second place in the slalom standings with 82 points, and Hess took over the top spot with 87. Perrine Pelen of France, who was second at Park City, moved into contention with 80. Maria Rosa Quario of Italy, who was third in Utah, also is within striking distance with 75.
It will all be settled here today, first run at 10 a.m., second at 1 p.m.
For Hess and McKinney, the slalom title would be sort of a consolation prize. They're used to bigger success, but this season they couldn't keep up with Michela Figini of Switzerland, who not only won the women's overall championship but also took the downhill title and finished second to Marina Kiehl of West Germany in the giant slalom standings.
On the men's side, Girardelli clinched the overall championship with his victory earlier this week when his closest pursuer, defending champion Pirmin Zurbriggen of Switzerland, fell on his first run.
Girardelli, an Austrian native who claims residence in Luxembourg for the sake of increased take-home pay, also earned top honors in the slalom and giant slalom. Another Austrian, Helmut Hoeflehner, who actually skis for Austria, picked off first prize in the downhill.
The men will also go in a slalom here, on Saturday, and both men and women will have a little fun with the pro-style head-to-head dual format in Sunday's parallel races, which won't count toward the World Cup but will be figured into the Nations Cup team standings.
World Cup meets used to be held regularly at Heavenly Valley in the 1970s, but this is the first since '79. The occasion also is being used by the Reno-Tahoe Winter Games Organizing Committee to promote its bid for the 1992 Winter Olympics. At the moment, their chances aren't even on the board down at Harrah's.
The odds are better that several racers will be seen selling off their skis Sunday so they can pay their way home.