"Three things apply in this sport," says Steve Mahre, former world champion skier and a 1984 Olympics silver medalist in the slalom. "Concentration, consistency and smoothness."
"Certainly part of the reason I like the sport is the adrenaline rush it gives me," says Steve's brother Phil, a former World Cup champion and the man who won the Olympic gold medal in the slalom at Sarajevo.
And of course they're discussing...car racing.
That's the latest sporting passion of the 30-year-old twins from Yakima, Wash. It figures. The sport is fast, highly technical and relatively dangerous. "We were always intrigued by it," says Phil. "I never drove fast per se, but my older sister had a boyfriend who drove a stock car. Steve and I used to go to the little oval in town to watch him race."
"Then in '86—," Steve interjects.
"Or '87?" Phil asks.
"Late '86," Steve continues, "we said, 'Let's see if we really care to do it.' Last season they campaigned a showroom-stock-class Pontiac Trans Am. "It was a great year," says Steve. "We raced nine times, and I think we made progress."
"Each time behind the wheel we learned something," adds Phil. "We entered only endurance events [races of more than three hours duration], so we always performed as a team. We found that there were certain tracks on which I ran faster, and certain tracks on which Steve ran faster."
Shortly before the Calgary Olympics, the brothers attended the Skip Barber Racing School at Willow Springs, Calif. When asked to compare their past and present sports, the Mahres plunge into a polite stream of interruptions.
Steve: "We always did so much individually, it's nice to have other people on the racing team to draw from. If I'm driving terribly, we put Phil in the car and maybe he's driving well...."
Phil: "It's good to get away from the one-on-one of race day...."
Steve: "We're approaching this just as seriously, though...."
Phil: "We're trying to approach this professionally, we're not just playing with the big boys...."
Steve: "There are some big crossovers between the two sports. Concentration, certainly, although here you have to concentrate for hours, and back then it was a minute-and-a-half...."
Phil: "Yeah, and back then all we did was look straight ahead. In a car we have the mirror, brakes, wheel, the upper body, hands, feet, everything—it's much, much more involved...."
Steve: "And reflexes, that's where there is a real crossover. When you get into trouble, you just have to make a snap decision and react. We are learning more and more how to react. It's getting closer to second nature...."
Phil: "The analytical side of the two sports is very similar. We still walk the track prior to running it. And we still sketch stuff—turns and stuff—on paper, then discuss them...."
Steve: "Every time we get out of the car we talk to each other about the course, like we always did with the walkie-talkies on a hill...."
The brothers agree—as they usually do—that racing must be kept in perspective. "It's only one part of our lives," says Phil. The twins have families now, a son and daughter for each brother, and each has other responsibilities as well. They continue to make their living in the sport that made them famous. Phil's recent itinerary included a quick hop from Florida's Se-bring International Raceway to Japan, to do promotional work for ski manufacter K-2. Steve is putting together an October cruise that will combine snorkeling and scuba with lectures about preparing for the ski season. Steve and Phil are also codirectors of a training center for ski racers in Keystone, Colo. "Our lives are good right now," says Phil.
"We've been retired four years, and I'm finally starting to really, really enjoy the skiing again," says Steve.
"Me, too," says Phil. "I got out maybe 50 times this winter."
"Seeing our kids bombing along has made it fun again," says Steve. "I wish the car racing were going as well."
He refers to the current season, which has gotten off to a wheel-spinning start. The twins had arranged a ride in a special-bodied GT car with a 3.5-liter BMW engine, a car with a top speed of 175 mph—"a real race car," says Steve. In the opening race of the season, the 24 Hours of Daytona, Phil spun the car, and then Helmut Myndas, a third driver hired for the night-and-day grind, was involved in a crash. Then, at Sebring in March, Steve was on his eighth practice lap when he spun and damaged the car. "I started swearing the minute I hit the dirt," he recalls. "I was trying to go too fast on cold tires, which is something I learned not to do last year. I've got to remember these things—avoid the brain fade. I hit the wall and tore up the side of the car. It was just as if I had hooked a tip and ripped a ligament: I put us on the sidelines. I sure hope that's the low point of the season."
The Mahres, like other interlopers who bring famous names as well as helmet bags with them into the pits, have received a mixed reception on the circuit. Mark Hutchins, a 13-year veteran in the showroom-stock classes, says, "A lot of drivers come from underprivileged backgrounds and have had to make serious personal sacrifices to be in racing. Yes, there's some resentment when others aren't required to work to get a ride.
"Personally, I like having them out here. I work the night shift at a Volvo dealership in Falls Church, Virginia, and I never get to meet people like Phil and Steve in that life. I begrudge them nothing, and only judge them by how well they drive.
"And, you know, they drive well. Nothing like that guy Tom Cruise, who's full of...ummm...youthful exuberance, but not a lot of common sense. [Cruise has driven a showroom-stock-class Nissan 300 ZX.]
"Last year I hooked up with Phil at Lime Rock [Conn.]. We were door handle to door handle going into a turn. We bumped and he spun, and when I saw the angle he was going out at I said, 'Oh, God.' But he was able to reverse the spin nicely, and he scrubbed off 100 mph before he bumped the rail. Nice move. He saved the car. I wrote him a letter with my narrative of what had happened and expressing my apologies, and he wrote a nice letter back."
The twins are aware of some of the backbiting directed at them, but they pretty much brush it off. "The better drivers, the ones who are established, they're fine," says Steve. "Someone who's been racing five years and is still struggling, he's the one who might have the resentment. But the good ones, they know we're no threat."
"I don't consider us a threat to anybody" Phil interjects. "At Daytona I was in a press conference: Derek Bell, Chip Robinson, A.J. Foyt, Jim Downing, Danny Sullivan and me. All those guys are champion race drivers, and here I am, only one year in a showroom-stock car, and I'm supposed to know something? I told those guys afterward, 'We'll just try to stay out of your way and try to be predictable. Just don't run us over.' They were very friendly. They said, 'Good to have you here, it'll help the sport.' "
So the Mahres drive on. They will work hard, concentrate fully and go their own way. "We'll never accomplish what we did skiing," says Phil. Steve adds, "But we do intend to get better."