Danny Davis: Mad scientist of shred
Imagine a professional-level contest with no judges, no live TV broadcast, no numbered bibs, no structured format and a schedule that goes something like: Show up when the sun is high, the air is warm and the snow is soft; ride until your lungs hurt, your cheeks burn from smiling and your legs can't take it anymore; come back tomorrow and do it again.
Picture 18 of the world's best contest snowboarders spending three days lapping -- Chinese-downhill-style -- a course that can't be defined as slopestyle or halfpipe or boardercross because it's a mad-scientist combination of the best elements of all three.
Do you call it a contest because winners are declared? Or do you call it what it is: a vision of a possible future snowboarding would have if riders such as Danny Davis are free to take the concept of a contest and reshape it in his image?
If there was only a vert ramp, how much would skateboarding suck? ... We have to think of snowboarding the same way. We have to build courses like skateparks.
Although casual fans of snowboarding mostly know Davis as the guy who was Shaun White's main rival heading into the 2010 Winter Olympics until an unfortunate accident put him on the sideline, hard-core fans know him as the guy who is bringing style back to competitive snowboarding. To the former, Davis' X Games SuperPipe gold in Aspen in January is the happy endnote to a classic sports comeback story.
To the latter, Davis' winning run -- which favored good-looking tricks such as the much-beloved chicken wing McTwist and Davis' signature switch method over standard back-to-back-to-back double corks -- was a gauntlet thrown in the name of style and originality. It was a wake-up slap in the face to those who had resigned themselves to letting competitive snowboarding follow aerial skiing's path to rigidity and constraint.
It is hard to overstate the importance of Davis' switch method as a catalyst for change. For those not familiar with the intricacies of snowboard trickery, the move is kind of like the skyhook of professional snowboarding: beautiful, unique, elegant in its simplicity, yet insanely difficult to pull off, much less look good while doing it. Not only does Davis own this trick but he has earned so much respect for introducing it into halfpipe competition that any other rider who decides to add it into his or her run in the future will be doing it almost purely as an homage.
Suffice it to say, when a person like Davis says he wants to play with the idea of what a competition could be, other snowboarders pay attention.
"Competitive snowboarding's in trouble," Davis says. "Every single slopestyle course these days is the same; every single halfpipe is the same. Ever since the progression of the actual terrain stopped changing, the tricks became, like we have to spin more, flip more. There's so much flipping and spinning, it's not about the riding anymore. And it's just so boring. I won't be able to compete much longer if things don't change."
"Three years ago, Danny [told me he wanted] to make a pipe that was more like 'Animal Chin' -- something different, with cutouts, gaps and wall rides," says Bryan Knox, global director of team marketing for Burton, one of Davis' main sponsors and project backers, along with Mountain Dew.
This original vision was built in the spring of 2012 at Northstar, a resort near Davis' home in Truckee, California, by the famed snow shapers at Snow Park Technologies. They named it Peace Pipe. It was conceived not as an event but as an experiment in geometry -- as was the playground they built the next year at Squaw Valley, dubbed Peace Park.
Although the first year's setup was a creative take on a halfpipe, for the second year, "We wanted more tranny and jump features, not so much a pipe," Knox says. "It worked out pretty well. It turned into a 22-minute show that aired during the Dew Tour, so it was more of a media thing. This year we stepped it up a bit."
The stats on this year's Peace Park, built on the backside of the Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, in an area loaded with ample snow from a massive winter, are pretty impressive: Eleven features spread out over 50 acres and 2,000 vertical feet that took 14 days and more than 1,100 cat hours to build.
Davis hopes broadening terrain possibilities will invigorate the competitive side of the sport.
"What I think about is this: Look at transition skateboarding," he says. "If there was only a vert ramp, how much would skateboarding suck? Skateboarding would be lame [and] boring. We have to think about snowboarding the same way. We have to build courses like skateparks that have transition and jumps and gnarly gaps. And [when it comes to competitions], we just have to not worry about things like, 'How do we make snowboarding understandable for people who don't care about snowboarding?'"
Competitive snowboarding has increasingly become regimented and standardized to fit into a live TV broadcast so that anyone watching, snowboarder or not, can understand. The eventual goal of Peace Park is to turn the event into a legitimate contest -- one that could potentially hold its own in the same tier as the X Games and Burton U.S. Open. But Davis wants to do it on his own terms.
"If you aren't into football, you aren't going to understand what's going on when you watch it on TV," Davis explains. "They don't change the game for the viewing public. Football is for football fans. Baseball is for baseball fans. Golf is for golf. Trying to make snowboarding any different than that is the wrong approach."
Danny Davis' Peace Park
Danny Davis' long road to recovery, first from a spinal fracture in 2010, then a broken femur in 2012, included some serious time spent splitboarding in the Tahoe backcountry, soaking in the concept of "soul shredding" until it was bone deep. Today the snowboarder from east Michigan, who grew up riding the icy slopes of the East Coast and exploded on the scene in the mid-2000s as a contest rider, is a true all-around mountain man. The night before this year's Peace Park event began, Davis set up a tent at the top of the Peace Park course on the backside of Grand Targhee in Wyoming, in a spot overlooking the Teton mountain range, in order to watch a lunar eclipse. If you'd like to understand the vibe and ethic that powers the event, this is it.
Of course Davis has the distinct advantage of being able to package his event inside a 44-minute pretaped show with a network television broadcast date set seven months after the event itself has taken place. This time gap has enabled the show's producers to craft and refine the story of Peace Park so it can be presented in a way they hope will be entertaining for everyone, and inspiring for those snowboarders who are, like Davis, a little bored with the status quo. Whether this approach is successful will be largely dependent on who gets to define the term "success."
Knox contends that Peace Park is still an early-stage experiment in progress. "I think with Danny, where he's at, he just wants to try different, more creative stuff, and that's what we need in snowboarding," he says. "I think people, once they see what we're up to, are going to think this is really cool, and I really believe that Peace Park could [turn into] a real event."
As a competition, Peace Park is the ultimate equalizer. With pipe and jump and banked-turn features all mixed into one course, competitors who specialize in one type of snowboarding lose their advantage.
"It's not about who can buy the best training halfpipe or ride the jumps for the longest and learn every triple. It really levels the playing field. It leaves so much more room for creativity and letting riders who are just great all-around snowboarders really shine," Davis says.
In a contest where there are no losers, however, who won is really beside the point. "The riders judge each other, picking an MVP or standout of the day. But the whole thing is that it's a snowboarder's event. The point is to have fun," Knox says.
And really, what other point would there be? See for yourself when Peace Park airs at 2 p.m. ET Sunday, Nov. 30, on ABC.