Racing Bar Stools: An Annual Downhill Competition in Northern Wisconsin

Feb 13, 2015

WUWM's Susan Bence stopped by the town in 2013 to cover their annual downhill competition - racing bar stools on skis.

Drummond, a town up in northern Wisconsin, is home to 150 people and the Brian Miller Hill. Dan Iverson helped fashion the hill.

The slope is off limits for 364 days a year, except to people like Iverson those who tend it. But that changes on race day. Iverson stops racers to eyeballs their bar stool ski contraptions to confirm they meet official guidelines.

Tristan Kern and his buddies’ two entrees pass muster – one is Green Bay Packer football themed. “What we have here is a barstool on skis and a field goal post mounted on the back of it with a football field running off the back of the skis,” Kern says.

He’s entering his second creation in the open “anything on skis” category. Kern mounted a jukebox on skis.

When his turn comes, Kern will mount his sled next to a competitor. When they get the signal, each is given a push. Whoever makes down the snow-packed slope first – still seated wins the round. Win or lose, Tristan Kern says it’s a blast.

Kelsey Splinter & Ashley Phelps before the race 2013
Credit S Bence

Ashley Phelps’ carrier is compact and without frills – save a splash of pink and a few Berber daisies. Although the Duluth, Minnesota resident is new to the racing scene, her boyfriend is not.

“He did the structure and then we made it pretty,” Phelps says.

Bespectacled and serious, Phelps’s boyfriend, Jared Phler says construction aside, the event is really a pusher’s race.

“If you can tell you pusher, when you get out to that lift, push down and not out; there’s little secrets, anything to give you a cutting edge. It’s usually a family member or your best friend that’s on the stool that you’re pushing. My brother Paul and I have an agreement, he gets me off the line and I’ll do whatever I can do to win,” Phler says.

Phler is hungry to win – he placed first in the 2010 and 2011 races.

As for his girlfriend Ashley Phelps, she’ll be pushing her friend, Kelsey Splinter. They tested their teamwork on a nearby hill. Splinter is still amazed she remained upright.

“When you go over the hill for the first time, it’s kind of I going to fall off, but it’s good, it’s quite the thrill,” Splinter says.

Dale "Grizz" Ahlvin (left) is among the volunteers who've staffed the races from the beginning.

Dale Ahlvin also thinks it’s a thrill. The man known as “Grizz” has been king of the hill since the very first bar stool race. The burly bearded fellow says it’s still a thrill.

“Yeah, I’ve been up here, Chris Alkins and I, been up here, starting everybody off, watching the foul line and you’ll hear me, when I talk to the people, watch the green light – when I say go, the starters are ready and when I say go, they have to watch for the green light, I tell them all the time, watch for the green light, and when I say go those guys in there hit the button,” Grizz says.

Grizz looks out on swarms of spectators and his opponents in the race. There’s the occasional costumed competitor – a chipmunk here, gorilla there, and the more traditional-themed lumberjack look.

“And those guys have a sixteen foot boat cut in half and they’re going to go down the hill with it. I can’t wait to see that,” Grizz says.

After local telephone company employee Lisa Schafer sings the national anthem – like she does every year, the battle commences.

Some racers stay on track, others careen into the median or the hay bales lining the perimeter of the steep course. Racers who take a tumble, get another chance at the hill before they’re disqualified.

Tristan Kern’s Green Bay Packer’s magnificent goal post lifts up, off and away on its slide down the hill.

While they didn’t win the race, they placed First in Show for their design. And Kern’s jukebox on skis placed second in “open class.” His team is euphoric!

“They said we’re here to put on a show; I think we did that, we entertained some people and it’s time to to celebrate,” Kern says.

Jared Phler’s brother pushed him to victory, but not before he took a tumble that sent his glasses flying. As the race ends, he’s still slightly stunned.

Jared Phler (left) pushed by his brother Paul were top winners at the 2010, 2011 and 2013 Drummond bar stool races.

“When I crashed that second to last race, I had no clue where my sled was, so I’m looking around,” Phler says.

Will he be back in 2014?

“As long as my brother is good to go, we’ll come back, it’s too much fun,” Phler says.

While champions are crowned in the races and money raised for local causes, longtime race organizer Grizz Ahlvin says the real winner on race day is the community.

“What they create here is unbelievable," he says. "The ideas are just crazy; it’s just wonderful AND it brings people together. A lot of people in the area come here and they associate and have a couple of beers and brats and they eat and fun and talk stupid, just have ball.”