Boardercross racer Billy Pettengill, a college senior, balances family, friends and academia with a world of absolute focus
By NICK CUNKELMAN
If there is poetry in action, and advice in poetry, then Bill Pettengill writes both for his son. Hotel room slips, ski lodge napkins, gas station receipts, you name it, the retired Vermont State Trooper—and closet Wordsworth—composes and speaks the inspiration that echoes through Bill Jr.’s head: “It’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian,” he’ll say. Or, simply, “Do what you can.” And given that his son’s mind is tuned not only to snowboarding but also cost-curves and ethnographies, perhaps it’s all for the better. Indeed, Pettengill Jr., 21, a professional boardercross racer and Colby College senior majoring in economics and anthropology, is often taking in a campus lecture while his fellow competitors train, train, and, well, train. “For every day Billy has on a racecourse,” says Sr., “they have at least 20. But he’s carrying the load. He’s totally immersed in the whole college thing.”
Maybe it helps to be a natural. At age 12, Pettengill began racing in the Palmer X Series at Mount Snow, Vermont, near his home in Guilford, winning some races by upwards of five seconds. He then transitioned to motocross—racing dirtbikes on circuit courses—where he rose to top in New England in his class before shifting back to the snow during his sophomore year at Colby, competing in boardercross for the first time in eight years. In January 2009, Pettengill won every race of the Maine Mountain Series, which gave him enough points in the United States of America Snowboard Association (USASA) ranking system to qualify for the national championships at Copper Mountain in Colorado, where he won gold that April. “And I had no expectation of doing anything that year,” said Pettengill. Added Sr.: “Even back at Stratton he was a Guilford country boy with no experience who went up there and beat them. His most natural sport is boardercross. He was able to strap on a board and do things with his board that the other kids couldn’t do.”
And so, his coaching comes from those around Pettengill, both family and friends. Bill Sr., when he can, travels to races with his son and—while Jr. inspects the course and runs it over in his head—can usually be found alongside, checking up on the conditions as well. Sometimes, as was the case with a few races this February, the entire family will travel to cheer on Billy, the youngest (human) in the family. “We’re his coaches and backers,” said Bill Sr. “Paula [his mom] as well as Amanda [his sister] and the dogs. We all back Billy.” And such a support structure can only help. This February, when Pettengill raced at a NorAm stop for the first time without his family, he placed 26th overall despite being seeded ninth for the final. “And my Dad was like, ‘Yeah, we weren’t there,’” he says. Meanwhile, on campus, Pettengill’s roommate Eric Freeman, a Colby senior who ski raced in high school, has opened his eyes to the world of wax—and improv board-tuning. Once, during their sophomore year, Freeman and Pettengill were at a race at Sugarloaf when they realized, after sharpening and waxing Billy’s board the night before the race in the locker room of the mountain hotel, that they were without a scraper. So, thinking quickly, the two removed the light fixture from the ceiling and cut the plastic cover into a rectangle. It worked. “And there were a few people wandering around the lockers who kept checking in on our ingenious—or ridiculous—solution,” said Freeman. “But everyone that races has a tuning story, whether its gouging a palm, lighting a bench on fire, destroying a hotel light fixture, or any other piece of hotel property for that matter.”
This learning curve also extends outside the shop and racecourse into aspects of college life. Sean Keough, director of the Maine Mountain Series, has a daughter in school who likewise races boardercross and has seen the spectrum of academic-athletic balance. “Top guys have their whole schedule cleared,” he said, “they don’t have to think about classes and exams, all they’ve got to think about is keeping their boards tuned, waxed, etc. If you are competing against people who are doing this as a job and race every weekend and if they’re not racing they’re in the gym all the time. Then you’ve got Billy, who’s eating in the school cafeteria when these guys are thinking about board bases.” (Pettengill, who stretches and does yoga in his dorm room, recently became a vegetarian and prefers Colby’s organic dining hall for nutrition.) Keough, citing other riders, notes that Pettengill’s path is most similar to that of Kevin Leahy, a student at Boston College and Brighton, Massachusetts native who took the winter off from school to race. In February, Leahy finished sixth overall in the Snowboarding Grand Prix at the Canyons Resort in Utah, and third among US riders. Jonathan Cheever, a fellow New Englander, left college to race and placed second at the Grand Prix—first among US riders. The 22-year old from Saugus, MA is currently ranked seventh in the world FIS standings. “Either way it takes determination and perseverance,” said Keough. “You’ve gotta know that you’re going to make it and then follow through with it. It’s not easy, but you can pull it off.”
In terms of gear, that perseverance shows itself as care. Pettengill, who is sponsored by Swix as well as Mount Snow, Oxess, and Mount Snow Bootworks, has become, in the words of Sr., “an equipment nut.” But this devotion still places him behind the fanaticism—and resources—of some of the other racers. For instance, while studying abroad at Oxford during his junior year, Pettengill had the chance to compete in an FIS race in Cortina, Italy, where the pre-race wax routine certainly wasn’t Sugarloaf. “We were waxing my board in the basement of the hotel with teams from Austria, Switzerland, France, Russia and Italy and all their wax techs,” said Pettengill. “And the riders were there just hanging out.” Still, for the Easter Break between terms two months later—and despite not seeing a snowboard in all that time—Pettengill returned to the States and placed fifth in the NorAms at Mt. Hood, to this date his highest result at that level. “I don’t have a lot of time on the mountain, so I’ve got to make the most of it,” he said, “And once you get out there, once you’re in the gate, you’re on an even plane.
”This year, Pettengill has raced at NorAm stops in addition to open class USASA, and recently came back from Nationals at Copper, where, despite puncturing his lung in the semifinals, he placed fifth overall. “As long as Billy comes home safe, we’re happy,” said Sr, “for us so far, it’s always been school first and riding second.” Hence, after graduation, Pettengill plans to step up his racing schedule with more NorAm stops, where the top three riders on tour qualify for the World Cup, a level occupied by coached US team riders who have nicknamed the start-up Guilford country boy “Darkhorse.” Yet still, with his education, Pettengill-who studied the economics of climate change with a World Bank employee while at Oxford-keeps his big-picture endeavours in mind. “I have only thought a little bit about it,” he said, “but I am interested in sustainability and how to mesh that with the ski industry as companies make sustainability and climate change imperatives a part of their business models.”
So whether it’s his on-snow equipment or classroom experience, Pettengill—who recently added Oxess snowboards as a sponsor and now enters his final month at Colby—perpetually finds himself on the learning slope. “I’ve always said it’s not the arrow, it’s the Indian,” said Sr., “but a good arrow does help.”
Nick Cunkelman is a senior at Colby College in Waterville, ME who grew up skiing at Vermont’s Mad River Glen, a mere three-hour drive from his home in Acton, MA. His writing has appeared in The Colby Echo, The Jackson Hole News and Guide, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. For more photos, go to sport-write-shoot.tumblr.com.