By Arlie Carstens

On February 10, sixteen competitors (twelve International pros and four local Japanese riders) were invited to compete in the 12th Annual Toyota Big Air at Makomanai Open Air Stadium, site of the 1972 Sapporo Winter Olympics. As in years past, the competition coincided with the world famous Sapporo International Ice Carving Festival. As always the event brought a bevy of world class riders, hyper-enthusiastic shred fans, drunks, smokers, stressed out event planners, high level explosives, television camera crews, auto manufacturers, and ice sculpture lovers together for one long and wildly entertaining day of on-snow antics. Wonderful and amazing! Here’s my report from the field:

After checking into the Sapporo Park Hotel on the 9th, competitors David Benedek and Nicolas Müller, and photographer Kevin Zacher and I jumped on the subway to check out the ice sculptures for a few hours before heading to practice at the stadium. Though it may sound quaint on paper, this ice festival is indeed a big deal. A real, honest to God winter wonderland; replete with Starbucks Coffee yurts and vendors selling “German Roasted Almonds.” Weird

Any person, place and thing you could (or never might) think of were rendered three-dimensionally in ice-full-scale Egyptian pyramids, colonial mansions, tusked mammoths, and even David Letterman’s head. The festival is rather impressive in its own right, but when you’re walking around with a brilliant wise-ass like David Benedek providing commentary, it soon becomes surreal. *[Note the photo of David lining Nicolas’s head and sunglasses up with Letterman’s head and glasses for a photo-op]. After a quick bite in a salary-man lunch house we dashed back to the hotel for David and Nicolas to grab their gear and jump on the bus for practice.

Upon arrival we learned the jump had received its first facelift in several years; event organizers elongated and heightened the run-in’s scaffolding to increase rider speeds, elevated the kicker’s pitch in effort to give tricks greater amplitude, and extended the landing zone to include a tight quarter-pipe in the end zone *[Note: Mikkel Bang’s tongue-in-cheek tail-blocks and Müller’s stylish handplants]. Despite these modifications, practice was nevertheless-how should we say-tame. Fair enough, it was a brutal cold 16 degrees Fahrenheit, the trudge up the scaffolding was tiring, and the jump still had many kinks needing to be worked out. Surprisingly, regardless of the run-in’s increased pitch, a few riders still had a difficult time getting over the tabletop (a circumstance that would, the following night, knock IPod out of the competition and give him one of the greatest frights of his young professional career). Accordingly, all involved opted to play it safe in practice and save their best tricks for the main event.

Unlike in years past, clear skies and crisp, bone-chilling weather graced the 2008 event- all the better to watch Japan’s premier rock band ‘Maximum The Hormone’ (yes, not kidding) warm up the crowd of 15,000 spectators, and later view the dazzling post-event fireworks display. With the sun low in the sky and all television cameras at the ready, the spectacle got off to a precise start at exactly 4:30 PM. All sixteen riders were given two qualifier runs each in effort to advance to the head-to-head knockout round of eight. At the close of the first round the HTB (Hokkaido Television Broadcasting) announcers came out with the station’s mascot “ONchan” (basically a person in a fuzzy yellow blob outfit) to laugh and stoke the crowd while a few more sensational fireworks blew up. ONchan just sort of danced around and waved. He even crumpled himself pretty badly trying to hit the kicker. THAT was amazing/terrifying. To these Western eyes it seemed bizarrely corny, but man, the Japanese crowd was PUMPED!

After an hour of hyping the fans for Round Twwo, the contest resumed with four riders (Kevin Pearce vs. Antti Autti & Masatake Yamamoto vs. Risto Mattila) advancing to the semi-final head-to-head. By this point it was 9:30 PM and the riders that didn’t advance were thoroughly exhausted, guzzling boozy treats and looking to wrap it up and/or cause havoc (which if you ask Benedek or Mueller is an annual tradition among a few of the more free-spirited contestants).

Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you’re saying to yourself right now, “But what about the tricks?” Well, after more than five hours of hucking, it all came down to a showdown–Toyota Big Air’s 2007 Champion Kevin Pearce vs. Antti Autti and Risto Mattila vs. local rider Masatake Yamamoto. In the end Autti’s frontside 1080 beat Pearce’s frontside 1080 thanks to a momentary hand drag. Mattila’s switch backside nine soundly vanquished Yamamoto’s Cab nine. In the last round Autti snatched the win with a frontside 1080 over his Flow teammate Mattila who was unable to land two switch backside 1080 attempts. By staying on point all day and heating it up at the finish (when the energy of other riders was noticeably drained), Antti Autti decidedly took the 12th Annual Toyota Big Air.

Soon as the contest ended, Japanese emo band Acidman (think Coldplay meets Bright Eyes) took the stage for a long, “emotionally charged” set of earnest rock. Whoa. Some time around 11:00 p.m. they finally presented the awards and prizes to the competitors. Autti bagged $23K and a new Toyota Vanguard. Not bad for a day’s work. But let’s be honest, by this point most everyone was blasted tired, wicked cold and just wanted to shed the shred clothes. As the prize ceremony wound down, a few riders and events crew took large vinyl pads and belly flopped down the landing (only to collide in heaps at the base of the quarterpipe for the viewers at home to enjoy). Again the crowd roared!

Around 12:45 a.m. the riders were scooped up from their hotel and brought to an afterparty to sign autographs and mingle with fans. Autographs! Squealing girls! Cigarette smoke! Loud beats! Benedek bailed early to spend a week on the beaches of Thailand with his girlfriend. Nicolas Müller got smashed on the head with a beer bottle for trying to protect a girl’s honor. All in all, everyone emerged from this one a bit battered but winners nonetheless.

1. Antti Autti, Finland (Flow)
2. Risto Mattila, Finland (Flow)
3. Masatake Yamamoto, Japan (Rice28)
4. Kevin Pearce, USA (Burton)
5. Nicolas Muller, Switzerland (Burton)
6. Mikkel Bang, Norway (Burton)
7. Mason Aguirre, USA (Burton)
8. Iouri Podladtchikov, Switzerland (Santa Cruz)
9. Akifumi Hiraoka, Japan (Ride)
10. Takumi Suzuki, Japan (Burton)         
11. Fredrik Evensen, Norway (Head)
12. Cvb Arai, Japan (Yonex Fc)
13. David Benedek, Germany (Salomon)
14. Shuji Ito, Japan (Btm)
15. Eero Ettala, Finland (Nitro)   
16. Shota Suzuki, Japan (Burton)