By Steve Hill — Rattling Chains staff
No matter how old you are, or how long you have been playing, everyone who partakes in disc golf wants to achieve that ultimate goal — release the disc, watch its gorgeous path through the air, and SPLASH! Ace!
Even if you are a golfer who has a list of aces as long as Santa Claus’ naughty and nice scroll, it’s always fun to take a run at the chains, and Discraft offers that each fall with their annual Ace Race.
Now in its 10th year, the Discraft Ace Race is comprised of more than 300 individual events held over nearly three months that bring golfers — both veterans and those who have never touched a disc outside of their DVD players — together for the sole purpose of trying to hit as many aces as possible in one day. With this year’s event boasting more than 16,000 participants from 12 countries on three continents, it is the largest single disc golf event in the world, according to Discraft marketing director Brian Sullivan.
Coming from humble beginnings in Michigan and rapidly ascending to more than 50 events in three years, Sullivan said the goal of the Ace Race originally was to serve as the middleman between new players and their more established brethren.
“Our research has shown that the average new disc golfer takes three years to make the transition from a one-disc-wonder who plays a few times per year to joining a league and contributing to the local club’s growth,” Sullivan said. “Ace Race was conceived from the beginning to be a vehicle that would help to bridge the gap between casual players and organized clubs, serving as an introductory activity.”
The concept, for those unfamiliar, is pretty simple — Discraft designs a prototype disc each year that is released to the public specifically for the Ace Race. Participants pay $25 to enter the event, receiving two discs (as well as other goodies) that they use to simply tee off and try for an ace on each hole. No birdies, no pars. Just pure, unadulterated ace racing.
Sullivan admits, however, that Discraft did not devise the Ace Race concept all on their own. They just put their own spin on it.
“We had enjoyed the event as players for a number of years, courtesy of the Ann Arbor, Michigan club, who held an annual throw-any-disc-in-your-bag ace race,” Sullivan said. “We simply added in the prototype disc aspect to the concept and brought it to a global audience.”
The prototype idea is certainly one that is unique to disc golf. No other company is releasing mass quantities of a new disc for public consumption before it is approved for PDGA play, but Discraft knows it is one of the most appealing aspects of the yearly event.
“We are also aware that players love being part of the disc development process, and what better way to include them than giving them a brand new, never-before-seen disc to test out?” Sullivan said. “Love it or hate it, it is a cool way to take a peek behind the curtain of creating a new disc that might one day become a standard piece of sports equipment.”
But with that peek behind the curtain comes a seeming conundrum for the disc maker. Tasked with making the disc controllable enough for the throngs of new players who flock to Ace Races, there is no doubt more experienced players will want something they can sink their teeth into as well.
Discraft, however, caters to a specific market with the Ace Race disc.
“The annual disc is always created with newer players in mind,” Sullivan said. “We understand that giving newer players an overstable disc is going to result in them not having much fun, and defeats the purpose of Ace Race.”
That does not mean that all of the discs are understable, though, as Sullivan pointed to 2010′s Hornet, an overstable mid-range. But aiming for the discs to be beginner-friendly does not always guarantee that it is a success.
“It’s generally easy to tell when we have a hit,” Sullivan said. “The understable Meteor midrange (2006) blew players away with solid control and added glide. The Focus putter (2009), with its touch of overstability, fit as nicely into our disc lineup as it does in player’s hands.
“It’s also easy to tell a miss,” he continued. “The Slipstream driver (2005) was our groove-top proto driver to follow up the wildly successful Banger GT putter, but Slipstream was squirrelly and got flushed faster than a dead goldfish.
“It’s funny,” he continued. “We get requests all the time to bring back discontinued models (Xtreme, MRV, X-Clone, etc.), but nobody ever asks for a Slipstream.”
As for this year’s offering, which Discraft is billing as a “hybrid driver” falling on the speed scale between a mid-range and a fairway driver, Sullivan says the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
“The hybrid driver we introduced this year has proven to be a huge hit,” Sullivan said. “We expect to release it to the general public at some point, and it should be named and PDGA approved sometime in November after all the events wrap up.
“The downside to the disc’s popularity,” Sullivan continued, “is that we are being forced to turn away record numbers of event requests due to either too many events in one area, or that their request came in too late and our production schedule didn’t have room to cover them and our previously scheduled events.”
Sounds like a good problem to have.
Derek O’Neil, who ran the Brigham City Ace Race’s inaugural run this year in Brigham City, Utah, was pleased with his event’s turnout.
“We were fortunate to have a wonderful mix of experience,” O’Neil said. “I estimate about one fourth of the players had never played disc golf before. This was due to the fact that it was a community charity event, as well as to raise money for a young family battling cancer.”
O’Neil guessed another quarter of the participants had limited experience, with the rest being comprised of experienced golfers. The varied level of players, though, seemed to agree on the quality of the prototype disc.
“Most people I talked to really liked the disc, especially those who played last year,” O’Neil said. “For those who never had played, the disc was beginner friendly and the flight of the disc was predictable.”
Harold Ande, who directed his first Ace Race this year in Nacogdoches, Texas, agreed with O’Neil’s assessment of the disc’s appeal.
“A lot of people really liked the disc,” Ande said. “I’ve been seeing a few people use it in casual rounds (after the event), so I guess they hope it comes out on the market.”
But in order to be released to the masses, the disc needs a proper name, which is where a lot of the fun speculation comes in from participants each year.
And while Sullivan could not shine any light on possible names for this year’s prototype, he did reveal a bit about the naming process.
“Do you remember the movie character who created Jurassic Park?” Sullivan said. “There’s a scene in a nursery lab where he tells his guests that he has been present for the hatching of all his dinosaurs. Discraft founder Jim Kenner is the disc sports version of that guy, and still names each and every disc personally, even now more than 30 years after he started the company.
“For the naming of an Ace Race disc, we first take and boil down all the player suggestions, then core staffers make their short lists,” Sullivan continued. “We’ll have a pitch meeting and talk about the various characteristics of the disc, and Jim tells us what the disc will be called. If the rest of us are all leaning toward something else — some of us really wanted Zeppelin to be called Sumo — we can occasionally steer him off a name, but he has the final say for all his babies.”
Those babies still have a few weeks left to hatch, as Ace Race events are scheduled through October 28.
Steve Hill covers all angles of the game for Rattling Chains, even if he can’t hit those angles himself. Contact him at steve [at] rattlingchains.com and follow him on Twitter @OneMileMore.