At 23 years old and without a college degree, Willy Graves does not seem like the kind of guy who could compete with scientists at wax companies like Swix or Toko. But armed with a blender in the confines of his garage, Graves has invented a product that just might eat into those companies’ market shares—at least a little bit.
Along with his former teammate Eric Camerota, Graves, a recently-retired U.S. nordic combined B-teamer, has concocted a secret homemade formula for summer ski jumping wax. And it works. Better than anything else out there. At last weekend’s U.S. ski jumping and nordic combined championships, Lindsey Van, Peter Frenette, and Camerota’s brother Brett all used it en route to national titles, Graves said.
“I like it a lot,” said Van, a world champion in women’s ski jumping in 2009. “I don’t want to tell anybody about it, because I don’t want anybody else to have it.”
Ski jumpers and nordic combined athletes jump in the summer not just to train, but also in competitions in the U.S. and Europe. Instead of sliding on snow, athletes glide down a porcelain in-run and land on plastic shingles.
To protect their bases and obtain decent glide, athletes leave a thin layer of hard wax on their skis while jumping. But according to Graves, until he and Camerota began tinkering in their garage, only one other small company made a summer-specific product, in a similarly small-scale operation. Most athletes, Van included, used stock winter varieties like Swix’s CH4.
“We knew there had to be something better,” Graves said.
He and Camerota embarked on their project this spring. Lacking formal knowledge in chemistry, they went straight to the Web in search of the right ingredients. They knew they needed something that would allow the wax to bond to ski bases while remaining hard and flexible.
It took more than one try to get the formula right, but after a number of “complete disasters,” they had a recipe. Graves wouldn’t reveal the components, saying only that it was a basic hydrocarbon wax mixed with a few key additives for durability and lubrication. But he was happy to talk to about the advantages it offers over winter products.
First, it doesn’t chip like CH4 or other cold-weather waxes, making each coat more resilient. Graves said that the lifespan of his wax was nearly twice as long as other varieties.
It also makes for a smoother acceleration as athletes push off the bar atop the in-run, allowing them to get into an aggressive position more quickly.
“I felt quite a bit of difference,” Van said. “I was able to sit a little lower—better balance—without being on my toes or my heels.”
Despite Van’s hopes to keep the wax a secret, word seems to be getting out. Graves sent the product to Europe with the U.S. Nordic Combined Team for their Summer Grand Prix competitions, and he just filled a big order for the Canadians. In the past week, he’s heard from athletes as far away as France and Austria.
The operation, dubbed the Alien Wax Project–still runs out of the garage, and it’s still small-scale. There’s no website (although a Facebook page may be in the works), and Graves said that the total investment in equipment and materials has been roughly $1,000. Given the small size of the summer jumping community and the low price they’ve set for their wax, Graves and Camerota have limited ambitions for the product—although they are contemplating an expansion into winter waxes for alpine skiing and snowboarding.
“The major goal is not really to make money—we just want to make the best product out there,” Graves said. “It’s just kind of a fun little project.”
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.