On the eve of the 1955 World Bobsled Championships here Dick Severino, captain and driver of the U.S. first team, was asked who he thought was going to win. Without hesitation he named the Swiss. "Taking on the old Swiss pros at St. Moritz is roughly equivalent to playing the Yanks in Yankee Stadium," he said.
Captain Severino had the situation precisely analyzed. The championships last weekend turned into a personal duel between two great Swiss drivers, Franz Kapus and Fritz Feierabend, with the 11 visiting crews fighting it out for third place.
Kapus and Feierabend represented the expert elite in 1955's main event of this dangerous and breath-taking pastime. In the end it was Kapus, a big, phlegmatic man with the nerves of a block of ice, who won, beating Feierabend by exactly three one-hundredths of a second after four runs down the one-mile track. But Kapus didn't get his win until he'd been through one of the most exciting, slam-bang, hell-for-leather battles in the history of winter sports.
February 7, 1955
Fritz Feierabend, a thin fellow with enormously powerful hands and back muscles like iron bands, is now 47, and this was his 23rd (counting two- and four-man events) championship. He has never finished worse than fourth and six times he's won. He was four-man champion at Cortina in 1939, at St. Moritz in 1947 and again at Cortina last year. He won the two-man event at St. Moritz in 1947, at Cortina in 1950 and again here at St. Moritz last week. He rode his first bobsled 37 years ago. His father, Carl Feierabend, a tiny little man now 78, was Swiss champion for years, drove his last race when he was 67. The Feierabends, father and son, in one sense couldn't lose at St. Moritz this weekend because no matter who won he would be driving a Feierabend sled. Carl started making bobsleds half a century ago. Since the 1932 Olympics, the Feierabend shop in Engelberg, near Lucerne, has had a virtual monopoly in championship sleds. Every one of the 13 sleds that started here was a Feierabend, each representing $1,400 in the family bank account. The Feierabends also make plumbing fixtures in their small shop.
Franz Kapus is also a mechanic. Now 45, he works in a Zurich flour mill when not careening around ice banks at 70 mph. Before Sunday he was known as one of the best drivers in the business but always seemed to miss. A 10-year veteran, Kapus was fifth in the 1948 Olympics, Swiss champion in 1949 and 1955, third at Cortina in 1950, fourth in the 1952 Olympics. Last year at Cortina was supposed to have been Kapus' year. He had a beautifully drilled team and a fine sled, one of the best the Feierabends had ever turned out. But in practice he went over a curve and was so badly injured he had to withdraw. Fritz Feierabend took over his undamaged sled and crew and won. It was a bitter experience for Kapus, who spent the next 12 months brooding and planning.
Feierabend and Kapus, who are coolly polite to each other, came to St. Moritz playing for keeps. Both men knew the beautiful run intimately. It's the kind of run which puts a premium on precise driving. It's not so fast as Cortina, Oslo or Lake Placid but its terrifying Horse Shoe Curve, one of the tightest in the business, can baffle the most experienced driver. Only 50 feet from entrance to exit, it whips a sled (weighing 507 pounds and carrying a crew and ballast weighing another 880 pounds), zipping along at about 65 miles an hour, around a full 180°. If you want to know why there is a sign reading "Insurance against accidents can be contracted here" at the start of the St. Moritz run, go watch a bob slam through Horse Shoe like an express train hitting a tunnel.
Switzerland's two old pros were at each other immediately in the first two heats run off Saturday afternoon. Feierabend opened with a run of one minute, 18 and one-tenth seconds. Kapus replied with a 1:18.17 descent. Kapus' second run was 1:18.29 and Feierabend, driving in the growing darkness, came home in 1:18.11 on his second run, during which his sled rammed into an ice hole on Horse Shoe and ruined the front-runner assembly and the housing of the left rear runner.
Saturday night Feierabend led by one quarter of a second, but his sled was in no condition to continue. The U.S. Air Force, in a fine piece of sportsmanship, stepped up and loaned Feierabend the front assembly and rear housings from its No. 2 sled. Saturday night, as Feierabend nursed a terrible headache brought on by the jolt, Kapus and his tightly knit crew (a 28-year-old Zurich advertising copy writer, a 28-year-old Montreux policeman and a 39-year-old butcher who used to be Switzerland's wrestling champion) talked it over. Horse Shoe was bad. They would have to ride high enough to miss the soft spot that nearly got Feierabend. Maintenance crews worked through the night getting Horse Shoe and the rest of the run in shape for Sunday morning.
Kapus ran first in the third heat. Crowds at the start and lining the run gasped when his time was announced: 1:16.76! This was a quarter of a second over the track record (held jointly by the U.S.'s Donna Fox and Jack Heaton, who both did 1:16.5 in 1937), set in the days when there was no weight limit on sleds and crews.
Undaunted, Feierabend adjusted his goggles and his great crew gave him a fine start. The crowd roared when he hit Sunny Corner in 33 seconds, banged through Horse Shoe at 46 seconds and was past Tree checkpoint in 56 seconds. His fantastic run was done in 1:16.72. As other crews ran down course, bobsledding's aficionados (this is a disease, not a sport, one explained to me) paid them no heed, watched Switzerland's two old pros prepare for the final run.
Calmly Feierabend sat in the brilliant sun with his English wife Dolly. You would have thought he was on a picnic. Kapus and his crew (firm friends of long standing) carefully sandpapered their runners to absolute smoothness. They talked quietly among themselves. As Feierabend prepared for his final descent the run was getting slower and more cut up. He whooshed down in 1:17.62, nine-tenths of a second slower than his great third run, but very fast indeed. A quick bit of figuring told Kapus and his boys they had to do 1:17.32 to win. I asked him if he thought he'd make it. "Who knows?" he said, shrugging his massive shoulders. I never saw a calmer man.
Kapus' sled was towed to the starting line. He and his red-sweatered crew took their places beside it. As the crowd held its breath they rocked it forward and backward, counting, "Eins...zwei...und drei!" With one enormous combined jerk (from the front) and push (from the back) the four men rocketed the sled into forward motion. Pounding along beside it, they pushed with everything they had.
Kapus was in first, adjusting his feet and picking up the driving ropes. Gottfried Diener, the Zurich adman, was in next into the No. 2 seat. Robert Alt, the policeman, stepped carefully into the No. 3 seat of the now fast-moving sled. Brakeman Heinrich Angst, pounding away like a locomotive under a full head of steam kept pushing the sled for nearly 50 yards, came aboard just before it headed into the first turn.
The bright red sled smashed down the long run, gaining speed. It zipped through The Snake and came banging into Sunny Corner. The electronic clock said 34 seconds.
The sled zoomed down the long approach to Horse Shoe. Kapus' able blue eyes focused high on the entrance wall. He roared into Horse Shoe and rode far up, inches from the top of the wall. Then, with his great strength, he pulled hard on his left rope and came zooming down and out of the curve. The clock said 47 seconds.
The sled whipped through curves and countercurves, past Shamrock and Devil's Dyke. Kapus held his ropes loosely, let the sled have her head. Crewmen, with heads up in the Swiss style, adjusted their weight constantly, keeping the sled steady. It flashed past the Tree checkpoint at 57 seconds. Under the bridge safely, it entered the final steep straightaway. As it reached Leap, it left the ice momentarily and then settled and whanged past the finish line.
At the finish here one can't hear the loudspeaker announcing the time. As soon as the sled was slowed down, Diener leapt out and raced back up the track, threw off his football helmet and cupped his ears, then heard the words: "One minute...seventeen...point...three...zero...." (Diener said later he thought he'd die between the three and the zero.) He turned and sprinted back where Kapus and the other two waited. "We did it! We did it!" he whooped, while a big grin spread over Kapus' normally solemn face and his boys banged each other around in the snow beside the track.
Fritz Feierabend heard the loudspeaker. He threw up his hands and laughed. "Three hundredths of a second!" he said. "Well, I'm glad he made it. He's such a fine driver and he's waited so long for this." Fritz Feierabend, a great driver himself, is also a very fine gentleman and sportsman.
Kapus' winning time for the four runs was 5:10.52. Feierabend clocked 5:10.55. The rest of the field strung out behind. Germany's young (25) Franz Schelle, a Bavarian country boy with enormous poise and drive, was third at 5:14.23. Austria's quiet, unassuming Karl Wagner (who, like Kapus, works in a flour mill) was fourth, a quarter of a second behind Schelle. Hans R√∂sch, a Munich paint manufacturer who was second at Cortina last year, finished a disappointing fifth. Young Dick Severino, driving the U.S. Air Force team, was sixth, only three hundredths of a second behind R√∂sch. Kurt Loserth, driving Austria's second sled, was seventh. Britain's surprising young Keith Schellenberg was eighth with a green crew. Sweden's Olle Axellsonn, who had bad luck, losing his sled to that Horse Shoe hole, was ninth, and France's Serge Giacchini, whose crew didn't make much speed but had a wonderful time, was tenth. Britain's Stuart Parkinson was eleventh.
Lloyd Johnson, the fine American driver who won at Garmisch-Parten-kirchen in 1953, had bad luck too. Driving with a broken collarbone (suffered Jan. 2 at Garmisch), he lost control of his sled just before Sunny Corner in the first heat. It left the course and plunged into the snow. Johnson and his crew were uninjured but the fall disqualified them. The 13th team, Sweden's No. 2 sled, ran only three heats, then gave up.
Why were the Swiss so much better than the rest of the field? Expert observers give three reasons. First, Kapus and Feierabend have experience. Secondly, they have their crews ride with heads up, looking, thinking, shifting all the time. This is in contrast to the German method of everyone except the driver ducking his head, shutting his eyes and hanging on for dear life. Thirdly and most important, the Swiss drive with ropes instead of a steering wheel. This is the hard way to get down the mountain, but, according to the real experts, the best way. I asked Feierabend why.
"Well, you get more of a feeling of the sled and the track. Your reactions are quicker. The sled responds better and you have better control."
PREMIUM ON POWER
"Well, then, why doesn't everyone drive with ropes?" Because, as Feierabend puts it, there are very few drivers with enough strength in the hands and back to handle a four-man bob with ropes.
The American showing this year was excellent when one considers that we had very little experience out on the run. Severino, 35, who placed sixth in both the two- and four-men events, never saw a bobsled until 1951. Johnson, 40, who probably should not have been driving with the injury to his collarbone, also has been driving for only four years.
American bobsledding got bad news in St. Moritz this week when the Federation Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing banned Lake Placid's Stan Benham from international competition for three years. The federation felt that Benham had been something less than a good sportsman at Cortina last year when he withdrew from the four-man race and left for home. However, the AAU gave Benham a clean slate after the incident last winter and, according to Secretary Dan Ferris, intends to certify him for the 1956 Olympics if he qualifies at the trials at Lake Placid Feb. 19-20.
But there was also good news for Americans at St. Moritz. The young apprentice drivers on the Air Force squad were sensational in practice. Particularly well regarded is 21-year-old Joseph Le Bouef, who hails from Baton Rouge and never saw snow, let alone a bobsled, until last February. This week he won the European Junior Championship in two-man bobs and turned in several very good 1:18 runs with a green four-man crew. Also much discussed among the experts is another 21-year-old, William Williams. Bill Williams, who played freshman football at the University of North Carolina before entering the Air Force, was brought up to St. Moritz from the U.S. air base at Rabat in North Africa 10 days before the races started. He didn't know a bobsled from third base. The big 220-pound kid, who can run like a deer and has tremendous will to compete, rode brake for little Le Bouef (who looks like Henry Aldrich) in the European juniors and for Severino in the fours. Feierabend, after watching him for two weeks, says Williams is the most promising brakeman he's ever laid eyes on. Both Feierabend and Kapus are high on Le Bouef as a driver. Two Air Force majors, Bruce Rowlett, 31, and Jerry O'Toole, 35, did very well in practice trials with four-man sleds. But promising as the Americans are, they've got a long way to go if they expect to show well against the old pros in the Olympics next year. The Yankees are hard to beat in anyone's ball park.
ST. MORITZ BOBSLED RUN
For fastest descent, team starts by setting runners in previous sled's tracks, then riders push sled through running start. Drivers try to ride into curves high, then swoop down with least possible skid. Top speed is reached in straightaway at finish.
START: EL. 6,091 FEET
Austrian team went off here in practice run
394-FOOT DROP FROM START TO FINISH
Sleds hit 60 mph here
Johnson's crew went over wall here
Sleds going 65 mph here
Sleds reach 65 mph here
Killed here in 1939
Sleds leave ground, going 75 mph here
FINISH: EL. 5,697 FEET
2-MAN: 1:20.7 by Fritz Feierabend in 1947
4-MAN: 1:16.5 held jointly by Donna Fox and Jack Heaton
Start: El. 6,091 ft.
Finish: EL. 5,697 FT.
Total Height Difference 394 FT.
Total Distance Difference 5,280 FT.