Men have been racing bobsleds since 1890, scaring themselves half to death and enjoying it. Among those who careen down icy chutes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour, there is agreement that two of the best bobsled pilots in history are a round-faced, 47-year-old ex-fire chief from Lake Placid, N.Y. named Stanley Benham and a red-haired, 33-year-old ski instructor from Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, named Eugenio Monti. Last weekend Benham and Monti hooked up in a bobsled duel that will be remembered as long as the sport exists. This is partly because it was to be Stan Benham's last race. But even more it is because Eugenio Monti, under the most harrowing conditions, proved that he is, indeed, the best bobsled driver who ever lived.
The occasion was the world's four-man bobsled championships and the site was the Olympic run, built for the 1932 Winter Games down the side of Mt. Van Hoevenberg, eight miles outside Lake Placid. This is the only bobsled run on the North American continent, and it is one of only four in the world still used for big international competitions. Its mile-long chute with the dizzy, plunging curves is quite a bit faster than those at St. Moritz or Garmisch or even Monti's home course at Cortina, although the latter is considered somewhat more difficult and dangerous. It was on the Mt. Hoevenberg run during the national championships of 1956 that Benham established the four-man course record of 1:08.88; it was also here, just two weeks ago, that Monti lowered his own two-man record to an altogether amazing 1:09.22 as he won his fifth straight world title in the smaller and supposedly slower sleds.
When racers are not on the course, the New York State Conservation Department runs a kind of crazy man's Coney Island there, offering rides for $2 a head. But the state does not get very rich from the operation, a fact that speaks well for the intelligence of tourists, since even the slow old Conservation Department sleds hit over 60 miles an hour in the straights, supplying sufficient G-force to make a novice rider's chin bounce off his kneecaps in some of the tighter turns. Neither Benham nor Monti are exactly novices, however, and when they send their slick Italian-built Podar racing sleds plummeting down the lightning-fast Lake Placid run, it can be one of the most spectacular sights in all sport.
Aside from their mutual love for sliding, as the racers call it, Benham and Monti are as unlike as any two men can be. Benham has been America's best driver for a dozen years, the winner of two world championships, runner-up half a dozen times. He is one of the old bobsled breed, a short, powerfully built man with a huge barrel chest and only a slightly less huge barrel belly. There was a time when Benham, at 210 pounds, was by far the lightest man on his sled, and he swears that the German team which beat him out of a gold medal at Oslo in 1952 averaged 306 pounds per man. Actually, the four weighed a total of only 1,050, averaging a mere 262½.
February 27, 1961
With a hangover
This was enough to cause the Fédération Internationale de Bobsleigh et de Tobogganing to pass a rule limiting crew weight on a four-man sled to 882 pounds, and today's racers generally look more like Notre Dame guards than Chicago Bear tackles. Most of them still play as hard as they work, however, and none more than Benham, who despite his four children and respected position as manager of parks for the township of North Elba, likes to relax in the evening with the boys. About 2 o'clock in the morning he may beg off with the excuse that he has to drive that day, but there is still a suspicion in his mind that the old ways were best. Then, a man didn't mind coming down a bob run with a hangover, feeling that to die would be a pleasure. Under these circumstances, the oldtimers feel, they drove much better—or, anyway, faster.
"You know why they didn't build a bobsled run at Squaw Valley?" Benham snorts. "It wasn't because it cost too much, and it wasn't because the ice wouldn't freeze hard enough, like some people said. It was because a bunch of Olympic officials and some of those other people out there said bobsledders drink too much wine and beer."
Eugenio Monti would have been welcome at Squaw Valley, for he drinks Seven-Up. Back home at Cortina he drinks a little Chianti now and then, but he says he can't find good Chianti in America ("They mix cheap wines in") so he sticks to Seven-Up. He also goes to bed at 9 o'clock, his gleaming steel sled runners wrapped lovingly in a piece of woolen cloth on a table alongside, and by daylight he is up ready to polish and wax and pamper the two bright red Podars with the white "Italia I" gleaming on their noses. For Eugenio Monti is quite likely the most dedicated bobsled pilot ever. He is also a very unusual one.
Monti not only is sober but small, standing only 5 feet 6½ inches and weighing just 158 pounds. He has piercing blue eyes, his red hair is cut in a slightly disorganized style, and his nose is broken and badly scarred. The nose was smashed in a 1958 accident when a bobsled flipped over twice and then rode Monti a quarter of a mile down the run at St. Moritz. It is the only major accident he has had, however, and the way he drives a bobsled now, he may never come close to another. Other drivers say he is the only man who can put the runners of a bobsled within half an inch of the exact spot he wants them, while moving at frightening speeds and weaving through the most difficult turns.
Monti didn't begin to drive until 1954. Until then he was a ski racer, and a very fine one. He had won two Italian Alpine championships when he took a bad fall practicing for the 1952 Olympics and broke both knees. This finished his competitive skiing career but left him with a craving to continue to go fast by one means or another. He tried automobile racing, but his two jobs, one as a lumber grader and the other as a ski instructor, wouldn't pay the bills. He discovered bobsleds, and within two years he was good enough to finish second in both the two-man and four-man races at the Cortina Olympics. Since then he has never lost a two-man world championship.
In trying to explain what makes one driver better than another, the sliders themselves are emphatic that it is the man, not his machine or those who ride with him. Virtually all racers drive Podars these days, and Monti's sled is no different from others. He does spend more time polishing the runners than most, and he has been known, when certain snow conditions exist on a course, to wax all of the underside of the sled, including the bolts that hold it together, to keep the snow from sticking. His greatest foe, as a matter of fact, is snow. He hates it like a good halfback hates a muddy field, for he is obsessed with speed and snow slows him down. Monti loves ice, on the other hand, gleaming blue sheets of ice all the way down a bob run over which his sled can flash like a gleam of light, and he hunts it like someone else would search for gold. Among all the bobsledders, Monti is the only one to consistently walk up a bob run, sometimes along the edge, sometimes hopping over into the chute itself to look for minute cuts that might hinder his progress and to seek the perfect patch that will lead him to victory. At Lake Placid it was a familiar sound for the public address system to boom out at periodic intervals: "Will Monti please get out of the course. There is a sled coming down."
He has a good brakeman, a husky, handsome boy named Sergio Siorpaes, who does not use the brake at all during a run ("Brakes," says Monti, "are for stopping at the end"), but furnishes a great deal of muscular force in getting the sled under way at the top of a hill. Yet Monti won championships with another brake-man before Siorpaes; and he could probably win with your Aunt Ethel riding back there. On his four-man team, Monti asks only that the two middle men push hard at first, then get in and sit very still. "You can even close your eyes if you want," he says.
Unlike most Americans, Monti does not steer with a wheel. Instead he uses two short reins, like Willie Hartack. A sled is harder to steer with ropes, since it does not have the gearing advantage of a wheel, but control is more positive and the driver gets more feel. This particular driver also takes curves higher than anyone else, brushing the tops as he enters them, then dropping fast coming out, using all the gravity he can get to go faster, always faster. "I think," says Gary Sheffield, the young Marine corporal from Lake Placid who finished second to Monti in the two-man race, "that Genio takes more chances than anyone else. But with him, they're not chances."
Although his precise and daring style has made him unbeatable in the two-man event, in the big four-man sleds Eugenio Monti has often operated in bad luck. He was second in '56 and second again in '57, losing by the flick of an eyelash. Then, in '58, an embarrassing thing happened. It seems that Monti thought there was too much snow on the run at Garmisch. When he appealed to the officials they were not at all sympathetic. That night a guard heard strange sounds arising from the bob run and, upon investigation, discovered Eugenio Monti, the world's best bobsled driver, and his crew shoveling snow. They didn't let Genio race that year.
He finished far back in 1959 ("Too much snow," he feels) but finally broke through to win the four-man championship last year, and last weekend he was favored to do it again. "I've been watching him," said Art Devlin, the old Olympic ski jumper who has recently become fascinated by bob-sledding after sneering at it for years. "This guy is an incredible competitor. You look at his record. He's always coming from behind on the fourth run to win. He just keeps putting on the pressure. When he set that record on the two-man last week, he did it on his fourth run. If he stays close the first day, you watch him on Sunday. The others may crack, but not him.
"Of course," Devlin added, a little less confidently, "old Stan is a tiger when he's behind, too."
There were some who thought that neither Monti nor Benham would win, but perhaps the German, Franz Schelle, who had been making the best practice times of all, or maybe Sergio Zardini in the No. 2 Italian sled, a very smooth little driver who has been acting as bridesmaid for Monti so long he doesn't like to think about it any more. Or even fast-improving Bill McCowan in the No. 1 British sled. In all, there were 10 nations with 14 sleds ready to go when the first heat was called Saturday morning and almost any of them were capable of giving the favorites real trouble, except, perhaps, the Belgians, whose entire course of bobsled training for the world championships included five days in early February at St. Moritz.
"I wish they would win," said Mrs. Bill Dodge, whose husband drove the No. 2 U.S. two-man sled. "They waved at me the other day coming down the course."
"They're incredible," said Dodge. "I had to take 25 runs just to get my bobsled license. They come over here with no experience at all and race in the world championships. And do pretty well."
Actually, the Belgians didn't do very well in the two-man competition. After watching them rattle back and forth off the ice-block walls of the chute like a man slipping down an icy porch, Dodge suggested that discretion replace valor, temporarily at least, and that the Belgians use their brakes when in trouble. So in each of the final three heats of the two-man run, they braked almost continuously, waved at Mrs. Dodge and other pretty ladies in the crowd—and ran the course in 1:35 or thereabouts, which wouldn't have been very good competition for a Conservation sled.
In the five days between the finish of the two-man races and the beginning of the four, however, Benham climbed aboard the Belgian sled and guided the four-man team through a practice run. "I've been down this run 500 times," he said later, "including one time I went down backwards. But I never saw anything like this. What a ride that was." If Benham failed to benefit, the Belgians did not. By last Saturday they were driving much better—although still running last.
Running first, all the way, were Monti and Benham. It was a gray, cloudy day, with an occasional light sprinkle of rain, and the course was trickier than usual. Soon there were bad cuts in the ice at Shady, the great 180° corner with the towering 32-foot walls where one of the course's two fatal accidents occurred in 1949. And everyone seemed to be having trouble with Zig-Zag, which is not so spectacular a sight as Shady but—because of its split-second reverse turn—is a much more brutal test of driving skill. The other Lake Placid bobsled death happened there, in 1955, and Zig-Zag almost claimed more victims on Saturday. The Spanish sled banged hard into the protective overhang of ice, which has been built in recent years to keep anyone else from flying off into space, and all four riders were thrown out, suffering various breaks and sprains and contusions. Soon after the ambulances had returned, Zardini's sled hit the wall, too. His brakeman, Romano Bonagura, was knocked off and had to be hauled away. There were at least a dozen doctors in attendance at the course, and although a person could have died of a hangnail in downtown Lake Placid before receiving medical care, apparently the doctors were right to be up on the mountain where they were.
But while others were having trouble, Monti and Benham came down the chute like greased eels. Monti made his first run in 1:09.20—remarkable time on the soft and rutted course. Then Benham, with Gary Sheffield, Jerry Tennant and Chuck Pandolph tucked in behind him, flashed across the finish only 2/100 of a second behind. There were also three other sleds under 1:10, Schelle of Germany (1:09.38), McCowan of Great Britain (1:09.74) and a surprising Swedish team, piloted by Gunnar Ahs in 1:09.58. Then, with the starting order switched around for the second heat, Benham led off with a 1:09.48, giving him a total for the day of 2:18.70. The Germans and British and Swedes all cracked 1:10 again, too, and so did the No. 2 U.S. team, driven by Larry McKillip, which equaled Benham's second-heat time. But all of these were over 2:19 for the two runs, and it was quite apparent that only Eugenio Monti could stay up with the old man of Mt. Van Hoevenberg—if anybody was going to that day.
With a clear head
Monti did. He got a great start and came slicing down the run, crouched low behind the fairing on his red sled. He was into Shady high and fast, blazed through Zig-Zag as if the deadly curve were his own backyard in Cortina, and roared down the long straightaway into the finishing turn. When he went under the bridge the crowd cheered, for they knew the tough Italian had been fast—and then the public address system went out, so that no one among the 6,000 that lined the course really knew exactly how fast for at least five minutes. Finally the officials put it on the board: again a 1:09.20 and a total of 2:18.40, three-tenths of a second better than Stan.
That night the rain really began to come down. By Sunday morning the temperature was up to 45°, and the bob run was almost washed off the face of Mt. Van Hoevenberg. "The only way we could race up there," said Benham, "would be in row-boats."
So the FIBT jury decided to call off the last two heats and declared that Saturday's results would be final.
"I'd like to have had a try at catching Genio," said Benham, "although he seems to be a pretty tough guy to catch. Anyway, this is the last one for me. I'm packing it in."
"I am very happy to win," said Monti, "but sorry I not break that record. The run was no fast. Too much snow."