Give or take an Alp or two, the best ski racers in the world are turned out like Volkswagens on an assembly line by two tiny Austrian provinces that could be tucked into a corner of Colorado. Only in a two-dimensional sense, however, are the Tyrol and Vorarlberg unimpressive. Stretched out by the corners to level the mountains, they would probably blanket Siberia, and their impact on the world of Alpine ski racing is as dramatic as their vertical terrain. The list of gold medal winners from past Olympics and FIS world championships tells the story more graphically than anything else.
On occasion, however, someone emerges to take a crack at the Austrians, as the French and Germans and Swiss did at Squaw Valley, and last weekend it happened again. On a mountain just above Innsbruck, capital of the Tyrol and site of the 1964 Olympic Winter Games, a 21-year-old Swiss auto mechanic came out of nowhere, riding a pair of American skis, to win the year's most important race. By finishing second, third, fourth, sixth and eighth in the men's downhill, glamour event of the giant three-day pre-Olympic meet, the Austrians received a splendid view of the seat of Josias Minsch's pants. This was an upset that will require considerable explanation in the ski schools of Aspen and Sun Valley and Stowe, not to mention St. Anton and Kitzb√ºhel.
To say that Jos Minsch is unknown is really an exaggeration. His father, a railway stationmaster in Klosters, knows him, and his mother knows him, and Georges Schneider, coach of the Swiss team, has known him ever since last November. "He came to the national training camp and asked for a tryout," said Schneider, "and he looked pretty good. So we worked with him in December, and every week he looked better and better. Then he finished fourth in the downhill at Még√®ve and second in the Madonna di Campiglio giant slalom, and now I would have to say that he is one of the four or five best in the world. He may not win today, he may not win tomorrow, but he can win at any time."
Jos Minsch is the kind of ski racer to warm the hearts of Americans from the Sierras to the Catskills. As an apprentice auto mechanic, he could find time for practice only on Sundays, and his best previous finish before 1963 was 50th in last year's Arlberg Kandahar at Sestriere. Because of this he was placed in the second 15-man round of the 114-man field on Saturday (the No. 114 starter was Karim Aga Khan) and Jos was faced with the prospect of departing after 21 others. It is not unheard of for a racer placed this far back to win a major international event. But it is extremely rare. The run becomes rutted from the skis of previous racers, ice patches become icier, the psychological burden of overtaking the world's best skiers increases with every man who leaves. And this was a very tough downhill course. According to Willy Schaeffler, coach at the University of Denver and the man who set the downhill at Squaw Valley, the 3,250-meter trail through the trees down Patscherkofel Mountain will be a most testing run for 1964. "This is an almost perfect example of what a modern downhill course should be," said Schaeffler. "There is no premium on being a daredevil, but the racer must be in wonderful condition and he must be thinking every foot of the way. There are a lot of places where you can make a mistake here."
"It is very long and very fast," said Ernst Oberaigner, coach of the Austrian team. "I think anyone who can do 2:20 will win the race, and I think maybe Karl Schranz will be the man."
Schranz was the world downhill champion at Chamonix and now, only 24, he remains the man whom Austrians still look hopefully toward as the successor to Toni Sailer. In five years of trying, Schranz has never quite managed to become another Sailer, but he has come about as close as anyone else and he ran a marvelous race last Saturday. From the No. 1 starting position, where he was forced to break a fresh trail, he came down the mountain in 2 minutes 24.13 seconds. "That may be good enough," a race official said. It was good, but two men were to do better. Gerhard Nenning, 23, the Austrian combined champion (he was second in the downhill, second in the slalom and second in the giant slalom at Haus the week before), flashed across the line in 2:23.42. Behind him came others, fast but never quite fast enough: Egon Zimmermann of Austria, the world giant slalom champion; Léo Lacroix, France's fine downhiller; Adalbert Leitner of Austria; Wolfgang Bartels of Germany; Austria's newest Wunderkind, 19-year-old Hugo Nindl—all under 2:25. The field was so fast that Guy Périllat of France, the sensation of 1961, came down in 2:28.64, yet managed only 21st place.
Then, just when it seemed that no one could possibly catch Nenning, and the big crowd had almost ceased to watch the racers in favor of watching pretty girls in stretch pants, word came over the public address system that No. 22, Jos Minsch of Switzerland, was on his way with a sizzling halfway time. Everyone turned back to look up the finishing schuss. And there Minsch was. He sailed around the final turn, crouched in his tight racer's tuck, his Swiss jacket a red streak against the snow. Across the line he flew and skidded to a stop in a shower of white. He looked up at the scoreboard and leaned on his poles.
Head was happy
"The time of No. 22," came the announcer's voice, "is 2 minutes 23.10 seconds. Jos Minsch of Switzerland now leads." The excitement that followed made Jos Minsch very happy but also very embarrassed. He tried to hide his stocky five-foot seven-inch, 170-pound body behind a snowdrift and failed. Pulled forth by press and radio and TV, he answered questions shyly and posed for a hundred pictures, including some with the Baltimore ski manufacturer, Howard Head. Head was every bit as happy as Minsch, since this was the first international victory for his relatively new metal racing ski, and he was not embarrassed at all. "Which one of them won the race, the big guy or the little guy?" a latecomer asked.
According to the old French skimeister Emile Allais, Jos Minsch won because his technique was better than that of anyone else. "The Swiss feel that his strong legs, his great strength, are his big assets," said Allais, "but when he came past me, up on the course, he seemed to be skiing with more style, more smoothly, than the others. There was a strong wind up there, and every time a racer opened up from his crouch the wind slowed him down. I do not believe that this boy made any mistakes. He did not fight the course, he controlled it. He is very good. He is not going to be what you call a flash in the pan."
There was one other development of interest to Americans in the men's downhill. While more famed U.S. racers like Chuck Ferries, Buddy Werner and Billy Kidd remained at home in school, Pfc. Rip McManus, formerly of Stowe and Milford, Conn. but now of Fort Carson, Colo., finished 24th by running the course in 2:29.65 from a starting position of 68. "I guess I was kind of mad," said McManus. "They should have given me a better starting position than that. Over here they still try to treat Americans as if we'd never been on skis before. Just wait until next year and they'll find out. These guys aren't so hot."
Despite the performance of Minsch and the sentiments of McManus, the Austrians were very hot indeed, and they turned loose their usual avalanche of superb ski racers to run off with the rest of the meet. They won the ladies' slalom on Friday and both the men's slalom and ladies' downhill on Sunday. They also won both combined championships and proved, once again, that Austria is still the team to beat next year.
The ladies' slalom, like all the races except the men's downhill, was skied at Lizum, the lovely valley 15 miles southwest of Innsbruck. In this, the opening event, both Traudl Hecher and Christl Haas were disqualified and the world slalom and giant slalom champion, Marianne Jahn, was eliminated by a fall just when it seemed she had the race in a lock. But with Austrians Jahn, Hecher and Haas scattered all over the mountain, another Austrian, a dimpled doll from Z√ºrs named Edith Zimmermann, stepped up to win the medal. This 22-year-old did it by the simple process of standing up for two runs over a pair of the slickest, fastest, steepest slalom courses ever set in the Alps. Of 69 starters, only 29 survived.
Jahn, racing in the No. 2 spot, came down the first run under almost flawless control, something like an eel in curls When the first 15 had gone past the finish line—vertically or horizontally, depending upon their luck and skill—her time of 50.16 seconds was an astounding 3½ seconds ahead of Zimmermann, who had defeated her several times this year, and almost five seconds ahead of Marielle Goitschel of France, in third place. Hecher, despite a fall, was fourth.
Midway through the second run it began to appear that Jahn could win simply by snowplowing down. With the starting order reversed, she stood on top of the hill and watched as Goitschel fell, very hard, and Hecher missed a gate. But when Edith Zimmermann went down again, smoothly and quickly in 52.27, Marianne Jahn couldn't afford to relax and coast. Perhaps she tried too hard. In any event, she, too, fell high up at the fourth gate, and Zimmermann was the champion. "No," said Edith, "I didn't really hope to catch Marianne. I just hoped to stand up all the way down."
Christl Haas won the ladies' downhill, as she did last year at Chamonix and as she seems almost certain to do again next year at Lizum. Only 19 now, she is a very large girl of five feet 10 and 160 pounds, with the driving downhill racing style of a man. She wears her brown hair cut very short and her face in a perpetual grin. Win or lose, it is hard not to cheer for Christl Haas. There was little reason to do anything else on Sunday. In a light snow, she rocketed down the course in one minute 57.82 seconds, more than three full seconds ahead of Germany's Barbi Henneberger. Christl Staffner of Austria was third, and Edda Kainz of Austria was fourth. By finishing eighth in a respectable 2:02.21, Edith Zimmermann won the combined championship.
The men's slalom turned out to be a three-way fight among Nenning, Schranz and the French veteran Francois Bonlieu, and this was the order in which they ranked after the first run. Schranz came down the second time with a fine 1:03.36, but Bonlieu, who has always been a superb slalom skier, passed the Austrian with 1:03.01. Then it was up to Nenning. He slammed through the gates as if all the old devils of the Alps were on his tail, and when he crossed the line the handsome boy from Lech had won not only the slalom championship but the combined title of the meet as well. Nenning is five feet nine inches tall, weighs 175 pounds and looks more like a Southwest Conference halfback than a ski racer, but he is proving to be the best ski racer in the world. Egon Zimmermann posted a brilliant 1:02.89 on his second run to pull into fifth place and earn third in the combined standings behind Nenning and Schranz.
So the big meet turned out to be a virtual sweep for the Austrians after all. The French couldn't stop them, nor the Italians nor the Germans, and whether the Americans will be able to test them a year from now remains to be seen. But the Austrians will not soon forget a stocky little Swiss auto mechanic named Jos Minsch. He stole their show, and now they can worry about him all the way into 1964.