Everybody says that Karl Schranz is much nicer this year. He is given to bits of philosophy, the sort of thing that comes from a man who is now 30 and has just won perhaps the world's toughest downhill ski race on rubbery legs and stands now—at the bottom—with the pain of it reflected on his face. "A race is like life," says Karl Schranz. "One gets slain. The other one wins." And Karl, who used to get slain a lot, knows. The trouble is that there has always been somebody, each season, to steal Karly's thunder.
It is that part, the fear that he will go down in history as the second-best racer in the world, that has bugged Schranz. Now, at last, it is his year—and a lot of the nice bite has gone out of it.
There he was at Kitzb√ºhel, Austria last weekend, a winner again, the sensation of the new ski season, most likely the winner of this year's World Cup, all of that—and still racing against the ghost of Jean-Claude Killy, that French rake who made a shambles of the sport last year and then retired and went off to his commercial rewards.
Schranz feels that this is the year he could probably beat Killy again as he did so many times in 1966. But he will never again get to race him. It is like that mythical Joe Louis-Muhammad Ali fight they figure by computer.
January 27, 1969
"I beat him in many of the 1966 races. I beat him again last year," says Schranz. "And I would beat him this year, too—but you never look back, always ahead. Take one year at a time as it comes."
Schranz has been doing just that for 14 competitive years now, starting when he was 16, fighting his way into prominence on the race circuit. Schranz is a medium-size man, five feet nine, 158 pounds, with the powerful knotted thighs of a Japanese weight lifter. He has a pleasant, almost handsome look with a sort of ski-jump nose. He has a tough time looking bitter, but this season just might do it.
On the way to the Hahnenkamm last weekend he had burned the ground bare for miles around. Opening the season Dec. 14 at Val d'Is√®re, he won the giant slalom. Two weeks later at Berchtesgaden, Germany he was second in the slalom, fourth in the giant slalom. Then came the race at Adelboden and there he was third in the giant slalom. And after that the ski circus went to Wengen. At the Lauberhorn he entered the downhill. Gordy Eaton, who coaches the U.S. team, was standing on the sidelines to watch.
"Schranz came roaring by," said Eaton, "and suddenly his legs gave out and he fell flat on his back. And I promise you he bounced right back up and landed right on his skis still going to beat hell. Didn't miss a beat. You think that isn't an old fox at work?"
"Well, he didn't fall," says Austrian Head Coach Hermann Gamon. "He just threw in a little stunt."
But Schranz won the race, of course. And at the finish line he puffed, "There is still a little life in the old man yet," which is becoming a favorite expression of his.
Everybody had a run at him in the Hahnenkamm, which is just the place for that sort of thing. In fact, one of the best places in the world to look for heroes is in the hills just above Kitzb√ºhel, that toy village at the foot of one of the most murderous downhill courses in the world.
The thing snakes for 2.2 miles down a 2,821-foot vertical drop, over bumps, down sheer walls through the forest, finally ending up with a schuss that is roughly like coming off the side of the Chrysler building.
"The Hahnenkamm offers the greatest variety of difficulties," says Killy, who ran the monster in 1967 in a record 2:11.92 seconds. "It permits a true technician to prove that he is the best."
And Spyder Sabich, a 24-year-old from Kyburz, Calif., put it even better than that. "It's like a big roller coaster," he said, "only faster."
One of the things that makes it such a classic is that Austria has been running this crazy race since 1931, back when people still wore leather knickers, and this year's edition was the 29th running. The course is always the same. The top and bottom are punctuated with dropoffs that run to 41 degrees, and there is something in the middle called the Steilhang that still wakes ex-racers in the nights with the cold shakes.
Actually the Steilhang is a simple clean 36-degree wall, something any downhill racer worth his buckle boots could handle. But some wise committeeman put a gate in the middle of it several years ago, which means one must take the hill roughly on his right earlobe at a top speed of maybe 50 miles an hour, trying to draw a bead on the next gate. And that gate leads into a dark twisty-aisle in the woods where the racers almost need headlights to see. And down at the bottom of the Steilhang, for those who cannot handle it, Kitzb√ºhelers have strung out a huge mesh net to catch the losers who come off the hill like the flying Wallendas. Schranz, who had skied the Hahnenkamm 12 times before and won it in 1966, is sanguine about it. "I never look at that net," he says, "because it has a certain bad effect on skiers when they see it. Besides that, I am always going too fast to see it. And besides that I think the damned thing may be in the wrong place anyhow."
This sort of thing makes for vintage Hahnenkamm and last Saturday, ready for action, more than 15,000 people stationed themselves perilously all up and down the mountain to see it. Then high on the hill, crouched and practically flying, came Andreas Sprecher of Switzerland, first seeded. Swoosh, 2:27.07. The next man down, Rudi Sailer of the skiing Sailers, was just .07 second faster. And then, starting fifth, came Schranz.
Maybe it is snowy show biz, perhaps it is those old legs, but Schranz is the sort of racer who can make a crowd yelp in amazement. Down the Mousetrap, right through the Steilhang, around the Oberhausberg he came, all hunched over, bobbing solidly with the bumps. Two and a quarter miles in 2:20.01, the scoreboard said, and the crowd closed in on him at the finish line. Had he won it? Schranz is too wise for that one. "No," he said, "there are many more still to come down. The race is not finished yet."
He was so right. In a few minutes Switzerland's Jean Daniel Daetwyler was down: a lean, baby-faced 23-year-old who won a bronze downhill medal at Chamrousse last year. His time was 2:19.41, which put him in first place. Schranz made the slightest suggestion of a shrug. And after that it got a lot wilder if not quite as fast: big Jim Barrows, top-seeded American who had started seventh, showed up at the finish line wearing one ski with the tip snapped off and his lips slightly cut and bleeding. The world will always remember Barrows for surviving what had to be the wildest crash of any Olympics at Chamrousse, and the crowd turned to him now in sympathy. "Oh, I'm O.K.," he said. "It was not a bad fall." Off to one side, head down, stood Billy Kidd, perhaps America's premier racer at 26. He had clocked a 2:24.05. It would finally place him 18th—still the highest American in the lineup. Then came the climax.
The automatic clocks were wrong, officials said, and Schranz was the winner after all. His correct time, the jury said, was 2:18.80. Still behind that other guy's course record. That is the story of Karl's life. But no matter. He had won.
Professor Franz Hoppichler, Austria's team chief, brought him the news. "Thank you, professor," said Schranz. And later that night at their lodge his teammates asked why he had not told them that he had been switched into first place. "Ach," said Schranz, "I didn't want to look like an old braggart."
That is the way it is this year. He used to be quite a bit arrogant and he was a loner and would go off and train by himself. Now he trains with the others and he even takes some of the younger skiers and practices with them.
And on Sunday, not exactly carrying the nice-guy image too far but still relaxed, Schranz missed a gate high on the slalom course and that was that. Surprisingly he turned up at the finish line smiling faintly, ready to talk to people. "I cut past a gate," he said.
Schranz was not worried. His downhill win had added 25 more points to his World Cup standing. "At 110 points," said Schranz, "nobody is near me." The closest man is another Austrian, Reinhard Tritscher, with 58 points, and prospects of catching the old man now are slim.
When it was all over Sunday night Daetwyler was an official downhill second. Tied for third were Henri Duvillard of France and Schranz's teammate Karl Cordin. France's Guy Périllat was fifth, and after finishing eighth in the slalom he turned up Sunday night as winner of the combined. The Americans were clearly out of it again and it was obvious that they are not the ones to challenge Schranz, not this season.
Perhaps nobody will. Old rubber legs is off and running and he is a different man. He had known all along intuitively that he had won the downhill. But he had not said anything about it while staring up that hill. Why not? Schranz borrowed an Americanism to explain it: "Ever since Grenoble," he said, "I have learned to do my thing and keep my mouth shut."
Well, then. How long can he keep this up? Schranz shrugged again. "I will race one more year," he said, "then after the world championship next year I will quit."
Maybe not. He will ski as long as he can make it to the bottom in decent time, said Coach Gamon. And then his teammate Heini Messner, who is 29, summed it all up: "I am sure," he said, "that Karl will make the first race on the moon."