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 262�.
With a hangover
This was enough to cause the F�d�ration 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 6� 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.