SI Vault
Christopher Matthews
August 30, 1976
But plenty of fear if skiers let speeds of 120-plus mph get to them as they attack the Flying Kilometer and a new awareness in the Alps
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
August 30, 1976

No Sound, No Vision, No Vibration

But plenty of fear if skiers let speeds of 120-plus mph get to them as they attack the Flying Kilometer and a new awareness in the Alps

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3 4

The critical element is the quality of the aerodynamic crouch the racers adopt to slice through the air. Simons and McKinney assume a position quite different from anyone else's, with their heads down and their buttocks well up. Ideally, the back should be straight and almost parallel to the slope. The advantage of the high-tail position is that it creates the sort of stability obtained from the fastback on a car. But to hold it for more than a few hundred meters requires immense strength. Simons also believes his position creates an airstream that pushes him forward. The drawback is obvious. With the body weight well forward, anything going wrong means falling headfirst. "Simons' position is the most aerodynamic," says Engineer Johann Stroi, head of the Austrian Fischer ski team at Cervinia. "But it is also the most dangerous."

Once in the speed trap, the only way to slow down is to raise the head and shoulders slightly—any sudden radical movement could be disastrous—so that air resistance acts as a brake. But the racers are still traveling at 160 kph when they get to the bottom. They stop by first cautiously rising out of their crouch, then by extending their arms, as though being nailed to a cross, to create more resistance. By the time they've reached the top of the deceleration run they're still going 120 kph, but a couple of wide turns bring them to a dead halt in a flurry of snow.

For Simons and McKinney the key to supreme success in the Flying Kilometer lies not in overcoming terror but in transcending it through a philosophy that accepts no physical or natural limits. Simons, whose father teaches education in Aspen, and McKinney talk a mixture of Zen, yoga, aerodynamics and ballistics. It may sound far out, but somehow it makes sense on the mountain, almost halfway up to the stratosphere. And no one can ski faster than they can. In 1975, both found that they were taking off at 180 kph and riding an air cushion an inch off the ground, like Hovercraft. Films show the snow spray behind them abruptly vanishing.

McKinney immediately accepted this as a positive development. "In the air everything is smooth and the element is constant," he says. "At 125 mph on the ground you have much more chance of catching an edge, hitting a bump." He began to wonder whether skis should be designed to take off sooner—a concept totally alien to traditional engineering, which holds that contact with the ground should be maintained as long as possible. But the glacier, which moves as much as 20 millimeters a day, had changed shape by this year. The ride was bumpier and there was no flying, no chance to test his ideas.

"Many people do well through will and desire," Simons said a couple of days before his record run. "But most can visualize only up to a certain point, which prevents them from going beyond. I wish to fly, to transcend physical limits. It may sound far out and hip, but I know that the only worthwhile thing is the growth of consciousness, and that the greatest growth is letting what happens happen because that is the way it is."

His hair comes cascading from under a brown cloche hat and his eyes crinkle into a hazy smile. He prefers to drink dark beer and he smokes other people's cigarettes. Champagne celebrations began as soon as the loudspeakers announced his record run, and by the time he walked into Cervinia's Eurotel to collect his prize it made little difference what the drinks were. "We got as stoned as rabbits," he announced happily.

The Fischer Company, which makes downhiller Franz Klammer's skis, was impressed enough with the two Americans' style to offer them a $2,000 starter's fee and a $10,000 winner's bonus. Adding in other emoluments, Simons may have made up to $20,000 in those 1.8 seconds, which is $20,000 more than McKinney made in 1974. For Fischer, of course, the KL is not so much an opportunity to expand consciousness as a means of testing new materials on willing guinea pigs at speeds never dreamed of in normal downhills.

The relevance of the KL has been preoccupying the International Ski Federation, which is considering giving the race official recognition. According to Willy Schaeffler, the official FIS delegate at Cervinia, the main justification for the event is in the advances it has brought in skiing safety at high speed. The ski-stopper, a spring-loaded device that does away with dangerous straps, was first tested on the KL slopes. Similarly, the KL race jury was the first to recognize the need for strapless ski poles. Helmets, suits and boots also are placed on the world's most demanding test bench at Cervinia. One could say that the relationship between the KL and Alpine skiing is the same as that between Grand Prix racing and highway motoring—except that even Grand Prix cars have to go around corners, whereas the only way on the KL is straight down.

Speed skiing seems to have started in 1931 when Leo Gasperl, an Austrian from Arlberg, bet himself that he could ski faster than 100 kph. He was pleasantly surprised to find that he hit 136.6 kph down Mount Corviglia. It was another eight years before anyone tried to break his record, and the result was disaster: Sepp Moralter's attempt ended in his death on a hill near Salzburg.

After World War II, Italian Olympic downhill champion Zeno Col� and his archrival, Rolando Zanni, took to racing each other on the Plateau Rosa. Col�, wearing a woolen sweater, helmetless, and strapped into his skis, improved the record to 159.242 kph in 1947.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4