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
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.
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.
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.