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Hot times on the old run
Joseph P. Kahn
January 07, 1980
At trials held in Lake Placid, the top European and American teams hurtled to very impressive clockings—as long as their bobsleds remained in the groove
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January 07, 1980

Hot Times On The Old Run

At trials held in Lake Placid, the top European and American teams hurtled to very impressive clockings—as long as their bobsleds remained in the groove

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America's hopes for an Olympic bobsled medal next month lie with a monster named Van Hoevenberg. V.H. stands a mile tall, has speed and power, wears $5 million worth of the latest equipment and exhibits the patience of a mongoose. Through 50 years of the world's toughest competition, this monster has been battered and bested time and again, only to rise up and strike back. V.H. is Lake Placid's Mount Van Hoevenberg bobrun, the hairiest, scariest, wildest ice mile in the world. Three bob-sledders have been killed on it. In 1966 Sergio Zardini, the Italian Olympic medalist, hurtled down it on an unfamiliar sled and lost, in swift succession, his control, his helmet and his life. American Speed Beattie was killed on V.H. in 1955, Max Huben of Belgium in 1949.

V.H. doesn't appear to be mellowing in its old age, either. Last month, when the top sliders from Europe and North America gathered in Lake Placid to test the course with their fancy new sleds, V.H. taught them a lesson or two. No sooner had a pair of German two-man sleds shattered the course record with runs of 1:04.11 and 1:03.70 than V.H. reared back and broke a few things, too, including a Swiss nose and a Canadian collarbone. It was as if the bobrun were announcing: let the Germans have their one-oh-fours and one-oh-threes, I shall have my eighty-ones and eighty-twos. In sledding language, an eighty-one means that the sled has tipped; an eighty-two means get the ambulance.

"Ja, this is the fastest," said Austria's top driver, Walter Delle Karth, who took a wicked spill at the curve called Shady but walked away unhurt. "Compared to this course, Igls [Delle Karth's home track at Innsbruck, the site of the '76 Olympics] is an autobahn."

What makes the Van Hoevenberg bob-run so demanding is its singular geometry and variety. The run, which is 1,560 meters long and boasts a vertical drop of nearly 150 meters, includes 11 straightaways and 16 turns, the most famous of which is Shady. Situated just above midpoint on the course, Shady is a 14-foot vertical ice wall that bends 170 degrees to the right. Sleds come off the wall doing better than 70 mph. The stress factor is a full four Gs.

As spectacular as Shady is, however, real treachery lies below, on the curves known as Little S and Zig Zag. Little S, which comes at the end of the long straight after Shady, introduces the sled to a precarious line of flight through turns 10 and 11. If the introduction is a rude one, the sled enters Zig Zag under poor control. No margin for error exists at these turns, not at full throttle. Zig zigs 90 degrees to the left. Zag zags 90 to the right. Most of the bad accidents at V.H. have occurred after poor transitions from Zig to Zag. Just last Saturday a U.S. Air Force sled crashed there sending three of its four-man team to Placid Memorial Hospital.

"This is also where races are won or lost," says Joe McKillip, three-time North American titlist and technical director of the bobrun for the Lake Placid Olympic Organizing Committee. "Discounting the start, which is probably the most important factor, driving Zig Zag cleanly is the key. We clocked all sleds coming through here as they entered Zig and exited Zag. Over the whole field there was only a 3-kph differential coming in, but a 17-kph spread going out."

McKillip is attuned to every inch of the track, which last year was expensively rebuilt. A new concrete trough was put in, as well as a refrigeration system. When the Romanians launched a four-man sled during the time trials and tipped it over on Curve 2, it was McKillip who closed the course, grabbed a shovel and chipped out a new gradation to ensure that the bigger sleds would have a better than average chance of at least making it down to Shady. As it turned out, the Romanians were the first and last foreigners to tempt fate in a four-man sled. The other eight teams at Lake Placid were content to run their two-mans.

"We don't want any of our boys in the hospital for Christmas," said Luciano Galli of Italy, scratching his country's four-man team. "The course is very bad, very dangerous for four-man bobs," Galli added. "The concrete foundation is wrong and there is no time to change it." Many of the Europeans agreed.

There can be no such timidity once the Games open, however, and if last month's performances by the two-man sleds are any indication of things to come, old V.H. will suffer indignities at the hands of Olympic bobsledders. Although the time trials did not count for official records, the numbers spoke loud and clear. The existing course records, set during the 1978 World Championships, were 1:05.12 for the two-man and 1:03.90 for the four-man. The first man to better a record was two-time Olympic gold medalist Meinhard Nehmer of East Germany, who, driving a two-man sled, crossed the finish line in a nifty 1:04.96. But Nehmer was king of the mountain for less than 24 hours; Stefan Geisreiter of West Germany turned in a 1:04.11. Geisreiter slept on that one night and came back the next morning to execute a sizzling 1:03.70. His runs prompted U.S. Navy Commander Paul Lamey to bet that the 1980 gold medalists would crack the one-minute mark.

"Why not?" said Lamey. "The sleds are better. The athletes are better. The course is better. Nobody's over here with his best equipment, and nothing's really at stake yet. They've all been driving with their brakes on. I think we're going to see some fantastic times going up on the board. I think the contenders will need consistent one-oh-threes in the two-man, and times much better than that in the four-man. Just watch them."

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