Safety issues raised after 24 Hours race
December 18, 2002
The fastest race in 24 Hours of Aspen history was also the shortest race, and very nearly, perhaps, the last race, too.
The transition from the traditional two-person team format to solo brought out the most decorated field to date, and they didn’t disappoint ? shattering records for single lap time, average lap time and top speed.
Meanwhile, only three of 17 racers failed to finish, another best, and no one was seriously injured, testimonies to the quality of both the field and the course.
But the solo format presented new challenges behind the scenes as well, some leading to grave breakdowns in protocol that jeopardized the entire event.
Sometime after dark Sunday evening, while tucking at full speed into the flats at the bottom of Spar Gulch, Aspen native Lindsay Yaw had a harrowing near miss with a media escort. A downhiller’s worst nightmare, yes, except Yaw wasn’t dreaming.
“I probably came within a foot of him,” said Yaw, a 1995 Aspen High graduate who now lives in Boulder. “I could’ve killed him and could’ve killed myself. Absolutely. I was going what, 90 [mph] in there?
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“Right when I was coming down he skied right into the middle of the run, so I slammed on the brakes, practically stopped, and then kept going.”
Yaw continued on and finished the race with 62 laps by noon Monday. After the incident she filed a protest with race officials, who credited her for lost time based on a predetermined formula that counts the median time of the three previous laps. Race officials then barred media access to portions of the course overnight.
“Simply put, there were a couple people who did not follow the protocol of on-snow procedures,” Scott Nichols, the 24 Hours chief of race, said Tuesday.
Canadian racer Wendy Lumby also had a close call with a crew worker on the upper part of the course. She too filed a protest and received due credit, Nichols said. There were also unconfirmed reports of course-crew vs. course-crew near misses.
Nichols has served as chief of race for every 24 Hours of Aspen, except three that he himself raced in from 1990-92. He spoke of the near misses soberly.
“We had a lot of moving parts on that course as a result of 17 racers competing [separately], compared to 10 units [teams] in the past. You always have things that happen behind the scenes, and this year, we had quite a few,” he said. “It’s our job to always grow and learn and continually make a race of this caliber a safer race.”
Yaw said she understood the complex dynamics of staging a race like the 24 Hours, and the new challenges created by the solo format.
“It was hard for them because it wasn’t a team deal,” she said. “Racers were coming down the run more sporadically.
“But I was little bit on edge after that close call. I knew how many people were up there. You’re always aware of people out there, especially when you’ve almost smacked someone and there’s the possibility of it happening again.”
But no one was seriously injured, after all, and the 24 Hours’ safety record remains untarnished.
“We did not have any injuries other than a course-crew worker and a sore back,” Nichols noted. “So for close to 1,400 runs at close to 100 mph, we did very well.”
As for the solo format, expect it again next year, Nichols said. Casey Puckett’s utter domination cemented it.
Powered by legs fresh from the World Cup tour and executed with the methodical resolve of a factory worker, Puckett whipped the field and broke long-standing records.
En route to the title, won over some 63 laps in 2 hours, 18 minutes and 46 seconds, Puckett posted a course-record run of 2 minutes, 8.45 seconds on lap 5, and averaged an astounding 2:12 per lap throughout. That’s less than two seconds behind the previous course record for a single run, 2:10.98, set in 1998 by brothers Martin and Graham Bell.
Germany’s Michael Brunner, the runner-up, finished 17 seconds behind Puckett and said he gave 100 percent just to keep within striking distance.
Last year, Brunner and Christian Deissenboeck led from wire to wire, like Puckett, but averaged 2:17 a lap, five seconds off Puckett’s record pace. However, at 63 laps, this year’s race was also the shortest on record. Brunner and Deissenboeck completed 76 laps to win last year, and the record remains 83 laps.
Owing to three course holds, due to high winds from 4:50 to 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Deissenboeck’s race-ending crash on lap 43 at 4:40 a.m. Monday, and a broken collar bone sustained by a course worker at about 7 a.m. Monday, racers spent some 3 hours and 20 minutes waiting it out at the Sundeck. At about 17 minutes per lap, up and down, that accounts for approximately 10 missed laps.
Several racers were clocked going faster than 99 mph, the previous record, because the radar gun couldn’t register in triple digits, Nichols said.
“It all goes to show that the quality of athletes was raised,” he said. “It’s the best field of athletes we’ve ever seen. And I think that interest, immediately after we sent out word of this solo format, is a great indicator that this is the way the race should be run in the future. To get guys like William Besse and Casey Puckett, that sums it up.”
[Tim Mutrie’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org]