ASPEN, Colo. — With the dollar somewhat depressed on world money markets, it was decided that the first prizes ever awarded--over the table--in a World Cup ski race would be in the form of gold.
This is something the Swiss understand best. So, appropriately enough, Franz Heinzer, who owns a sport shop in the canton of Schwyz, will take home about nine ounces of the precious metal, or $3,500 based on the Friday afternoon fixing.
Atle Skaardal of Norway and Helmut Hoeflehner of Austria, who were second and third behind Heinzer in "America's Downhill" Friday on Aspen Mountain, will stuff lesser amounts into their pouches, presumably for later transfer to their own numbered accounts.
And American racers will receive a complimentary van ride to Aspen Airport for a flight to Canada, where the final two downhills are scheduled next weekend at Lake Louise.
Competing on its home snow, the best the U.S. Ski Team could manage was an 18th place by A.J. Kitt of Rochester, N.Y.
In his own defense, Kitt, 22, pointed out that "these guys have been racing in major downhills for 10 years or more," referring mainly to the Swiss and Austrian skiers. He added: "Most of them are five or six years older than us. We're a young team, and in downhill, experience is the most important factor."
Asked if the newly approved injection of prize money into World Cup skiing might spur U.S. racers to make up in daring what they lack in years, Kitt said: "Money is a good incentive when you're talking about your career, but I've never backed off in a ski race just because there was no money involved. Every day I race, I give it 100%."
Friday, however, Kitt felt less than 100%. "I'm still trying to kick the flu a bit," he said. "I made a couple of mistakes, on top of Aztec and and at the Strawpile. That was the determining factor in my skiing today."
Kitt finished 2.16 seconds behind Heinzer, who was timed in 1:44.89. Skaardal, who prevented the Swiss and Austrians from splitting the top six places, was next in 1:45.15, followed by the 32-year-old Hoeflehner in 1:45.38.
Although $3,500 isn't all that grand a sum in sports any more, Heinzer, who will turn 29 next month, will probably earn well into six figures this year, and that's not even counting any profits from his sport shop.
He has won three of the six downhills so far this winter, as well as the gold medal in the recent World Championships, and that adds up to thousands of Swiss francs in bonus money from his suppliers.
Heinzer said it was "only a coincidence" that his success did not come until after the retirement of Pirmin Zurbriggen, who won four World Cup overall titles for Switzerland. He added: "After 10 years on the World Cup circuit, I have built up a strong training program. I have not fallen since the downhill in Furano, Japan, in 1987, and this has given me great confidence.
"Also, today I had excellent material (skis), especially at the top of the course, where there is nothing to do but glide for 50 seconds. After that, I knew I would win, because my skis were really fast."
Heinzer praised the International Ski Federation's acceptance of the U.S. proposal permitting race organizers to award prize money, but goes a step further: "I think there should be some for training runs, too. That would give everyone extra incentive and make them more fun."
This suggestion doubtless would receive the support of his countryman, Peter Mueller, who placed first and third in Thursday's two training runs. In the race itself, the 33-year-old Mueller, who is trying to come back from a serious knee injury suffered 15 months ago, came in ninth, picking up his first World Cup points of the season.
"My start went very well, on the flat part," said Mueller, who started No. 23. "But at the first hard turn into Aztec, I took a line a bit more left than yesterday. Then there were a lot of bumps from racers before me. I went flying out of the course and lost my speed."
Mueller, who dropped out of the first-seeded group of 15 because of his injury-enforced absence from competition, has won on this course four times--twice in 1982 and again in '85 and '86. For a while, the race was being called "Peter's Downhill."
This year, though, it was "Franz's Downhill," as Heinzer virtually clinched the World Cup downhill title, padding his lead over runner-up Skaardal to 34 points. The Austrian also moved into second place in the overall standings behind Luxembourg's Marc Girardelli, 37th Friday.