Originally published in the Minnetonka Alumni Magazine on July 15, 2014
Back in 1963, Minnetonka didn’t even have a track that was usable for competition—it was nothing more than an uneven and rugged dirt path around the football field. However that didn’t stop senior Marty Benson ’63 from winning the Skippers’ first-ever individual track title and shattering state records in the process.
Benson got a late start in track, only taking up the sport in his junior year after finding himself too lean and lanky for football. He went out for cross-country that fall, and had modest success, but found track to be more to his liking in the spring. While he wasn’t suited for the gridiron, Benson’s leg speed and endurance made him a perfect fit on the track, specifically the 880-yard (half mile) dash.
“I don’t think he realized the natural talent he had until he started on the track and cross country teams,” says Lynn Krafve, Benson’s coach.
After running a personal best 2:02.9 and just missing the state meet in his first year, Benson continued to improve. Still, it was only those that had a keen eye for talent and potential that would have considered him a favorite for the state title heading into his senior season.
That year, the consensus pick for the 880-yard title was St. Louis Park’s Bob Wagner. Wagner and Benson would duel throughout the season trying to best one another. After running a 2:00.6 in the Lake Conference Championships—just 0.4 seconds behind Wagner—Benson, Minnetonka’s co-captain, broke two minutes for the first time (1:56.8) at the District 18 meet, running 1.1 seconds faster than he ever had in the event. Unfortunately, Wagner ran 0.5 seconds faster than that.
Benson beat Wagner for the first time at the state qualifying Region 5 meet, equaling his 1:56.8 mark from the district meet and headed into the finals of the State Meet at Memorial Stadium as one of the favorites.
In the finals, Benson was forced to an outside lane after being boxed in early, but nevertheless moved up just off of the lead with 330 yards to go. He took the lead with 220 yards left and never looked back, pulling away from the field with a winning time of 1:55.7 to crush the previous state record of 1:57.9 by over two seconds.
“After he won the state title he sent me a telegram asking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I said, ‘Marty, you can go anywhere you want!’,” says Krafve, who was taking a sabbatical at the time of Benson’s win.
Amazingly, that record still stands as the Minnesota high school boys 880-yard cinder track record and only two Tonka runners have ever run faster, though both of them did so on a faster, rubberized tartan surface.
Benson left behind an undeniable legacy with the Minnetonka track and field program. His success gave the Skippers the extra boost they needed to persuade the school board to put in a six-lane cinder track for the 1964 season. So, you could call the eight-lane rubberized track that MHS has today, “The Track that Marty Benson Built.”
After graduating, Benson went to Mankato State College on a track scholarship, where he became one of the best middle distance runners in school history.
“I ran against Marty a couple times in college. It was a true honor to run in the same competition with him. I looked up to him and was inspired by how talented he was,” says former MHS track star Bruce Johnson ’66.
Benson graduated from college in 1967 before enlisting in the Marine Corps, where he became a Marine pilot and Second Lieutenant in 1968. He fought for his country in Vietnam and his leadership and success on the track carried over well to the military. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for heroism on numerous occasions and was promoted to First Lieutenant. Tragically, on February 5, 1970, Benson was fatally wounded by ground fire while on a reconnaissance mission and attempting to land a helicopter.
Benson passed away three weeks later at just 24 years old.
“Marty did what he did, knowing the probable outcome, out a deep, lifelong patriotism. He knew what he was getting into and did it anyway,” says classmate Bill Van Dyke ’63
Benson’s memory has not faded in Minnetonka, however, and is remembered to this day through the Marty Benson Memorial Award, which is awarded annually to the outstanding track athlete at MHS who best exemplifies Benson’s competitive spirit and athletic achievement.