NASCAR Races to Rescue a U.S. Olympic Team

Tom BurkeCorrespondent IAugust 14, 2009

WHISTLER, BC - FEBRUARY 07:  Driver Lee Johnston of Great Britain enters the sled as his team pushes from the start in the first heat as they went on to finish 12th in the men's four man bobsleigh finals at the FIBT Bobsleigh and Skeleton World Cup at the Whistler Sliding Center on February 7, 2009 in Whistler, Canada.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

For the longest time, the U.S. Olympic Bobsled teams were the joke on the World Cup circuit and at the Olympics. Despite all the technology in the U.S., our Olympic bobsled design and speed was hurting big-time.

Because of minimal U.S. Olympic Committee funding, American athletes had to purchase second-rate, hand-me-down sleds for $50,000 from overseas suppliers to compete. 

In contrast, countries such as Switzerland and Germany invested millions of dollars into perfecting their bobsleds towards Olympic medals for several decades. And by experimenting with metal chassis and runner design, their sleds sliced through the competition down icy tracks. 

A former NASCAR Winston Cup champion, Geoff Bodine, noticed the deplorable condition of these sleds—clunky, noisy, and outmoded—and our country’s resulting poor performance at the Olympic Games.

“If you have to buy your equipment from the competition, they are not going to sell you their best stuff,” said Bodine in a January 2002 Voice of America interview.

Frustrated with this dismal track record, Bodine set out to offer his support and backing.  And soon after the Albertville 1992 Winter Olympics, where the Americans once more got shut out from the podium, he formed the venture, Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project.

By forging partnerships with Chassis Dynamics (the “Dyn” in Bo-Dyn) and Whelen Engineering, he created new sleds that benefited from proven NASCAR technologies.

The American Bobsled Team has overwhelmingly embraced this support.  From the Lillehammer 1994 Games to the present, the U.S. two-man and four-man teams have driven steadily improving sleds at all international and Olympic events.

Bodine and other partner representatives often met with the bobsledders to assess their needs and to conduct tests of prototype models. And via each iteration, the sleds became sleeker, faster, and easier to steer.

The payoff finally arrived. 

At the Salt Lake 2002 Winter Olympics, the U.S. men and women bobbers won three medals—after a 46-year podium drought.  The Bo-Dyn sleds soon became the envy of other countries whose sleds took a back seat to our racers. The medal success continued through the Torino 2006 Olympics and up to the recent World Cup international series where a four-man team won the World Championship title this year.

The once rickety contraptions have now morphed into speedy sleds that streak down tracks at mere whisper-like levels. Needless to say, the design and manufacturing process is closely guarded, and the sleds are well-protected—in transit and at the tracks—lest the competition try to steal equipment and ideas. 

Despite the successes, Bodine and his team continue to perfect the design using the latest state-of-the-art technology that boosts race car performance. 

Just recently, a few bobsled models were tested at a simulation wind tunnel facility in North Carolina.  Here, heavy duty fans generated winds exceeding 85 mph that rushed over a four man team in its sled, as computers recorded wind drag measurements. 

These results are now being studied by engineers so that even further metal chassis refinements can be introduced into the design, within the standards set by international bobsled federation.

Looking ahead to the Vancouver Olympics, veteran U.S. bobsledders (some of whom have won Olympic medals) are eager to ride even better-designed, aerodynamic sleds to the Olympic podium stand. 

We’ll soon see who will be laughing then.

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