Racers depend on sleds built with American know-how in quest for elusive Olympic gold

Racers depend on sleds built with American know-how in quest for Games' elusive gold

February 05, 2010|By Candus Thomson

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. — — Two years ago, Russian bobsled federation officials approached the designer of one of the world's fastest bobsleds and offered him "money, women, money and women" to transfer his loyalties - and secrets - from the U.S. team.

"I told them, 'It's not going to happen. This stuff isn't for sale,' " says Bob Cuneo, retelling the story while leaning on a bar and laughing.

Now 18 years after he partnered with former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine to produce a world-class winter racing machine, Cuneo hopes the four-man competition will end with the perfect retirement present: the first U.S. gold medal since 1948.

Patriotism got the ball rolling. As he watched the U.S. four-man team struggle to a ninth-place finish at the 1992 Winter Olympics, Bodine's blood boiled. Several rides on the bobsled track in Lake Placid, N.Y., confirmed his suspicions. The Americans weren't going anywhere on hand-me-down European sleds.

"Unacceptable," recalls Bodine, NASCAR's 1982 Rookie of the Year and winner of the 1986 Daytona 500.

"Farm equipment," adds Cuneo, without hesitation.

The driver and designer thought their racecar smarts and a "Made in America" label could put some more giddyap in the U.S. effort. They called their nonprofit venture the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project ("Bo" for Bodine and "Dyn" for Cuneo's Connecticut-based Chassis Dynamics Co.).

They cut open an old Italian sled to see how it worked and how they could make it faster while staying within the sport's arcane rules and measurements.

"We were learning on the fly," Cuneo says of the 1994 and 1998 Olympic campaigns that ended without medals.

Now, Bo-Dyn sleds are doing the flying, making them "the envy of the world," U.S. coach Brian Shimer says.

In 2002, Americans earned Olympic gold, two silvers and one bronze medal. Shauna Rohbock added a silver medal at the 2006 Winter Games. Driver Steve Holcomb and his crew won the 2009 world championship, the first American victory in a half-century, and last month, they added the World Cup title.

"There's a lot of NASCAR in bobsled," Holcomb says. "You're always looking to squeeze out a little more speed and gain a little edge. Shave a little here, shave a little there. Every little thousandth of a second counts."

With speed has come depth. The United States is one of only three countries to qualify three men's sleds for the Winter Games. John Napier, still a junior driver, will pilot USA 2 and Mike Kohn will steer USA 3. Only two countries qualified three women's sleds: Germany and the United States. Rohbock is fourth in World Cup standings and a podium favorite in Vancouver. USA 2 driver Erin Pac finished sixth in the rankings, and newcomer Bree Schaaf took ninth.

All of this success has come on a shoestring budget. Germany, the most dominant team for decades, has an annual budget of nearly $4 million for bobsled research and development, while the U.S. team gets by on about $200,000.

To get the most bang for the buck, Cuneo turned to computer-aided design, replaced some metal sled parts with space-age polymers, used wind tunnels to improve aerodynamics and streamlined maintenance responsibilities so that technicians and drivers could spend more time looking for speed.

"What we do you can't see with the naked eye. It's more under the hood," says Shimer, the 2002 Olympic bronze medalist. "They can watch and take their pictures ... but there's not much they can do on short notice."

It takes a year to design a bobsled from scratch and about six weeks and $50,000 to get from Cuneo's drawing board to builder/mechanic Frank Briglia's finished product. Every piece is handmade.

"We never have the opportunity to do 100 or 1,000 tests on changes in technology. We rely on his intuition and creativity," said Darrin Steele, the chief executive officer of the U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation and a former bobsledder. "He has great instincts for what to try. He's five experts in one."

The Cuneo influence extends to the development of up-and-coming drivers, who make quantum leaps when they graduate from a beat-up sled to a Bo-Dyn.

"That's when you see the magic," says Steele. "We don't make it easy to get into a Bo-Dyn sled. Athletes have to earn their way into them. The driver knows, 'Now it's just me. There's no excuses. I can't blame the sled.' There's a sense of pride."

The world has not stood still. After the 2006 Olympics, Italy teamed with Ferrari for new sleds. The Swiss unwrapped their sleds at the start of the World Cup season last fall, and the Germans "bring it up a notch every year," Shimer says. When asked about their attempt to hire away Cuneo, Russian federation officials simply smiled and walked away.

Four runs over two days will decide the Olympic bobsled winners; the four-man event comes Feb. 26 and 27, near the end of the Winter Games.

"It's up to the racing gods. Whatever's going to happen is going to happen," says Cuneo, who insists he'll leave with no regrets.

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