For A Better Bobsled, Team USA Turns To Race Cars

Jan 16, 2014
Originally published on January 16, 2014 3:07 pm

When you meet bobsled driver Steve Holcomb, he doesn't talk about his Olympic gold medal — the one he won with the four-man team at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. Instead, he talks about the one that got away.

Four years ago, his two-man bobsled started the Olympic run with a great push. "I was actually winning the race in Vancouver," Holcomb says. But then he "made a driving mistake, and we went from first place to sixth place in two turns."

Holcomb blames himself. In bobsledding, any slight mistake in the driving can cost you the fraction of a second you need to win.

But the problem was bigger than any one run: The U.S. team hadn't won a gold medal in the two-man bobsled event since Franklin Roosevelt was president.

So after the last Olympics, the team took a look at its sled. It was older than some of the athletes at the games.

"The sled I had been using up until that point was actually about 19 years old," Holcomb says. "Rebuilt it every year and modified it to meet the rules. It was just one of those sleds that was fast."

But the European teams had new sleds that were redesigned constantly — and built by race car designers. The Italians had the help of Ferrari, McLaren supported the U.K. bobsledders, and a Japanese Formula One team was working with that country's athletes.

So the U.S. went looking for an American race car partner. But it wasn't Ford or Chevy — it was Michael Scully, creative director at BMW DesignWorks USA. Yes, BMW is a German company, but, as Scully stresses, it's BMW's North American division.

Scully knew race cars. And, as it turns out, he knew the challenges of winter sports, too; he was a snowboard racer in his youth. So when he sat down in his first bobsled, Scully thought he knew what speed was.

"It was very quickly clear to me that I was not in any way prepared," Scully says. "It's this very almost chaotic experience."

Riding a bobsled into a corner is like having your head slammed into a wall by a really big guy. As soon as Scully hopped out, he was filled with ideas to make the sled more like a race car.

But then there were all those rules. In order to make bobsledding fair, the teams must meet standards: The sleds must all be the same weight, and the runners on the bottom all carved from the same metal.

But there's some wiggle room in the rules. The BMW designers moved the center of gravity, adapted the steering for Holcomb's style and made the sled smaller and more aerodynamic.

That came as a bit of a surprise to the bobsled team's members, who are the size of football players.

"It's quite snug," Holcomb says. "It is challenging to get in. Trust me — when you're at a full sprint and you have to jump over a 3-foot wall, basically, of the sled and you have to get in, it's not easy."

But as the team tested the new sled, the numbers looked good: It was faster. The two-man team hopes this new design will give it an edge in Sochi.

Now, it's not clear whether it really gives an advantage to Team USA. After all, the designers from Ferrari know the same principles of aerodynamics as the folks at BMW.

But there is a psychological factor at play. When Team USA shows up with its brand-new sled, it stays covered, hidden from view.

"You want people to think that they've thought of something that you haven't — [like] 'Why didn't I think of that?' " Scully says.

And adding to the mystery, the new sled has put up very fast times so far this season. Holcomb's two-man team is now No. 1 in the world.

Is it the new technology? A more confident driver? Better training? Part of the Olympic edge is to keep your opponents guessing.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go from Oscars to gold medals. The Winter Olympics are approaching and the U.S.A. is looking to be a contender in bobsled. It took the gold in the last Winter Olympics in the four-man competition, and the U.S. is hoping to get the edge in next month's games in Sochi, Russia with a little help from technology. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: When I meet Steve Holcomb, bobsled driver, he doesn't talk about his Olympic gold medal. He talks about the one that got away. Four years ago, Vancouver, his two-man bobsled team started the run with a great push.

STEVE HOLCOMB: I was actually winning the race in Vancouver and I made a driving mistake, and we went from first place to sixth place in two turns.

SMITH: Holcomb blames himself. In bobsledding, any tiny mistake in the driving can cost you the fraction of a second that you need to win. But the problem in the two-man team was bigger than just one run. The U.S. team hadn't won a two-man bobsled gold medal since FDR was president. And after the last Olympics, they took a look at the sled itself. It was older than some of the athletes at the games.

HOLCOMB: The sled I had been using up until that point was actually about 19 years old. It had just been, you know, we built it every year and modified it to meet the rules. And it was one of those sleds that was fast.

SMITH: But the European teams had new sleds that were redesigned constantly, sleds built by race car designers. The Italians had the help of Ferrari; a Japanese Formula One team was working with that country's athletes. And so the United States went looking for an American race car partner.

MICHAEL SCULLY: My name is Michael Scully and I'm a creative director at BMW DesignWorks.

SMITH: BMW, a German company, but, as Scully stresses, he works in California in the North American division. Go USA. Scully knew race cars and, as it turns out, also the challenges of high speed winter sports. He was a snowboard racer in his youth. So when Scully sat down in his first bobsled, he thought he knew what speed was.

SCULLY: It was very quickly clear to me that I was not in any way prepared.

SMITH: Riding a bobsled into one of those sharp corners is kind of like having your head slammed up against the wall by a really big guy.

SCULLY: It's this very almost chaotic experience.

SMITH: Scully was convinced that there were things he could do to make the sled more like a quiet precision race car. Steve Holcomb, the driver, remembers their first meeting and Scully just bursting with ideas.

SCULLY: We can raise that up, we can make this more narrow, we could close out there we go, ahh, that's all illegal, unfortunately.

SMITH: Ah, the rules. In order to make bobsledding fair, the sport has strict standards for the sled. The weight has to be the same, the runners on the bottom carved from the same metal. The trick would be to find the wiggle room in the rules. For instance, the BMW designers moved the center of gravity. They wouldn't tell me whether it was forward or back. They adapted the steering for Steve Holcomb's style, and they made the sled more aerodynamic, smaller.

HOLCOMB: It's quite snug.

SMITH: So snug that the new sled came as a bit of a surprise for the bobsled guys with their football player-sized bodies.

HOLCOMB: It is challenging to get in. Trust me. When you're at a full sprint and you have to jump over a three foot wall, basically, of the sled and you have to get in, it's not easy.

SMITH: But as they tested the new sled, the numbers looked good. It was faster than the old one. Now, this does not guarantee a gold medal for Team USA. After all, the designers from Ferrari know the same principles of aerodynamics as the folks at BMW. But there is a psychological factor at play here. When Team USA shows up with their brand-new sled, they keep it covered, hidden from view.

SCULLY: You want people to think that you've thought of something that they haven't yet and then that drives them crazy. 'Cause they're like, why didn't I think of that?

SMITH: Adding to the mystique, the new sled has put up some remarkably fast times this season.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) 55.63. That was a winning run.

SMITH: This is footage from Universal Sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPORTS BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Never in history of bobsledding has the USA won a two-man championship gold medal.

SMITH: But they're doing it this season. Is it the sled? Is it the driver? Part of the Olympic edge is to keep your opponents guessing. Robert Smith, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.