The US once dominated the 2-man bobsled event at the Winter Olympics. The men won two gold and two bronze medals back-to-back in the Winter Games. But that was in 1932 and 1936.
They haven’t won gold since in the 2-man event. Or a medal of any color since 1952. To end the medal drought, the US team has a new weapon for Sochi: “The Ultimate Sledding Machine.”
In a promotional video produced by BMW, US snowboarders talk about missing out on medals by hundreds of seconds and why they put their faith in German engineering, or rather, why they’ve put their faith in the North American arm of a German multinational. (That’s the way global companies operate these days, right?)
The engineer tasked with building Team America’s sled is Michael Scully, who works just outside of Los Angeles. Scully knows what it’s like to go fast — he’s a former racecar driver. Driving a car is one thing, and much different than traveling close to 90 miles per hour down a curvy, icy track. So when Scully got his new assignment, he went for a ride.
“I just was simply not prepared for how quickly those forces happen … the sleds come onto a corner with such an immediacy, it’s almost like you’re in an accident each time,” Scully says.
Just spend a few seconds watching a video taken from a bobsled pilot’s perspective and you get what Scully is talking about. One American bobsledder described it as being shoved in a trashcan and tossed down a mountain.
Scientifically speaking, five "g"s are pushing down on the bobsledder. (Unscientifically speaking: that’s a lot of force.)
After three years of testing and tweaking, redesigning, and testing and tweaking some more, BMW unveiled a sled that is smaller and sleeker, made of lightweight carbon fibers.
Scully says, “It really is like a culmination of hundreds and hundreds of these little nuanced changes and optimizations that help come together and create an efficiency. And hopefully, that equals speed.”
Scully and BMW won’t reveal the exact changes they made — they don’t want to give away trade secrets. They actually can’t change all that much, since bobsleds still have to comply with size and weight regulations.
Still, Darrin Steele, the CEO of USA Bobsled and Skeleton, is excited about the tweaks to the new sleds, for both the men and women. He doesn’t want to overhype it, though.
“If it was just about the sleds, we’d sweep the medals,” says Steele. “And I would say that’s not a prediction I’m willing to make.”
Steele says the two most important parts of bobsledding remain steering and the push. That's what the athletes bring to the table. Engineer Michael Scully agrees, but he says once the Olympians have his 375-pound sled moving along, his design team’s work can shine.
“Are there things we can do that really optimize that path that their feet take, for example, when they jump in there in the split second and reach their final position?”
It’s the little things.
Scully is proud of the sled’s aerodynamics, too.
The team to beat in Sochi will be the Germans. They’ve won gold in the two-man bobsled at the past three Winter Games. Darrin Steele with Team USA sees the irony if this is the year the Americans dethrone the Germans — by riding in a BMW.
“I can tell you that when we brought the prototype out last year and it proved to be pretty fast,” says Steele, “the German team was asking them [BMW], ‘Hey, when are you going to build us a sled?’”
And if the Americans don’t win? Well, it’s back to the drawing board. Maybe they’ll give Ford or GM a chance in 2018?
Update: On Monday, the American 2-man bobsled team got on the medal podium for the first time in 62 years. Steven Holcomb and Steve Langton are taking home the bronze. The Americans finally won a medal using a sled ... designed by BMW. In case you're wondering, the top German team took 8th place. They were using German engineering, just not riding a BMW. And, by the way, the Swiss took silver in the 2-man bobsled. The Russians got the gold.