How BMW is making U.S. world's top bobsled nation
Tasked with redesigning the United States team’s two-man bobsled for the first time in 20 years, the first step that BMW’s Designworks USA creative director Michael Scully took was to get into one.
Having ridden in race cars at high speeds countless times, Scully thought he was ready to face the high G-forces that came with going down 90 miles per hour in a bobsled. He wasn’t.
“I opened the door of my rental car [in Lake Placid, N.Y.] and got put right into the four-man sled,” Scully said. “When you watch bobsledding on TV you don’t sense the violence and chaos unfolding on the ice. It was a terrifying trip. Whereas in race cars the high-G’s are gradual, in bobsleds they’re immediate.”
For Scully, it was a vital first step in a three-year-long process for him and his team to better understand the bobsled and create arguably the most advanced sled in the world.
In a sport where every hundredth of a second matters, the U.S. team has embraced the help. After all, Americans have not won an Olympic medal in the men’s two-man race since 1952. In that same time period, Germany has won 18 of them.
"We've always felt that Germany was the team we had to catch up to," U.S. men’s head coach Brian Shimer said. “Every time we made advances in the sport, the Germans would always seem to take it to the next level. Now we're the ones doing that."
After another disappointing two-man finish in Vancouver—the men’s sleds finished 10th and 12th—U.S. Bobsled and Skeleton Federation CEO Darrin Steele approached Team USA sponsor BMW to narrow the perceived “technological gap” the team’s European rivals had over the U.S.
It wasn’t an unheard of plan. A Ferrari-designed Italian sled made its Olympic debut in 2010 and the German Olympic team uses BMW’s Munich wind tunnel to test out its sleds.
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Shortly after the Vancouver Games, BMW of North America put Scully in charge of making a new sled, with “strict processes… put in place to ensure no sensitive information can be shared with [other] BMW entities,” BMW spokeswoman Stacy Morris said.
A native of New Hampshire, Scully had been a competitive snowboard racer as a teenager. But with snowboarding not being an Olympic sport in the early nineties, Scully never anticipated being involved in the Olympics, especially now that he was living in Los Angeles.
Using a light carbon-fiber material he had used before in designing race cars, Scully made the cowling (hull) of the sled lighter and smaller than the U.S.’s previous sleds. With each bobsled having to be at least 170 kilograms, extra weight could be put on in strategic locations, lowering and centralizing the center of gravity.
It wasn’t perfect at first.
“I’ve seen a lot of sled projects with different companies where you take the sled out of the box and it just falls flat on its face,” Shimer said. “BMW stepped in and worked with us. They didn’t just go, ‘Hey, we’re going to build your bobsled and you can go race it.’”
Scully and his team frequently spoke to the athletes, as well as the team’s own sled technicians.
“[At first] it was a lot less comfortable and our bodies were in really compromised positions,” said brakeman Steven Langton, who along with pilot Steven Holcomb was the test out the sled. “We had to move things around—handles, foot pegs—just to preserve us a little bit from the higher G-forces.”
Adjustments were made throughout last season’s World Cup circuit and were, Shimer said, partially to blame for Holcomb not finishing in the top three overall.
But that was expected. Two decades ago Shimer himself had experienced the difficulty of piloting a new sled – and it hadn’t gone well for him.
The holder of the 1992-93 overall World Cup title, Shimer was given a new sled to take into the next season ahead of the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Uncomfortable with the sled, he finished 13th in the two-man race.
“I didn’t have quite the success that I thought we might [in 1994],” Shimer said. “I figured I would jump into a brand-new sled and go fast, but if you can’t drive it or if there’s something you’re not used to, you’re not going to have success in it.”
Shimer used that experience to make sure that by the start of this season Holcomb and the other American pilots would be much more familiar with the new sled than he had been in 1993.
So far the results seem to confirm the pilots’ comfort with the sleds, with Holcomb’s two-man sled winning both World Cup races this season. On the women’s side, the three BMW sleds swept the podium in Park City, Utah, with pilots Jamie Greubel and Jazmine Fenlator tying for second behind teammate Elana Meyers. It was Meyers’ second gold in three races with “BeMoW,” which she named after the “Adventure Time” cartoon character BMO.
The team will continue to make minor adjustments in the lead up to Sochi and Shimer said the sleds still need to tested on the less familiar European tracks in January.
"We’re by no means popping the champagne corks yet," Shimer said. "What this sled does is allow our athletes to focus on what they have to do physically and mentally to prepare themselves for the competition."
And when the U.S. team does take those six two-man sleds into Sochi in February, Scully will be there watching them.
“It’s been the hardest, most meaningful project I’ve ever worked on,” he said. “There’s no way I’m missing it.”
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