It was 1992 and the brightest and best from the world of snow sports had gathered in Albertville, France, for the 16th Winter Olympic Games. Team USA had once again sent a squad of its top sliders to go for gold in the bobsled competitions. Once again, they came home without a whiff of a podium.
It marked the eighth running of the Winter Olympics in which Team USA hadn’t come close to a medal. In fact, the squad’s last Olympic bobsled medal was a bronze in the 1956 games in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. Clearly, things had to change.
And, naturally, that meant a raft of NASCAR engineers swapping pit stops for push starts as they tried to create a world-beating bobsled.
The person that lead this charge of NASCAR insiders into the world of bobsled was Geoff Bodine.
Between 1984 and the mid ‘90s, Bodine had risen through the ranks in NASCAR, and through his career racked up 565 starts, 37 poles and 18 wins. That included a win at the famed Daytona 500. No surprise he thought he could teach the American team a thing or two about winning races.
“Geoff volunteered to go to Lake Placid because he thought the bobsled team didn’t know how to drive,” says Bob Cuneo, founder and president of Chassis Dynamics, an engineering firm that has spent more than 25 years designing and building race cars.
“He thought he was going to help them and teach them how to be in the proper place on the track when they were going into the corners and on the banking.”
So Bodine travelled to Team USA’s bobsled facility in Lake Placid, New York.
“He said that he wanted to help us out, so he came out here, rode a sled, and crashed it,” laughs Team USA bobsled head coach, Mike Kohn.
After the crash, Bodine offered to fix the damaged sled, and asked the team where he should order the replacement parts from. Both Kohn and Cuneo remember his outrage at discovering that there wasn’t a manufacturer for bobsled spares in the US.
Worse still, he was shocked to hear that the team had instead been buying all its sleds second hand from its rivals in Europe.
Cuneo says: “He said that was crazy. He thought that if you were buying your competitors’ used stuff, you could never have anything as good as theirs.”
Bodine’s plan changed, and he instead decided to set up the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project. A scheme to design, develop and build a new sled for Team USA to take to the Olympics and beat the sport’s top competitors, the Germans.
“There was an article written in a racing paper about how Geoff had gone up to Lake Placid to find out more about the bobsleds,” remembers Cuneo.
“I saw that, and a few days later Geoff called me up and said ‘I bet you don’t know why I’m calling you today?’ And I said, ‘so, you want me to build a bobsled’. That’s where it all started.”
But while Bodine and Cuneo had the drive and desire to help push the U.S. bobsled team to the top once again, they faced a challenge that they had to overcome first.
Bodine and Cuneo had to convince people who had dedicated their lives to the sport of bobsled that these two NASCAR racers knew more about sledding than they did.
“It was an interesting meeting,” Cuneo remembers.
“It was with Geoff, me, my business partner, and the U.S. bobsled federation. We all met in my office and early in the meeting the people from the bobsled team said, ‘look, no offense, you’re here trying to help us but you know absolutely nothing about bobsledding. What makes you think that you can help us?’
“And I believe it was Geoff that said, ‘well, you’re absolutely right, we know nothing about bobsledding. But we know a lot about winning, which apparently you don’t.’
“So that was a great start.”
Bodine had a point, though, as it had now been 38 years since Team USA last won an Olympic medal for bobsled. In that time, Germany and Switzerland had grown to dominate the sport. To help assert its dominance, the German team even had a full suite of engineers on hand to create the fastest, most aerodynamic sleds to take to a global stage.
That’s exactly what Bodine wanted to assemble to help Team USA.
Over the next few years, Bodine worked with Cuneo, Team USA athletes, and engineers and fabricators from across NASCAR to develop the new sleds. Starting with “a completely clean sheet of paper” some of the brightest minds from the world of auto racing turned their hands to ice racing.
“The body shape was important, so we spent a lot of time in wind tunnels down in North Carolina. We were down in Charlotte, North Carolina, which is a big belt for auto racing. And we still go there today.
“Bob was able to connect us with some people in the Charlotte area. There, a company called DeBotech helped with the carbon fiber bodies. There’s another company called Corvid and they worked with us quite a bit on our designs.”
In case those firms don’t sound familiar, DeBotech has helped create carbon fiber components for teams across NASCAR, GT racing, prototype series and super bike racing. Corvid, on the other hand, is a small engineering firm that has served everyone from the Missile Defense Agency to high performance motorsports.
American institutions were now coming to the aid of Team USA. Engineers from auto racing, motorbike design and even military engineering had turned their hands to bobsled design as they joined the fight pack to the top of the podium. All working toward that quintessentially American goal: to be the best around.
The new group of engineers provided increased technical knowhow and further expertise with lightweight, composite materials to Team USA. They also brought with them what you’d expect from anyone operating within NASCAR’s orbit: a keen knowledge of aerodynamics and a relentless pursuit of marginal gains.
This meant the sport’s newcomers shared Team USA’s understanding that the smallest tweak, handling adjustment, or refinement in the push-start could make all the difference. Especially in a sport where first and fifth were separated by less than a second across four runs.
The NASCAR engineers also understood the importance of athletic training, and knew that collaboration between engineers and athletes was crucial to succeed. It’s that mentality that Kohn believes gave the Bo-Dyn sleds a serious boost.
“Bodine was really good at matching the steering to the driver’s style,” he explains.
“When we drive a bobsled we have D-rings that are attached to ropes, and the ropes pull the axle to the left or right. Then, bungees will return the axle to facing forward. And he would work to get the setup right. We could change that for the driver to suit the driving style with the steering.
“He was also good with setting up the seats, and that helped the drivers feel the track a little bit more. They brought that personalization to another level. What they were able to bring with that creativity and knowledge was very helpful.”
That mentality can be traced right back to motor racing. There, car setup is everything and drivers work with their engineers to ensure the car matches their driving style and works exactly as expected.
The first Bo-Dyn sled was raced in 1994. While Cuneo admits that they weren’t competitive as they “didn’t understand the sport enough”, he says there were signs of promise in the craft’s performance.
Four years later, and at the 1998 Nagano games in Japan, Cuneo says the squad “almost got a medal.” They came away seventh and 10th in the two-man competition, and 12th and fifth in the four-man. A podium was almost in reach.
A further four years of investment from Bodine and engineering knowhow from Cuneo and other NASCAR mechanics across America meant that Team USA returned to the Winter Games and finally came back with its medal. In fact, they left the 2002 Salt Lake City event with a silver and bronze in the four-man and even claimed a gold in the women’s two-person competition.
It was America’s first gold medal for bobsled in 54 years.
“Oh it was amazing, just amazing,” remembers Cuneo.
With the help of Bo-Dyn sleds, Team USA’s bobsledders collected Olympic medals across three consecutive games. In Turin in 2006, the women’s two-person bob claimed silver and during the 2010 games in Vancouver, Team USA’s women claimed Bronze again and the four-man team took home the gold.
“One of the things that I’ll never forget for as long as I live was when Andre Lange, who is one of the most celebrated bobsled drivers ever, period. He is the GOAT.
“We became friends, and we always would congratulate each other if he beat us. Or, if we beat them, he’d be the first one over to congratulate us. We beat him to the gold in Vancouver and I’ll never forget, he snuck up behind me at the finish line. And, he picked me up and he said ‘you are Olympic Champions’ and I’ll just never forget that.”
It took 10 years, but Bodine’s aim to take Team USA back to the top of the podium finally came to fruition. While bobsled and NASCAR might appear completely different to an outsider, Kohn believes there was one major similarity between the two that made the Bo-Dyn project a success.
He says: “If you’re a racer, you’re a racer. It doesn’t matter if you’re racing bobsleds, motorcycles or race cars, there’s a group of us that just likes to race and enjoys the competitive nature of racing.”
That’s a sentiment Cuneo echoes, as he says the team’s competitive nature was exactly what made them succeed where other had failed.
“Over the years, many, many, many companies have tried to help the team,” he explains. “Usually, there are way more that are unsuccessful than are successful. And that’s not because they weren’t smart people, it’s because it’s a much harder problem than anyone believes. The world thinks it’s just going down a hill, but it’s a really technical sport.
“And what would happen is, someone would come up with a first design, and the first time they hit failure they give up. But because we’re competitors more than business people, we never gave up.”
Sure, on the surface the two sports appear polar opposites. But as well as the complex engineering knowhow to create a winning craft, top competitors in both bobsled and NASCAR share similar traits.
Maybe that’s why the sport has retained close ties to the world of motor racing ever since.
Ahead of the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Team USA worked with BMW to create new sled. The squad went on to win four medals across all three disciplines. And now, Kohn says the squad still returns to North Carolina to work with race engineers on their new sleds, including with teams such as Joey Logano Racing.
Despite these close ties, this doesn’t mean we should expect many drivers to switch between the two sports anytime soon.
“I would always say to stick to auto racing,” laughs Kohn. “You’ll never make a dollar in bobsled.”