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U.S. Bobsledders Get Boost From NASCAR

The World Cup bobsled championships get under way in February in Lake Placid, N.Y. The American team will be riding a new generation of sleds, designed by engineers who once built racing cars for NASCAR.

The project is helping U.S. athletes compete in a sport long dominated by Europeans.

Lake Placid's Olympic sled track snakes for a mile down the side of a mountain. It's a twisting chute of ice.

When U.S. bobsled coach Brian Shimer first raced here in the 1990s, Americans were buying their sleds second-hand from the Europeans — or cobbling them together from scraps.

"Usually in the past, when they're built one at a time in a garage, using spare parts, you might build one, then build a second one you think is identical and it'll be a second faster than the other one," Shimer recalled.

Or a second slower. At the 1992 Winter Olympics, Shimer got creamed by the better-funded Germans and Swiss. But his struggles caught the attention of a very different kind of racer.

Geoff Bodine, one of the top-NASCAR drivers in the U.S., watched the '92 Olympics on TV. He says it was clear the Americans didn't stand a chance.

"My first thought was maybe I could help be a driving coach," Bodine recalls. "Well, I ended up coming here to Lake Placid, rode on the old track, and realized real quick that driving a race car and driving a bobsled are pretty different."

So Bodine started looking at the way these sleds were built. His crew developed a more aerodynamic shell and rebuilt the American sleds' suspension systems.

"We've changed the way sleds are built around the world," Bodine says. "We're proud of that. We brought a lot of NASCAR technology into it."

That initial research cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Each new sled that rolls off the line comes with a price tag of roughly $40,000.

To pay the bills, Bodine recruited friends like drag racer Bob Vandergriff to drive the new bobsleds in a series of sponsored exhibition races.

"The top field dragster and the bobsled have a lot of the same steering characteristics," Vandergriff says. "You have to think about where you're headed and not where you're at. If you try to drive where you're at you're going to get into trouble."

And with cameras rolling for a cable channel called Speed TV, Vandergriff did get into trouble on a recent bobsled run.

His sled flips and ground along the track upside down for half a mile. But Vandergriff climbed out, uninjured.

Despite occasional bumps and bruises, support from the car-racing world seems to be paying off.

Brian Shimer rode an early version of the NASCAR-inspired sled to a bronze medal-win at the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. That was the first medal for the U.S. team since 1956.

"We still struggle a bit to stay at the same level as the Germans do, with the R&D and the money that they put into their program," Shimer says. "We're not quite there yet, but we'd like to be, because I think we can get even faster."

The next big test will come next month, when the world's best sledders — and best bobsled designs — come to Lake Placid to compete.

Brian Mann reports for North Country Public Radio.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.