At Turin, bobsledding gets the NASCAR treatment
TURIN, ITALY — Every day, Bob Cuneo does his best impression of MacGyver. Like the star of the television show, who could somehow make a shortwave radio out of tweezers and a roll of tinfoil, Cuneo's job is to build a bobsled that can beat the Germans, with technology that was cutting-edge when poodle skirts were the height of fashion.
"It's as if someone gave me a [1950s] tractor, and told me I had to get home in an airplane," he says. "You're trying to make something into something it is not."
The strict rules of bobsledding mean that everyone is working with the same Sputnik-era technology, but the task of transforming it into a fiberglass bullet with the steering and suspension of a BMW almost gives Cuneo the air of a shaman.
This is as close as the Olympics get to NASCAR, where what goes on under the hood is nearly as important as what goes on in the track. Indeed, Cuneo is as much a part of America's push for gold in this weekend's two-man race as any shiny-suited athlete with a bucket helmet and 10-gallon thighs.
Since the late '80s, America has had the bobsledders to win Olympic medals. But it was not until, appropriately enough, a stock-car driver pulled money from his own pocket to bring Cuneo on the scene that America had the sleds to compete. In Salt Lake City, American bobsleds won Olympic medals for the first time since 1956, and USA 1 driven by Todd Hays enters these Games favored to win more.
"Our sleds are starting to look like the German sleds," said US coach Bill Tavares by teleconference before the Games began. "We're heading in the right direction."
It is a course that began more than a decade ago in the start house above the bobsled track in Lake Placid, N.Y. There stood Geoff Bodine, former winner of the Daytona 500, who had become fascinated by bobsledding during the 1992 Games and was in Lake Placid to see what it was like. What he learned on the trip, however, was much more important than his short thrill ride down the track.
American bobsledders, he discovered, bought their sleds from Europe; there was not a single bobsled maker in the United States. He was astonished. "I've never sold my best race car to a competitor," he says.
Nor did the Europeans. So he made a promise: He would build US drivers a better bobsled. It didn't take long for Bodine and his man for the job - Cuneo of Chassis Dynamics - to realize that they had far underestimated the task at hand.
They opened up a European bobsled and could not believe the complexity of what came spilling out. "The frustrating thing is that the general public thinks that it's just a tub that goes down a track," says Cuneo, who acknowledges that he didn't know differently until that moment.
Piece by piece, Cuneo began to analyze exactly how everything worked - from steering mechanisms to the suspension to the shape of the sled - to see if there was a different way to do it. In some cases, there was: While Europeans generally use springs as suspension, Cuneo turned to a torsion bar, which he knew from NASCAR.
In others, the Europeans have almost a mystique about them. Cuneo and Bodine have tested hundreds of different blades, called runners, searching for the perfect design. "With the Europeans, the runners are kind of like black magic: What's the steel? What's the shape? What do they rub on them?" says Bodine. "The ice is not the same everywhere, and you need different runners for different tracks."
Bodine's estimated budget to design and test the first sled was $25,000. The final cost was $150,000 - all for a sport that brings almost no prize money. "I would be in a homeless shelter if I relied on bobsled" to make a living, laughs Cuneo.
The challenge is essentially a scientific one. It is up to the push athletes to get a good start, and it is up to the driver to carve a clean, direct line down the track. But the job of the technician is to make sure that the sled loses as little of that kinetic energy as possible through flaws in design and performance.
The shape of the sled - honed in wind tunnels and with computer imaging - is only the most obvious way to lose energy, and therefore speed. "Vibration uses energy," notes Cuneo. "So you have to find ways to control vibration."
This in a sport where the rattling is so violent that Olympian Brock Kreitzburg got carsick the first time he tried it. The outdated technology makes matters more complicated. "You have to use a lot of high-tech principles," says Cuneo.
For Bodine, though, helping America win a gold, silver, and bronze in Salt Lake has in many ways meant more than all his accolades on the racetrack, where he was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers of all time.
"I appreciate how everyone feels about my accomplishments in racing, but the way I look at it, all those accomplishments have enabled me to do other things that are more important," he says. "To have the whole country cheer for something I've done - that's a much greater feeling."