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BMW bobsled carries Team USA to Winter Olympics victory

Wed, 19 Feb 2014

At the Sochi Winter Olympics, Team USA took home its first medal in two-man bobsledding since 1952. Steven Holcomb, a former Alpine skier and National Guard soldier, and partner Steven Langton raced to a third-place finish in the event -- despite Holcomb's sprained left calf that doctors had to treat long into the night before the race. The margin of victory for the bronze medal was just 0.03 second. "We came here to get a gold, but a medal's a medal," said Holcomb. "I'm walking home an Olympic medalist. That's pretty badass. To come away with a bronze is still fantastic."

The tight victory or Holcomb's "super genius"-level piloting could lead fans to overlook the sled that the team used, which was designed and built by BMW Designworks USA.

It's nothing new for automakers to tie up with bobsled teams of their national origin. Ferrari helped the Italians, while McLaren helped the British. Dome Racing, whose famous Zero might resemble a bobsled itself, built the "Shitamachi Bobsleigh" for the Japanese team, who promptly decorated it with geishas in kimonos. BMW North America will sponsor U.S. Olympic efforts until 2016, so the California-based Designworks -- fully owned by BMW since 1995 -- took a look at America's bobsleds, luge and skeleton sleds and found that they were at least 12 and in some cases,19 years old -- older than some of the drivers. With every new season, the bobsled was rebuilt to meet the rules.

Designworks creative director Michael Scully had no idea where to start with a bobsled. But in 2011 he flew to Lake Placid, New York, to gain a firsthand appreciation for just what he had gotten himself, and his company, into. Riding with Holcomb proved to be one of the scariest experiences in the 42-year old's life; the bobsled flew down the hill at over 70 mph, banking and pulling along the ice and throwing the poor Scully back and forth. "It just destroyed me," he remembered. "Halfway down, I really didn't know if I'd pass out."

But by the time he arrived at the bottom, he understood a lot more about what a bobsled requires to be competitive. Many of the design challenges were familiar to Scully, he'd worked in Formula BMW and on other race cars over the past 20 years. The old sleds had a racing connection, having been designed in part by NASCAR's Bodine Racing. BMW's have "ditched the NASCAR bodywork for something closer to the the sleek shape of an F1 car." It was made out of carbon fiber, which saved 15 pounds. It was smaller, though Scully remains mum on the details. The weight of an Olympic bobsled is fixed at 374 pounds, but engineers were allowed to distribute the weight cleverly; this shifted the center of gravity and allowed for better steering. Hours of fluid dynamics testing, wind tunnel testing, and CAD tweaking took place through 69 iterations. Ultimately, six bobsleds were delivered to men's and women's teams; BMW reportedly spent $24 million on the project, but its advertising blitz and subsequent exposure will make up for it.

"This has been the most intensive project of my career," Scully said. "I will confess, I loved it."

Holcomb and the America team handily won the Bobsleigh World Cup, winning five out of eight events. The BMW bobsleds had more than proved themselves.

Holcomb and Team USA's four-man bobsled, nicknamed "Night Train."

An incident during the Winter Olympics underscored just how thankful Team USA has been for the new sleds. During training, driver Elana Meyers and brakeman Katie Eberling flipped their sled on the bottom of the course, sliding into the wall at curve 16. Both were uninjured, fortunately, and so was the sled -- "That is not a fun ride," said Meyers, who is ranked number 2 in the world and a strong contender for gold in two-woman bobsled. "BMW sleds are awesome when they are on all four [runners]. They are not fun when they are on their heads. I was the first one to crash one, and now that we've gotten that out of the way, it withstood the test. It's amazingly OK, and we were still fast in the second run, and it's good to go.

"These new BMW sleds are built to go fast and to push the envelope."

Like Meyers and Eberling, the sled was undamaged.

In a sport dominated by Germans, Holcomb and Langton's victory has spurred hopes for an American return to bobsled glory. It was just four years ago that Holcomb ended another drought: in Vancouver, he won America a gold medal in four-man bobsled, the first four-man gold in 62 years. The winning sled was one of those that had been designed and built by NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine and his Bo-Dyn Project. After Bo-Dyn ended involvement with the Olympic program in 2011, BMW Designworks USA took up where Bodine left off.

Four-man bobsled events are scheduled for this week.

By Blake Z. Rong