If bobsled driver Steve Holcomb wins a medal in the two-man Olympic bobsled competition that opens Sunday, he might thank friends, family and coaches. But he might be equally grateful to a car company. Same goes for women's pilot Elana Meyers.
Auto manufacturer BMW played a major role redesigning the two-man bobsled that Holcomb will pilot.
Holcomb’s sled is one of three U.S. two-man sleds trying to end a 62-year Olympic medal drought. An American two-man sled has not won a medal since 1952, or gold since 1936.
In a technology-intensive sport like bobsled, where races are won by hundredths of a second, good equipment is a huge part of success, ranking up there with precise driving and a strong start.
For proof, look no further than the last Olympics, when Holcomb drove his four-man sled, Night Train 2, to gold, the first American four-man Olympic title since 1948.
At the same Olympics, the two-man sled, also piloted by Holcomb, finished sixth.
“My previous sled was sort of built like a tank, to withstand crashes,” said Meyers, the 2010 Olympic bronze medalist who is ranked No. 2 overall and will contend for gold at Sochi, via Rob Gloster of Businessweek. “These new BMW sleds are built to go fast and to push the envelope.”
Meyers and alternate brakewoman Katie Eberling proved the new sleds are tough, too. They were involved in a minor crash on their first training run Saturday. They were not injured and took a second run with the sled.
"That is not a fun ride," Meyers admitted with a laugh Saturday, via The Associated Press. "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 withheld the test. It's amazingly OK and we were still fast in the second run and it's good to go."
Holcomb's four-man sled benefited from years of focus from NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, whose Bo-Dyn engineering company, along with an aerodynamics engineering firm, redesigned the four-man sled.
Holcomb’s sled, USA I, had dominated the four-man World Cup tour in the seasons leading up to the Games, something the two-man sled hadn’t managed to do. Bo-Dyn ended its longtime association with the federation in 2011 because of intellectual property disagreements.
BMW built six two-man sleds for men's and women's teams. Even brakeman Lolo Jones, on the lowest-ranked women's team, will get a chance to go for gold in the BMW sled.
The biggest changes BMW made to the sled were making it shorter and moving weight from the front to the center, better for handling in the high-banked curves.
The company also spent time developing a special carbon fiber, used in its latest electric cars, to make the sled more aerodynamic and just the right kind of flexible—stiff when the sled was bending in one direction, but flexible in another—qualities you couldn’t get with aluminum or steel.
“You see the evolution of the technology and every year you come up with something that’s a little bit better that usually costs a heck of a lot for just small increments of time, usually less than a tenth of a second,” U.S. men’s bobsled coach Brian Shimer—a former Olympic driver himself—told the AP via The Washington Post. “Sometimes you think you’ve gone as far as you can go. Now BMW’s taken it to another level and it’s mind-boggling.”
Unlike Bo-Dyn, BMW’s redesign wasn’t limited to bobsleds. Luge and skeleton sleds got an overhaul too.
Before 2010, U.S. sliders had been competing on luge sleds nearly 15 years old and skeleton sleds at least 12 years old. They hadn’t won an Olympic medal in those sports since 2002.
In the Sochi Games, luge and skeleton sliders accounted for three medals. Coincidence? Maybe.
Hopes are high that now it’s the two-man bobsled's turn.
The Americans won the overall World Cup title this season, winning five of eight two-man races. Other BMW two-man sleds have seen success. USA II, led by Cory Butner, finished third in the standings. USA III, piloted by Nick Cunningham, had three podium finishes.
The American sleds will have stiff competition. Swiss driver Beat Hefti won the tour stop at Sochi last season, and Germany has won the past four Olympic titles in the event. The Russians have turned in the top times this week in training.
After the final training session, Holcomb sounded unusually uncertain about his team’s prospects.
"It is very confusing. You see some sleds hit in places and it doesn't slow them down and others will have a good looking run and are slow,” he said in a bobsled federation press release from Sochi. “There is not much that I can do now. We are racing tomorrow and I am just going to drive the lines that I have been driving."
Other countries have long sought creative input outside bobsledding: Germany's bobsled federation has a partnership with Ferrari, Japan with a Formula One race car team, Great Britain with McLaren.
Since taking over the U.S. team project in 2011, BMW used the usual wind-tunnel testing, but also highly technical processes like 3D modeling and computational fluid dynamics. The company engineers went through 69 blueprints before finding the right one to help shave hundredths of seconds from a four-run race.
Neither BMW nor the bobsled federation has said how much the project cost. The AP reported that BMW’s sponsorship is for $24 million.
BMW is also using this as a marketing opportunity, bankrolling a documentary that ran in January about the company’s bobsled work and building an advertising campaign around the Olympics.
Will it be enough? We’ll find out in the next two days.
“Races are won by hundredths of a second,” said U.S. bobsled chief Darrin Steele. “It’s maddening to think after all this we’ve maybe improved only a tenth of a second. But a tenth of a second over four runs is pretty significant.”