New sleds the key to U.S. hopes for bobsled gold in Sochi

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In 1936, the American duo of Ivan Brown and Alan Washbond took gold in the two-man bobsleigh at the Garmisch-Partenkirchen Olympics, defending the U.S. title from the 1932 Games in Lake Placid, the first Olympics to include the event.

Seventy-eight years and 17 Olympic bobsleigh competitions later, the U.S. is still waiting for its return to two-man bobsleigh glory. In the meantime, women's two-person bobsleigh entered the Olympics in 2002 with one U.S. victory.

Still, a combined 19 Olympic contests with one gold medal is hardly success upon which to hang one's hat. The U.S Olympic bobsled team knew it was time to revamp its tandem race vehicles, which would now be 20 years old.

After partnering with the engineers at BMW USA three years ago, Team USA is ready for a monumental change in 2014 -- in the form of a new, sleeker, lighter and more intelligent two-person sled (not to be confused with the four man sled, the design of which is still in the hands of former NASCAR driver, turned sled innovator, Geoff Bodine, who has been involved with the USA Bobsled and Skeleton Federation since 1992).

Michael Scully, the two-person sled project's lead engineer, worked closely with coaches and athletes, including the team's top 2014 pilots, Steve Holcomb and Elena Meyers, to make sure that the athletes head to the Sochi Games in February with equipment that may very well give them the competitive edge they've lacked in the past. Scully recently spoke to about the design process.

SI: How long have you been with BMW?

MS: This will be my 18th year.

SI: Did you have a sports background before you got into engineering?

MS: I did. I was actually a sponsored snowboard racer in high school. I rode for the Burton team. Then unfortunately I had to make the life decision of college or racing and I chose the first.

But I think for this project, it was the perfect background because I was already familiar with alpine sports in general -- the rhythm and the mental approach that's necessary for a really circuitous course.

SI: You took a run on the old sled before you started working on the new one, is that correct?

MS: Yeah, Holcomb and Curt Tomasevics took me down in a four-man sled, and that was actually one of the first experiences that I had on the project. It was like jumping into the deep end of things. It was something I thought I was prepared for because I had this alpine sports background and had done a lot of sports car racing on my own. As it turned out I was completely unprepared for the level of G-forces, and just how quickly those G-forces occur. I think that's one of the biggest differences between the race car and the bobsled is that the forces accelerate so quickly -- also just the violence and the chaotic nature of the vibration.

SI: Having gone down yourself, did it help you to understand the project better as you were going into it?

MS: Yeah, it really helped the process on a very visceral level. It emphasized that the forces involved are tremendous and that they're something you have to have an incredible amount of respect for and the athletes being able to endure them on a regular basis -- not only being able to endure them, but being able to excel in an athletic way, is a really huge testament to what these athletes do on a regular basis.

It really is an extreme environment, and they're able to extract an incredible level of performance from it and also able to sense with an amazing level of nuance the feedback they're sensing from the sled or from the steering.

With Steve Holcomb, it was a fantastic development process because he does have almost a sixth sense, and he can feel things with a level of resolution and nuance that a lot of people cant. So taking input from him and trying to make really actionable changes to the sled was really critical to the project.

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MS: First and foremost, when you look at it, it's certainly smaller. It's also lighter. I believe it is also sleeker. We've placed a lot of emphasis on an intelligent use of materials. Each bobsled has to weigh a minimum amount (170 kg.), but we've tried to find opportunities, for example by using carbon fiber on the exterior to save a lot of weight in that and then be able to position the weight intelligently so we are able to alter the behavior of the sled with the placement of that weight. Now the team has the tools for tuning the behavior of the sled that may not have existed before.

The sled is also in a very centralized, low position. When you think about an object going down the track and experiencing all these incredible, varied positions and changes of direction--the more centralized the weight, the better. So that's something that we've placed a lot of emphasis on as well as the aerodynamics, which makes it a sleeker package. We were trying to get everything down to the bare minimum sizes that are required by the regulations, which are incredibly stringent in bobsled.

SI: What were some of the biggest challenged that you encountered along the way?

MS: I think the fact that the sled achieves all these different positions as it goes down the track, that's something that from an aerodynamic perspective is extremely challenging. When you think about a car or a race car, the race car changes directions and it will achieve some angle of yaw in the turns. The flow directions that the air is taking is slightly different over hills and things like that, but the angles involved are not as extreme (as they are in bobsled). On a bobsled, because the track is so circuitous, the sled is changing directions constantly, so designing an aerodynamic profile to accommodate all of those different positions is something that's quite difficult.

Another one of the biggest challenges was that the sport is seasonal in nature and the availability of the tracks was seasonal, so that affected us. When we were trying to make improvements, we had to come to the track with something that we felt we might learn from every time. Trying to fit that level of content into each seasonal availability window was certainly challenging and really put pressure on development.

SI: How long did it take to build the sled?

MS: It was essentially a two-year process from the first ride to us delivering a fleet of six bobsleds in Park City for the whole team in October.

SI: Are there multiple sleds? Do teams travel with backup sleds?

MS: No, they typically stay with one sled because the athletes all have personal preferences as far as equipment goes, the way their feet and hands are positioned, as well as their seats, and especially the steering system. Each pilot really tailors the sled to their preference. It is a single piece that they keep with them.

SI: How are the sleds transported? Are they taken apart and then reassembled?

MS: No, they literally roll off the track, but they'll take the runners off because the runners are kind of a precious commodity. Each pilot actually has their own runners, and they're kept with great care. Then the sleds are put on a transport version of the runners and then put into these huge crates in which they're driven all around or flown.

SI: The specifics of each team's sled are shrouded in secrecy. Can you talk about why that is?

MS: This project has been a few years in the making, and it is the culmination of a lot of technology that we've been able to leverage from BMW as well as a lot of input from the team. It has been very much a collaborative effort. All of the input and all of the lessons are things that people have learned along the way about what makes a bobsled faster. Those are things that we need to respect from a confidentiality standpoint because at the end of the day what makes the sled faster or slower is ultimately what will prove to be the best tool for the athletes. So respecting all of the ideas that have come along the way, I think is important. And it is a competitive sport, and I fully expect that all nations are trying to come to the Olympics with the very best tools that they have.

SI: What are the similarities and differences between sled design and automotive design?

MS: I think in one sense, there are a lot of parallels, particularly with BMW, where we place a huge amount of emphasis on efficient dynamics as a one of the main principals that we apply to our cars. That has a lot to do with use of materials as well as very refined movements of the mechanism and aerodynamics. When all of those things come together with some kind of meaningful synthesis, that provides efficiency, and it also communicates an incredible dynamic. As a brand that's something that is incredibly important to us, so there's an absolute parallel there.

SI: Did you enjoy the overall experience of working with the athletes?

MS: I have to say that this was my favorite project that I've ever been involved with. The level of meaning that I'm able to yield from the project is just incredibly high. I do love working with the athletes because their sole intention is to accomplish an incredible feat of athletic performance, and I think there is a purity and a beauty to that, and to be able to contribute to (their goals) is absolutely fantastic. This project has been absolutely unparalleled to my career. It has been very collaborative and incredibly meaningful overall. I really do love it.

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