Geoff Bodine was watching the winter Olympics on TV in 1992 when the sportscaster said something that would change Bodine’s life. The event was bobsledding, and the American team was not faring well. Noting that bobsledding was an event where equipment was exceedingly important, the sportscaster wondered aloud if one reason the Americans were faring poorly is that they had bought their bobsleds from the very countries they were competing against. Bodine, a Daytona 500-winning Nascar driver who also sold cars on the side, felt what the sportscaster said was the truth: "I sold cars to the competition," he recalls. "But I sold ‘em the ones I didn’t want."
Soon as he could, Bodine headed out to the bobsled track in Lake Placid, N.Y., where he climbed in his first bobsled. He figured bobsledding would be more or less like racing a car. And indeed, "the first time down, I did quite well," he recalls. "I got a big head, and I said, ‘Let’s do this again.’" But then on the second run, "I realized the first time down was just luck," he says. He slammed into a wall and mangled the rear of the sled. "It scared the life out of me."
At that point Bodine realized two things: that he wasn’t cut out to be a bobsled racer, and that if the U.S. was to bring home a gold in this event, the team needed someone to build it a better bobsled. Despite the fact that was 43, a Nascar driver, and had never set foot in a bobsled before that day, Bodine decided that person would be him.
Twenty-two years later, Bodine and his design team have built 18 bobsleds for Olympic teams that have gone on to win a number of gold medals: Women brought home the gold in Salt Lake City in 2002, and the four-man USA-1 team also won gold in Vancouver in 2010. It was the first time an American four-man team placed first since 1948, and it makes them defending champions at Sochi.
You might think that the way to design a winning bobsled is simply to build the thing to go as fast as possible (or as fast as regulations allow). And indeed, for certain uncomplicated tracks, that’s the best strategy. In Vancouver, for instance, aerodynamic, drafting-optimized design was key.
But the Sochi track is different, says Bodine. "It’s a very technical track," he says. "All the corners are difficult." In particular, there is a section of the track where a series of corners lead to a stretch of track that goes uphill. All of which makes it especially important to build a bobsled that is highly navigable, since to come off those corners with any lost momentum can impair the team’s ability to plow through that uphill stretch. "That’s where they can lose those thousandths of a second," says Bodine.
The design process required more flexibility, more trial and error, and so Bodine's team turned to Solidworks, 3-D design software from Dassault Systèmes (a French design firm whose 3-D simulation of a transatlantic iceberg odyssey we wrote about earlier) to map out how to approach Sochi's unique track. Bodine’s partner Bob Cuneo experimented with design after design, moving this lever, altering that steering mechanism, until finally he felt confident he had optimized the design. And because USA-1’s driver, Steve Holcomb, has a history of vision impairment that leads him to steer the bobsled as much by feel as by sight, the team also took care to build a sled that could continually be modified until the steering responded just how Holcomb liked it.
The resulting vessel is called the Bo-Dyn Night Train 2, and it will be the last of the American bobsleds to race at Sochi in late February. He can’t know yet, of course, who will bring home the gold, but whatever happens, Bodine feels it’s preordained. "The Lord blessed me," says Bodine. "He just put it in my soul to watch the Olympics in ’92 and gave me the feeling of, "Man, someone needs to help these kids.’"