BMW Builds USA a Better Sled

USA TODAY

February 18, 2014

Michael Scully got into a bobsled on a late autumn night in Lake Placid, NY, two-and-a-half years ago with idyllic wonder flitting in his mind.

"The track at night is this beautiful white ribbon running down through this black wilderness," Scully said.

With U.S. pilot Steve Holcomb in front of him and brakeman Curt Tomasevicz behind him in the sled at the top of track, Scully pulled out his video camera.

"I just thought visually it was going to be so cool that I'll get this on film," Scully said.

Scully recalls Tomasevicz saying, "You're going to want to put that down. And you're going to want to hang on and maybe put your head between your legs."

"No, no, no, I got this," Scully replied, and one can imagine Tomasevicz rolling his eyes.

The camera captured about the first five seconds of the ride.

"It looks like a smooth, beautiful run. When you're in one, it's an entirely different experience," Scully said. "On TV when you see it, you don't get that sense of just that pure chaos. You don't sense the G-force or the vibrations. It's like a collision in every corner."

Scully, who works for BMW DesignworksUSA, began designing a high-end, high-tech two-man bobsled that is fast, successful and envied by other nations.

BMW, which began its partnership with the USA in 2010, isn't the only car manufacturer involved in this highly competitive field?Italy drives Ferrari-designed bobsleds, and Great Britain uses McLaren-designed sleds.

Scully, 42, started making sketches in a notepad in the fall of 2011, eventually transferring them to a computer. Models were built from the designs and tested in simulations, leading to two prototypes and finally the finished sled in March 2013.

The new BMW sleds resulted in one of the U.S. bobsled federation's best two-man seasons. In eight World Cup men's events and eight women's events, the USA finished on the podium 23 times, including eight first-place finishes.

Holcomb won the overall two-man points title, Elana Meyers finished second and Jamie Greubel was third. Women's competition begins Feb. 18 with the first two heats.

In 2012-13, the U.S. men and women were on the podium 13 times in 16 races. Feb. 17, Holcomb claimed the USA's first Olympic bronze medal in the two-man event since 1952.

"They're passionate and want to make sure they have the best machine on the hill," Holcomb said. "It's pretty obvious (BMW) has the best machine on the hill."

The U.S. sleds are made of carbon fiber, and BMW has extensive knowledge of carbon fiber, using it to make its electric i3 car.

"(Carbon fiber) is incredibly light as well as stiff. When laminated properly, it is less prone to cracks and fissures," Scully said. "Because it's light and stiff, it's advantageous to handling. We're also able to centralize and position the weight where we want it and allow for finer-tuning."

U.S. bobsled and skeleton federation CEO Darrin Steele wanted the athletes to have equipment they didn't need to worry about. If it was the best in the world, they could focus on driving.

"I never say just sleds win races. If they did, you'd sweep the medals all the time. You've still got to drive them. You've still got to push," Steele said. "You want to take the focus off the sleds so it can be on the athletes."

Steele had another concern. Would BMW, headquartered in Munich, share technology with the German bobsled team? Nope. BMW of North America and Designworks consider the U.S. sled technology top-secret information that won't be shared.

Steel wouldn't disclose the price of a sled?there are six new BMW sleds?but it will take north of 7-series money to get you in the door.

Because Scully and his team came into the project with no prior experience with bobsleds, they looked at everything afresh and developed a smaller and more aerodynamically and more ergonomically correct sled.

They got a bobsled on the hill in March 2012. "It was also the first time we had designed and built a bobsled. We needed to know it would get down a track and things would work," Scully said.

This is where the athletes really enter the picture. They deliver feedback.

"BMW realized there's a lot more to it than just throwing carbon fiber and steel together," Holcomb said.

The second prototype was smaller than the first, and designers refined the third sled?the one used now?even more. Carbon fiber allows designers to distribute more weight on the bottom, with the top portion thinner and lighter, creating a more aerodynamic sled.

"Their sleds are very intelligently engineered," Canadian bobsled pilot Lyndon Rush said. "It's a really smart way of thinking through the design."

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