LAKE PLACID - Track manager Tony Carlino turned off the refrigeration system at Mount Van Hoevenberg on Sunday, April 15. When he flipped the switch, another bobsled season - and a good one for the United States - was officially put in the books halfway to the Sochi Winter Olympics.
"Going into the third year of a quad is very important," said Darrin Steele, chief executive officer of the United States Bobsled and Skeleton Federation (USBSF). "That third year is crucial because that leads into the confidence of the Olympic year. We've always focused on that third year as being really important, and this really sets us up nicely."
The "this" Steele was referring to would be the uplifting end of the season for American bobsled. With a fleet of 20 shiny new BMW SUVs and sedans at their disposal for the world championships here at their home track in late February, U.S. athletes were brimming with confidence. Steven Holcomb won the two-man and four-man races - a first for the United States at worlds - and teammate Elana Meyers captured bronze in the women's race.
Photo by Chris Morris
Olympic gold medalist Steven Holcomb (third from left) is presented with a copy of his “Legends of Mount Van Hoevenberg” poster during a ceremony Wednesday, April 11 at the Lake Placid Olympic Museum. Also pictured, from left, are Ted Blazer, ORDA president/CEO, Jack Favro, associate director of Lake Placid Olympic Training Center, Holcomb, Joe Lamb, community organizer, Craig Randall, village of Lake Placid mayor and Mary Lou Brown, chairman of the Lake Placid Olympic Museum.
Still, despite a core of top athletes, a solid coaching staff, and a nice array of sponsors that includes the National Guard, BMW, KOA, Alamo, Under Armour and several others, a key cog in the success of the team going forward is missing. Now that the favorite venture of former NASCAR driver Geoff Bodine, the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project, Inc., has been shuffled to the side, there's nobody to maintain the equipment.
"After the world championships last year (in Germany), the sleds were shipped back to the United States and just sat around. Nobody touched them," said Holcomb, who was recognized Wednesday at a Lake Placid ceremony with a "Legends of Mount Van Hoevenberg" poster. "They're still in pretty decent shape. I'd like to think I'm a good enough driver that I didn't beat it up too much, but after two years of not being maintained and not having the money to really get it back to its optimal state, it's going to start to wear on the sled and wear on our results.
"The athletes have been the unfortunate losers," Holcomb said. "USBSF has their plans, Bo-Dyn has their plans, and they can't get along."
At worlds, 67-year-old Frank Briglia, who's been associated with the team for nearly two decades, grudgingly came out of retirement to help out. He's not interested in an encore.
"Actually, I don't want to do it at all," said Briglia, who lives in Connecticut. "They don't have help, so I kind of volunteered some time. That's always an ongoing job. They have to have somebody just to take care of the sleds all the time. When I got here, it was a mess. They have to find somebody to do this, no doubt. There's just too much to do."
Steele is hopeful BMW provides that somebody.
"The BMW partnership has been fantastic," Steele said. "They're interested in how they can make things better for us as a team. They don't want to just be writing a check. They want to make sure that we're a better team as a result of their sponsorship."
That would help save money, which always is an issue. Holcomb was a bit disgruntled when he had to take a cut in his monthly stipend after winning the Olympic four-man race at Whistler two years ago, the first gold medal for the U.S. men since 1948.
Walk into the sled shed that Bodine and Whelen Engineering were instrumental in building at Mount Van Hoevenberg and the race car driver's name is everywhere. Much has transpired since Bodine was lured to the sport in 1992 at the Albertville Winter Games. Surprised that his country was struggling using foreign-made equipment, he created the Bo-Dyn Bobsled Project and with ace designer Bob Cuneo began building American-made sleds using NASCAR technology.
The U.S. team has since become the consistent contender it was in the sport's infancy eight decades ago. Though all but one of Holcomb's signature successes have come in Bo-Dyn bobsleds - his Olympic triumph and his four-man wins at worlds this year and in 2009 were in a Bo-Dyn sled nicknamed "Night Train" - Bodine is not a happy camper.
Last June, Bodine told the USBSF he would continue working with the U.S. bobsledders but not directly with the federation. That announcement came after an agreement between Bo-Dyn and the USBSF was terminated and a new deal couldn't be worked out.
"The Bo-Dyn Project kept up with it every year," said men's coach Brian Shimer, who won the four-man bronze at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in 2002 in a Bo-Dyn sled. "It was that one thing that stayed consistent for 15 years, more so than any other thing with our federation in terms of staff and employees, that kind of thing. It's just been a great partnership with them. Sorry to see that end. We're kind of going through those growing pains with making that transition."
The sticking point for both sides was intellectual property.
"We offered to service all the bobsleds free, provide a technician to go to all of their races for free," said Bodine, whose greatest contribution to the sport may be the awareness he's generated in the racing community. "All we wanted out of that was the use of two bobsleds so we could continue our research and development. They turned us down.
"It didn't make much sense because they didn't have any money to service anything," Bodine said. "So now, the deal is we'll service it. We're more than willing to work on them and fix them, but they're going to have to pay us. We still want to help the athletes. The athletes are our main concern now."
With the U.S. team's other milestone achievements in Bo-Dyn sleds over the past decade still fresh on the mind - silver in four-man and the women's gold at Salt Lake City, women's silver at Torino in 2006 and women's bronze at Whistler - Bodine remains undaunted. He intends to build at least two new sleds for Sochi.
"Everything's on track. We're excited," he said. "We think we're going to make a big jump in technology with this new sled. We're not giving up. We're getting stronger."